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Working with IT Managers

Returning from the biggest InfoComm ever and with a couple sessions I presented being fresh on my mind, this month I'd like to discuss IT connectivity for your AV solutions.

Returning from the biggest InfoComm ever and with a couple sessions I presented being fresh on my mind, this month I'd like to discuss IT connectivity for your AV solutions. While the emphasis will be on digital signage, the basics, at least for corporate and higher education situations, should still hold true for any IT-centric AV technology.

When it comes to attaching a device to a network—and I don't care what it is, if it has an Ethernet connection, the rule fits—IT departments will be involved. And when IT people get involved, they always fall into one of two camps—“reluctant” and “enthusiastic.”

The reluctant camp will tell you there's no way you can do what you want to do on my network. (And they will call it “my network” because that's how they view their world.) Business applications and needs always trump anything an AV guy is drumming up. This camp thinks, and rightly so, “If you take down my network, it's my rear end that gets kicked.”

The other camp of enthusiastic IT managers is more open to new technologies sharing their network. They normally have a hefty infrastructure investment and bandwidth to spare. Plus, they typically haven't been burned by an unfriendly network appliance—yet.

From a client-base perspective, I like to further divide the camps into three verticals—corporate, higher education, and out of home (OOH)/retail. Each has its own discrete and diverse methodologies for network infrastructure management. And each—whether its the reluctant or enthusiastic flavor—should be dealt with differently.

CORPORATE

From an integration perspective, corporate IT managers can be quite challenging. They are almost always in the reluctant camp, but you will find some enthusiastic folks. When you do, it's a blessing.

In corporate settings, the IT department is not normally the group that requests AV applications requiring network connectivity. More often, it's either the marketing/communications staff and/or facilities management fielding calls from internal clients who say they have a need.

Granted this has been changing, as IT begins to own an organization's AV assets and sees them as just another bunch of nodes on the network. However from the corporate IT perspective, they are happy to grant connectivity for monitoring and security issues, but adding an AV device that could gobble bandwidth causes them to erect a wall.

Keep in mind that, in many cases, IT may not even know of a specific AV initiative until the integrator becomes involved and starts poking around. That's way too late in the game and will only increase pushback from the IT department.

Your job as the integrator is to get IT involved as soon as possible. Once they're on board, your responsibility is to understand your technology thoroughly and have an answer for every question they ask, or be able to get one quickly. If they aren't comfortable with you as the integrator, they will most certainly squash the project.

When it comes to connectivity, corporate infrastructures are all over the place. They may have old technologies and minimal bandwidth for wide area network connections; they may have very robust new technologies with bandwidth to spare. And don't let the size of a company dictate in your mind what it will or won't have—there's no correlation. Be prepared to ask all the necessary questions before you engineer a solution that may not work on top of their infrastructure. This especially holds true with digital signage and streaming solutions.

HIGHER EDUCATION

The higher education market, too, presents a challenging integration effort, but for different reasons. Networks at colleges and universities have lots of users with time on their hands—students. Therefore these will be some of the most locked-down environments inside the firewall that you will encounter.

On the bright side, most universities have spent a great deal of money on infrastructure. We rarely hear that there isn't adequate bandwidth to do what's needed to deploy a solution. And most of their IT managers are solidly enthusiastic.

There are far fewer business-critical applications running in this environment. Most bandwidth is used by classroom technologies and Internet connectivity, leaving a decent amount for AV solutions. Even at multicampus universities (usually state universities), campus-to-campus bandwidth is robust.

Still, with so many students hitting the Net (be it for research or illicit file-sharing), be prepared to deal with traffic. Enterprise-level network devices are a must in this type of environment—the processors in SOHO (small office home office) and consumer devices are not designed for heavy traffic and will be overrun with demand.

OOH/RETAIL

OOH/retail is by far the most challenging of the three. In almost all cases, the integrator will need to fashion a network from myriad technologies.

While the “headquarters” can act as the hub for the network, there's a good chance no viable technology exists to communicate effectively with the locations you're planning to deploy to.

For example, let's take a convenience store. It may have an extremely small pipe back to corporate to transfer accounting information and the like. Add a digital signage solution to that infrastructure and the multi-gigabytes of data you need to push out to the store (potentially each day/night) could take days over existing infrastructure.

Be prepared to understand when other technologies for data delivery are appropriate. There are a lot of good alternative methods available—cellular, satellite, terrestrial broadcast, Wi-Fi hotspots, WiMAX (someday). Each has its own situational plusses and minuses and technologies required to enable them. You, as the integrator, must at the least understand when and where to draw on those connectivity tools. Develop relationships with providers of each, or partner with other integrators that have experience.

In OOH/retail, IT will be looking to you for innovative ways to deploy the solution's infrastructure. Simply asking them to increase the pipe to their locations will almost always be a non-starter, unless they already had plans to do so and now you can piggyback on that roll-out.

Knowing how IT will respond in each of these client situations is key to succeeding with IT-centric AV technologies. It will never be an exact science, but know this for sure; when you need their network, the sooner you involve IT, the smoother your project will progress.

Kris Vollrath is vice president of Advanced AV in West Chester, Pa., and an industry consultant. He can be reached at kris@digitaldesignage.com.



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