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Cloud services: expansion into AV

Cloud-hosted services have boomed in the IT application sector. But to what extent has this trend been replicated in the AV industry, and how does it affect different services? Steve Montgomery reports

In the late 1990s and early 2000s there were many, supposedly independent, predictions about how computers would be used in the future, most of which centred round a move away from intelligent and powerful devices to lighter, less powerful ‘thin clients’. In this scenario, most of the processing and data storage tasks would be undertaken in remote silos and delivered directly to end-users for immediate consumption. Those predictions were carried out primarily by large computer organisations, including IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Oracle, which had a vested interest in steering the industry in that direction.

As we know, this ‘revolution’ did not happen quite as predicted, for a number of reasons and we all continued to endure carrying heavy, power-hungry laptops with us. However, those predictions are now coming true; perhaps not as envisaged, but in wider and more fruitful ways that weren’t predicted in the past.

We refer to this technology as cloud-based, often now as just ‘the cloud’. As Libby Davies, content manager for Signstix, points out: “The first wave of popular cloud-based services has already happened. Googlemail, Office365, Dropbox, iCloud are examples of these types of applications that are used every day by millions of people around the world. Cloud-based solutions will continue to grow in popularity as people gravitate towards the flexibility, convenience and scalability that they offer, and all at vastly lower cost and maintenance overhead than on-premise solutions. The key advantage of the cloud is that it is inherently much more flexible than on-premise solutions. In turn, this means that cloud-based digital signage solutions are incredibly scalable, and what is more, they can be easily expanded in line with client or company demand.”

At the same time that always-on, high-bandwidth wireless networks have enabled us to connect no matter where we are, the main restraint on take-up, the issue of security, has largely been overcome. “It is only natural for companies to have reservations about security when they don’t physically know where their data is being stored,” she says. “However a reputable cloud-based provider will have strong data integrity, and the appropriate compliance certification to store private data. Platforms such as Amazon cloud services have some of the strongest security infrastructures in the world. Service providers using them as a base for their products can leverage these platforms to the benefit of their clients. A reputable provider will also take extensive measures within their own software development to ensure that all sensitive data is handled and stored securely.”

Jeffrey Weitzman, business development manager for Navori Labs, agrees: “There is a marked tendency toward cloud-based services. This is a big difference from just two years ago, when many IT departments strongly preferred to keep everything in house. There was significant concern about security, control and ownership. This is changing as core solutions become more prominent in the cloud, with companies like Microsoft launching cloud-based products like Office365, along with secure service providers Azure, Amazon Web Services and Rackspace. Businesses are now seeing the potential opex savings of not handling everything in-house, and instead outsourcing certain operations.”

Not as rapid

This expansion in take-up of cloud services is having a positive impact on the AV system integration industry, across the full range of sectors it serves, although it is not as rapid as encountered in other IT applications. “Uptake of cloud services is slower in the AV industry than in other industries, with one of the primary reasons being that the AV industry as a whole is more cautious in adopting new technologies,” says Jeremy Copp, ONELAN CEO. “However the financial and retail sectors are witnessing growth faster than others, such as education or healthcare. We are seeing convergence of the AV and IT industries within the reseller and integrator community. The resulting availability of appropriate skill sets is accelerating the rate at which cloud-based solutions are being recommended and specified.”

Across the AV-IT spectrum, most if not all applications are moving to cloud architectures. Nic Milani, executive director of cloud services at Crestron, believes that “Clients are conservative in their adoption of cloud-based solutions due to a large on-premise installed base. They are, however, continuing to evaluate and move toward cloud solutions for simplicity and cost benefits. Part of the challenge to the AV community is educating the integrators and customers on the technical details of cloud-based computing. For example, after evaluating the security concerns users do begin to realise that the risk is very low with most applications.” This is apparent as even the most conservative segments of the industry – finance, government and healthcare – are creating standards and beginning to migrate to cloud-based services.

The AV community can aid this process by ensuring that they are aware of the issues and able to overcome them. It is something that Joshua Castro, product manager at Atlona, is fully aware of and is taking steps to address. “The more we deal with cloud integration, the more we begin to see weaknesses in the infrastructure,” he says. “Products themselves from reputable suppliers may work as expected, but ISP issues often remain and fall under the integrator’s responsibility. That can be a frustrating task for the integrator, who may have some control over the localised network, but loses control once that content is off-premise. The more tools the integrator has at his disposal to solve these problems, the better.

“The fact is that AV integrators need to deeply understand IT today. They must be able to set static IP addresses on devices, create subnets for those products and control those devices through the network. It’s about understanding the intricacies of the network to minimise problems in the future. Integrators that have this degree of knowledge have a distinct advantage in moving their clients to more cloud solutions, which brings an entirely new set of efficiencies into the end user operation.”

Photo: Retail Gazette