When Worlds Collide: IP-Based Video Surveillance on an IT Network

min read

Key Takeaways

  • Unable to salvage its ailing analog surveillance system, the Central Piedmont Community College's Information Technology Services Department installed an IP-based video surveillance system on its network infrastructure.
  • Despite initial doubts and bandwidth concerns, the ITS Department learned that — given the right technologies and knowledge — such a system can fulfill the diverse needs of both the IT and security departments.
  • Taking the time to learn the IP cameras' features let the team build a customized, secure, efficient, and user-friendly IP video surveillance system.

Patrick Dugan is the executive director of Technology Infrastructure Systems for Information Technology Systems, at Central Piedmont Community College.

I'm not a security manager. I'm an IT guy. So, when the Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) administration came to Information Technology Services (ITS) about piggybacking an IP-based video surveillance system on the college's network infrastructure, we had considerable bandwidth concerns — especially about streaming from our other seven campuses and sites, with some more than 20 miles from our main, Uptown Charlotte campus, where CPCC's data center is located. However, we learned that surveillance video doesn't have to be a bandwidth hog. With the proper framework, IP video knowledge, and surveillance technology, your shared network can remain blazingly fast, while your security department enjoys the best in image quality and functionality.

Migrating to IP-based Surveillance

CPCC is comprised of eight geographically separate locations, six campuses and two sites within the greater Charlotte area. The college maintains a 24/7-security presence that had two main challenges; replace ageing analog based video surveillance equipment and increase surveillance coverage and efficiently of the coverage. The college built a robust network to improve student and staff efficiency at the main campus and seven other sites. We installed a 40-gigabit backbone between our core routers, uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems in all our telecommunications rooms, and high-performance Power over Ethernet switches to support upcoming voice and additional streaming video demands. It happened to be a framework that dovetailed nicely with today's surveillance technology.

The project's timing was fortunate because our analog surveillance system was reaching the end of life: both its structured cabling systems and supporting conduits were degraded. Meanwhile, our security department was begging for newer cameras that could capture higher-resolution details and provide intelligent efficiencies, such as motion and audio detection to help identify potential trouble on campus.

After a failed attempt to salvage our aging system — using video encoders that required proprietary software — we knew we needed an all-IP solution that worked with open standards protocols. We chose a combination of 400 high-resolution fixed-dome cameras and pan/tilt/zoom (PTZ) IP cameras from Axis Communications. Because the cameras use an open standard interface, it was easy to centrally manage authentication credentials from our video management system (ipConfigure's Enterprise Surveillance Manager). We also network-enabled a few of the still functioning analog cameras with Axis encoders — which also use the same open standard interface.

Open Systems and Easy Installation

Installing and maintaining 400-plus cameras and encoders might sound like a nightmare, but thanks to strides in IP video technology, the integration was remarkably seamless. One of the greatest attributes of these IP-based cameras is that they run power, video data, and even PTZ control via Ethernet, so we didn't need to install any additional cabling. What's more, all the cameras plug straight into our network without added configuration, just like any other peripheral device.

We use the Axis Camera Manager tool to make system-wide changes to the cameras, including changing a password or common settings. Although the tool is designed to work in a single network, the code was written to let our IT technicians modify it across the enterprise. By customizing the XML code, we can now see all our cameras at once from our main video management server. When we need to make system-wide changes, such as update the camera and encoder firmware, we can do so quite easily.

Devices to Guarantee QoS

IP cameras should work directly with your IT department's quality of service (QoS) schema. By ensuring this, we were able to give surveillance traffic network priority over non-prioritized traffic — such as 1,000 students streaming the latest YouTube sensation.

The cameras should also support advanced H.264 compression; this greatly reduces the amount of bandwidth, even with high-resolution recording. To further save bandwidth, we locally archive the video at the respective campus. Local servers house higher-quality video for forensic review, while we transmit lower-resolution live video 24/7 from the aggregate 400-plus cameras to the dispatch center. This is all enabled by the cameras' multi-streaming capabilities.

For the live view, dispatchers centrally monitor all campus video across a bank of four large-format monitors. The security officers leverage a motion-detection cycle feature that brings video with active motion to the forefront; they also have a custom screen to closely watch the more high-risk areas at peak time periods.

Some areas — such as the Culinary Arts building's delivery loading dock — are tied into access control. In such areas, video is not only multi-streamed to the dispatch and data center, but a third stream is sent to building administrators. When food delivery people arrive at the Culinary Arts building, for example, the administrator can click on the camera icon to watch live video and identify them before buzzing them in.

The bottom line? IP cameras are intelligent computer devices that can see. By taking time to learn about all the different features, we built a customized, efficient, and user-friendly IP video surveillance system. But what about the one area IT people often care about the most — cyber-security? To address this, we added an extra layer of protection by isolating surveillance traffic into its own virtual network using traditional VLAN technology. This provided a clean segmentation point for the traffic so we could make easy policy decisions of what traffic can enter or exit the isolated networks. As a result, this method also afforded us more control of the third-party contractors, which help the school maintain the surveillance equipment. By having these isolated networks, we can drastically limit the contractors' exposure to our production networks.

System in Action: Tales from the Parking Deck

We installed most of our cameras in the Uptown campus's four multi-story parking decks at the main campus. We collaborated with a design engineer to calculate the location of all network switches so that they wouldn't exceed the Ethernet cabling's 328-feet limitation. With the switches in place, we worked with our security staff to determine the best locations to give full visibility in the garages, as well as an eagle-eye view of the campus.

The resulting video has been amazing; following are two examples of the system's success.

  • Gone in 60 seconds. A member of my team had her car stolen when she left it in the parking deck over Christmas break. Fortunately, the surveillance cameras caught it all — from her plate number, to the thieves scouting the site a few days before the theft, to the make and model of the car that dropped them alongside her car. The high-resolution video even captured a perfect face shot of one individual. All those details were instrumental in retrieving her car — within one day.
  • Great balls of fire! In another incident, a one-car collision occurred just outside a parking deck. When the driver pulled into the deck to assess the damage, the car burst into flames and burned so hot that the concrete split and the light fixtures in the parking deck melted. Through it all, a camera that was two feet from a melted light fixture continued recording. After the fire, we simply cleaned soot from the lens cover, and the camera is still fully operational.

In addition to parking decks, we've installed the IP cameras at all emergency call boxes, in the cashiering stations where students pay for classes, and in and around high-risk areas such as all of our location's networking/telecommunications spaces and the centrally located data center. We've partnered with law enforcement by allowing them to remotely view and control our motorized PTZ cameras. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department has used our camera network to monitor the packed Uptown streets during NASCAR-sponsored events and city festivals. When the Democratic convention was in Charlotte, Federal agencies also utilized our video feeds for their purposes. Next, we're hoping to enhance our license-plate recognition abilities by tying into the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation's database to help locate vehicles that are stolen, involved in felonies, or otherwise flagged by law enforcement.


Like any project, we had many challenges to overcome. At the time, the Charlotte market did not have an abundance of video surveillance contractors with IP camera experience, let alone IP camera experience mixed with enterprise networking knowledge. This was the single greatest challenge of the project. The solution required CPCC staff to become system matter experts with these security technologies and translate both this and our enterprise networking needs effectively to the inexperienced contractors available. CPCC's Security Department also had their own challenges getting their staff up-to-speed with the new technology and understanding the power of the tools we had installed for them. One solution to this was using the manufacturing channels to provide staff training, which helped greatly.

Looking back at the project, it is clear the success we had was largely due to teamwork, openness, and support we received from the all the departments involved, especially our Security Department. IP-based surveillance/security projects can be handled many different ways and can be led by many different areas of an institution. However, without complete IT and security buy-in, I doubt a successful outcome will be reached.

We started our technology search by seeking open technology systems, and it has led to open communication between ITS, security, CPCC's different departments, and local law enforcement. That kind of synergy is especially valuable in an urban environment like ours, and it's turned me into a proud IT guy with a serious stake in physical security.