Value Engineering: Don't Cut Corners
Part of my responsibility to the company where I work, and I guess to the AV industry in general through PRO AV, is to pass along what I've learned in my IT career and help close the knowledge gap between the two camps.
Part of my responsibility to the company where I work, and I guess to the AV industry in general through PRO AV, is to pass along what I've learned in my IT career and help close the knowledge gap between the two camps. Whether we're talking technologies, techniques, terms, or best practices, it all equates to knowledge transfer. A couple of the major subjects that have come up a lot lately are IT cable techniques and IT network equipment used in AV. Let's see if we can't tackle both this month.
First up, IT networking equipment. Because most of my professional career has been in the IT side of this world, I've learned through experience the best way to get things right every time when it comes to infrastructure. In short, skimping and cutting corners only lead to problems down the road—much like life in general, I guess. If you asked any seasoned AV tech or engineer, I imagine they'd say the same thing.
Unfortunately, there are situations that don't allow for what could possibly be the best of breed (and perhaps most expensive) equipment. “Value engineering” is a regrettable byproduct of budget constraints. Engineers love to make things work no matter what, and that's commendable. But there are some situations that just don't lend themselves to value engineering, no matter what. When it comes to deploying IT equipment that you know will be used to support AV projects, and which place high demands on a network, the traditional “value” network components will lead to issues. Mix in a lack of networking knowledge and the project can quickly stall with no foreseeable fix.
In projects that involve streaming AV content, for example, using business-class networking components is a definite must—no skimping, no value engineering, period. This also holds true for projects that involve control and other applications sharing the network. In these cases, the use of a managed network switch that can handle multiple virtual LANs (VLANs), and possibly stacking, may be required.
Whatever the case, AV streaming is off limits to value engineering. As far as I'm concerned, if a budget doesn't allow for it to be done right, it should not be done at all. The end result won't meet the ultimate needs of the client. There are plenty of situations I could list that require this level of “high-end” networking equipment—streaming, videoconferencing, complex IP-based control to name a few—but I would recommend at least an unmanaged business-class switch for anything you do.
And consumer equipment should be relegated to home networks only. This is true not only for switches, but also routers, wireless access points, basically every single piece of IT equipment you specify for an AV project. Choose equipment that fits the requirements and budgets of projects, but always choose from the right class.
Once you choose an equipment vendor, stick with that vendor as much as possible. The amount of effort needed to learn how to configure and operate the equipment correctly won't be trivial.
While the concepts are the same across multiple vendors' products, the configuration methods can be quite different. It's always to your advantage to do it once and be able to replicate the success over and over, both from a time and a labor cost perspective.
Obviously you can't always dictate the vendor in a project; the client may, and often does, have a preferred vendor for network equipment. The discussion usually comes down to who will be responsible for the equipment once it is in place. If the baton is being passed to the client, chances are the client will define what you use, based on your recommendations and the functional requirements of the device. Therefore it's important you know your requirements, know how to articulate those requirements, and know when a device will do exactly what is required of it.
THE CABLE FACTOR
Then there's the cabling side of the discussion. The big issue here is how to handle and terminate traditional network cable and unshielded twisted pair (UTP). As I discussed in a previous Data Links (January 2008, page 80), UTP cable is becoming an extremely popular cable for AV infrastructure build-out. While it's just another form of traditional category cable used for decades in IT, it brings along its own set of handling and terminating requirements.