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Closed Circuit Television ((CCTV) systems are more than just cameras.  While the cameras capture the content and create the images that we see when reviewing surveillance footage, it is the headend systems that permit us to make sense of what we see.



In this context, we are focused on commercial solutions and not smaller fixed solutions or residential solutions.  The main users of large scale CCTV systems of this scale include: citywide surveillance, education, finance, government, healthcare, controlled substance manufacturers, warehouses, hospitality, airports, prisons, manufacturing, retail, and transportation industries, to name a few.


So, what is a headend and what features and functions can it offer a commercial operator of a CCTV system?

In theory, the CCTV headend is composed of several major elements that are meant to work in harmony to each other as a single cohesive solution.  In most cases, these components come from a variety of vendors and they do not work seamlessly together.  The result is an assembly of disparate components that struggle to collaborate and reflect more as a hodgepodge of piece parts instead of a unified coupled solution.


The core elements of a sophisticate CCTV solution include:

  • Cameras
  • Headend Video Management System (VMS)
  • Content Management System (CMS)
  • Analytics system
  • Mass storage and archival system / Network Video Recorder (NVR)
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) system
  • The unifying infrastructure, either and enterprise services bus (ESB) or a series of application program interface (API)
  • Wired and / or wireless network to connect it all together
  • Optional cloud platforms to replace or augment the on-premise systems
  • Backhaul network to connect to the cloud
  • Remote access to permit secured connectivity, from off-site locations and from on-site locations


With any CCTV headend solution, the proverbial ‘heart and soul’ is the VMS.  There are hundreds of VMS solutions on the market.  Some are simple, and others are sophisticated.  Some are downloadable software solutions, while others have both advanced hardware and complex software.  The top vendors of VMS solutions may include, but is not limited to (not offered in any order):

  • Genetec, Inc.
  • Milestone Systems, Inc.
  • Verint Systems, Inc.
  • Avigilon Corporation
  • Cisco Systems, Inc.
  • March Networks Corporation
  • Exacq Technologies, Inc.
  • DVTel, Inc.
  • OnSSI, Inc.
  • Aimetes Corporation

For the sake of this discussion, we will use the Milestone solution system as a high-end example.  This VMS is selected simply due to its ease of integration compared to other systems and its openness.  Many vendors still offer closed architecture solutions.  It is my strongly held opinion that open architecture and standards-based solutions are best for all users.  The day of closed architecture and propriety single vendor solutions is thankfully ending.


The function of the VMS is for ‘command and control’ or administration of the solution.  They are built upon the TCP/IP protocol.  They can manage multiple sites from a single location.  These VMS solutions can manage cameras, servers, and integrate to large video walls for display.  These platforms are robust with automated advanced failover features for live feeds, mission-critical systems, and uninterrupted video recordings.  This level of solution is ideal for banks, airports, and casinos that demand 24 / 7 uptime, with regulatory compliance needs.

Key features of this level of advanced VMS include:

  • High performance recording server: Building on a native 64-bit windows implementation and an highly optimized database technology with RAM-based pre-buffering, the recording server needs to support a minimum of 3 Gbps recording rate
  • Hot standby Recording Servers: Maintain video viewing and recording capabilities with minimal interruption and video loss in the event of network problems, server failure, loss of power or any other system problem
  • Edge Storage: Uses camera-based storage as a complement to the central storage in the recording servers, with flexible video and audio retrieval based on time schedules, events or manual requests, including the ability to combine centrally and remotely stored video using scalable video recording
  • Hardware accelerated video decoding: Shifting video decoding from the CPU to the GPU results in increased system performance monitoring more high-resolution streams with lower CPU load by utilizing NVIDIA© and Intel© graphics cards


These systems are ideal for large-scale and distributed surveillance operations that require:

  • Unlimited system scalability: Supports an unlimited number of cameras, users, and sites
  • Centralized single management interface: Provides efficient system administration of all connected cameras and devices, regardless of system size or distribution
  • Customizable user interface: Optimize system management interface for different roles and level of administrative users
  • Advanced rights management: Supports inherited user rights and the ability to assign partial management rights
  • Seamless interconnections: systems that can interconnect with all VMS and storage products providing central operation and cost-effective management of geographically dispersed surveillance sites
  • User permissions: Administrators can control user access permissions on the viewing client level, enabling them to manage installations with multiple users more effectively by assigning the exact level of access needed for each user


Advanced VMS systems require supreme situational awareness that leverage:

  • Interactive Smart Maps: A comprehensive overview of camera locations and layouts of the entire surveillance installation allows for quick detection of trouble areas. The system includes a Smart Maps feature that supports GIS and CAD drawings, as well as online maps services like Google, Bing and OpenStreetMap.
  • Alarm Manager: Provides a consolidated overview of security and system alarms for immediate visual verification
  • Smart Wall: Advanced video wall solution included with the software. It enables control room operators to share a wide range of information, including live and recorded video, images, maps, alarms, and text messages, to better coordinate response activities
  • Bookmarking: Flag video sequences of particular interest and add descriptive notes, so users can easily share information. Program the system to automatically bookmark certain events so users can quickly locate them during investigations.
  • Advanced search tools: Smart Search and Sequence Explorer allow users to quickly sort through large amounts of evidence
  • Privacy masking: Make sure privacy is protected and evidence is available when needed with adjustable user-right protected permanent and liftable masks, ranging from a light-blur to a solid grey
  • DLNA support: Display video directly onto any supported TV screen no computer or software needed


All commercial VMS solutions must be high secure and efficient at video handling chores:

  • Cost efficient video storage: Multi-stage video storage including video grooming possibilities provide efficient long-term storage, while all video remains online
  • Evidence Lock: Secures availability of recordings for investigations by allowing users to manually extend the retention time by overriding the normal video archiving and grooming policies
  • Video database encryption and digital signing: VMS includes several security measures for high-risk installations. The recording database uses AES256 for encryption and SHA-2 for digital signing. Use our System Hardening Guide for best practices regarding secure system design.
  • Strict user rights: Protect the integrity of live and recorded video by restricting permission to specific cameras, functions and time periods or controlling individual user access
  • Metadata framework:Features generic framework for handling and storing video-related metadata
  • Two-step verification:Ensures only authorized users can access the installation via the Web Client and Mobile applications


While all of the VMS solutions listed are excellent choices to consider, it is vital to select a solution that meets or fits your specific use case requirements.  Again, there are hundreds of VMS solutions to consider.  All of them have various ‘Pros’ and ‘Cons’ and there is no perfect answer as to which is best.  The key idea is to determine exactly which VMS is the best fit for your project.  This kind of evaluation takes a lot of work and is greatly helped with practical hands-on experience.


About the Author:

Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless and digital communications technologies.

He is a Senior Executive with IBM Canada’s GTS Network Services Group. Over the past 13 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He was previously a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX).

Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V). 

He serves as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology.

He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario.  For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section. 

He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has diplomas and certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology.