Examining NICE's NiceVision VMSBy: Antony Look, Published on Dec 08, 2010
NICE is one of the largest video surveillance vendors yet the company's products are not very well known nor understood. Over the past decade, NICE has been widely considered a leader in high end DVRs/recorders. As the market has shifted to IP, many of the leading DVR providers have evolved their IP offerings. However, it was unclear even to us where NICE stood or what progress they have made. Like many high end vendors, publicly available details for NICE's products are scarce.
In this report, we examine NICE's IP video offering based on a combination of hands-on testing, interviews and private documentation review.
We look at both their VMS software and appliance offering including the 3 product tiers they recently introduced. Moreover, we examine their broad array of advanced features.
Recommendations and Applications
While NICE offers 3 packages for different system size, NICE's core competitive advantage lies in complex systems with demanding requirements.
The best fit is their Enterprise offering for large scale systems. NICE's position matches well with Genetec, DvTel and Milestone Corporate. NICEVision Enterprise offers all the high end features one expects from this level - enterprise management, redundancy, 3rd party system integration, analytics, video distribution, etc. Unlike many high end VMS offerings, NICE offers its own appliances as an option plus built in video quality optimization and camera detection. On the downside, the pricing is high (perhaps $50-$100 per channel even relative to other enterprise VMS offerings), 3rd party IP camera support is relatively low, no 3rd party analytic support (out of the box) and management server redundancy requires a 3rd party add on.
As the applications become smaller and simpler, NiceVision's competitiveness diminishes. While they do have an entry level package, the pricing is relatively high and the licensing is sold in coarse blocks (by the dozen), combining to make effective pricing fairly high. Additionally, the installation process for software only requires similar complexity as the enterprise package, which can be a burden for smaller installations (their appliances are likely a better fit for this application). The most notable advantage is that upgrade to the high end NICE Versions is simple, however this only provides value for applications that are likely to expand significantly.
NICE's competitiveness in small applications (under 100 cameras) is weak especially compared to inexpensive and simple to deploy offerings from Milestone (Essential), Luxriot, NUUO, etc. Note: Until 2010, NICE only had a single product version. NICE's introduction of a three tier pricing/product tier improved its competitiveness for small applications but it still lags many common commercial offerings.
The following is our analysis of NICE's competitive positioning based on our 9 key criteria:
|Pricing||Weak||High license cost and significant additional charges for features that often are included in rival packages|
|Installation Simplicity||Moderately Weak||Initial installation is cumbersome and time consuming but not very complex for software setup|
|User Simplicity||Moderate||5+ applications increases complexity but individual apps fairly simple to use|
|3rd Party IP Camera Support||Moderate||Support key manufacturers but limited total number|
|3rd Party System Support||Strong||Broad variety of access, video matrix, PSIM and PoS systems supported|
|Internal Analytics Support||Moderately Strong||NICE's offers enterprise security analytics (but not retail or marketing ones)|
|3rd Party Analytics Support||Weak||Only available on a project basis, not 'out of the box'|
|Enterprise Management||Strong||Built in for both user and configuration|
|Alarm Monitoring||Moderately Strong||Integrated pane and provides tracking of alarms|
|Video Distribution||Strong||Integrated network video distribution via hardware or software decoders|
|Redundancy||Moderately Strong||Recording redundancy built in but only for whole server; management redundancy requires 3rd party|
- Migrating from the eXpress package to Professional and Enterprise is essentially a license upgrade
- Recording server redundancy built-in to the VMS application
- Turn-key applicances eliminate complex installation tasks associated with software-kit solutions
- Large scale deployments can benefit from Web Deploy to efficiently install large numbers of client applications
- One (1) management server (AMS) can scale to support 100s of recording servers, providing an efficient architecture to expand and manage edge devices, recording devices, and users
- Installation wizards simplified otherwise complicated server and client installations
- Modeling of supported 3rd party IP cameras provides highly optimized streaming and compression settings
- Fairly robust live monitoring application interface, with a good deal of playback functionality as well
- Software and appliance based decoders for Virtual Matrix support megapixel resolutions
- Server software installation requires complex provisioning of hard-drives (5 partitions)
- Client application not supported on 64-bit Windows operating systems.
- Client application not recommended to be installed and operated on any server (SVR or AMS)
- Limited storage capacities in entry-level and mid-level turn-key recording applicances
- Three separate applications for administration and two separate applications for operating the system represent some usability 'hassles'
- eXpress or entry-level SW version of the VMS is no simpler to install than higher tier offerings
- eXpress can only be purchased in 16/32/48/64 channel bundles resulting in the possibility of paying extra for unused channels
- Management server redundancy requires complex 3rd party technologies such as Microsoft Clustering
Pricing and Product Options
Until 2010, NICE only offered a single VMS / recorder - their 'full' solution or enterprise class offering. This provided a broad feature set but no discounts for small camera counts or reduced feature sets. In October 2010, NICE expanded to 3 versions to provide more cost-effective offerings for small, medium and large applications. The options and pricing structure is most similar to Genetec's (review our Genetec report).
NICE's higher dealer discount structure and limited product availability make price comparisons to widely available VMS offerings with IT pricing challenging. However, we estimate that NICE's pricing is close to Genetec's for each price level but moderately more expensive.
NiceVision Net 2.0 is available in 3 packages. Each package is based on the same software / codebase. More features and channel capacity are activated with the higher packages. Each package is available as software only or as turn-key NVR appliances.
The appliances are for recording (and optional video analytics). Additionally, a management server (AMS) is separately required for the Enterprise package. By contrast, the entry level eXpress, and (optionally) the Professional offering bundle the AMS/SVR on a single appliance.
eXpress is NICE's entry level offering that features a single server solution and a 64 camera channel limitation. It is available in several bundles - 16/32/48/64 camera channels. The eXpress offering is licensed in camera bundles rather than the more common and granular individual channel licenses. For example, in a 20 channel system, the customer must purchase a 32-channel bundle - effectively paying for 12 channel licenses that will not be used.
The eXpress moniker may be misleading. It features essentially the same installation process and components required for the higher tier Professional and Enterprise packages. The complexity of this installation and setup process is on par with e.g., Genetec and DVTel - requires back-end support from SQL server, .NET frameworks, custom drive partitioning, etc. On the plus side: upgrading to Professional and Enterprise require only a license upgrade.
eXpress does not include many key features such as recorder and management redundancy, analytics, IP multicast and Active Directory integration. However, in smaller deployments these features are generally unnecessary. Client access is limited to four (4) logons and only two (2) virtual matrix displays can be licensed.
Professional is a mid-level offering supporting a maximum of 200 channels and can deployed with multiple recording servers (SVR) for scalability. It provides clustering or redundancy of recorders (at an additional per channel cost), but still neither a management server (AMS) redundancy option nor Active Directory option. In Professional the Advanced Streaming Pack and Advanced Video Quality Pack are licensable options (included in cost for Enterprise - see below). Maximum client connections increases to 20 and there are no restrictions on virtual matrix displays in Professional.
Enterprise is NICE's high end video management system with an unbounded channel limit. Essentially all the features are enabled in the Enterprise offering. However, additional charges for Active Directory integration, video analytics, archiving, recorder (SVR) redundancy and management server (AMS) redundancy. The charges for archiving and recorder redundancy are especially significant.
Video Parameter Optimization and Camera Tampering
Included in the Enteprise offering are Advanced Streaming Pack and Advanced Video Quality Pack. Both of these packs run inside the VMS software/appliances and can be applied to any connected cameras. NICE uses these features to help justify their premium pricing.
The Advanced Video Quality Pack features Video Parameter Optimization (VPO) that adjusts camera settings such as brightness and contrast levels 'on-the-fly' based on the current lighting environment. This feature is claimed to help offset quality deficiencies in non-WDR or color-only cameras. Note that the adjustments are post-processing enhancements. We have not tested the functionality and, therefore, cannot validate the value or applications for its use.
Also included is a Camera Tampering (CT) component, which uses a reference image or baseline to determine if the camera is out of focus, not aligned correctly, too dark/bright, covered/painted etc. The notification can be monitored via the 'Control' or 'Supervision' client, however it is not a real-time notification or detection feature.
There are 3 series of turn-key appliances that can be obtained with either eXtreme, Professional, or Enterprise pre-loaded. They vary in terms of RAID or non-RAID supported, through-put capacities (from about 100mbps to 200mbps) and video analytics channel capacity (4, 12, and 40). Each series is available with either internal storage or external storage. External storage accomodates NICE's own NVS1200, 3rd party solutions such as Intransa, Pivot3, and DDN, or COTS DAS, NAS, and SAN storage.
NICE's through-put limitation of 200mbps is on par with other enterprise VMS brands such as Genetec and DVTel. NICE claims their Net 2.5 release will provide a 512mbps through-put capacity, which implies less servers for larger camera counts and better scalability for megapixel camera deployments.
Installation and Setup
The components required to deploy a NiceVision Net 2.0 system are a recording server (SVR), a management/database server (AMS) and a thick client application (ControlCenter). The SVR/AMS is usually deployed on a single server in smaller eXpress deployments, and split across two or more server machines for larger scale deployments. For example, 1 machine for the AMS, and 2 machines to each host a separate instance of SVR.
Otherwise, installation is nearly identical between the three packages. Thus, the eXpress package, despite its name, requires essentially the same level of complexity to install as higher tier packages.
Before any software is installed, the server hard drive(s) need to be properly segmented into several partitions. Even the more complex VMS systems we've tested to date have never required more than two partitions be carved out - one for OS and one for VMS/video storage. NICE recommends at least 5 distinct partitions.
The SVR/AMS server requires additional supporting components such as MS SQL, .NET framework, and C++ 2008 libraries in order to work. In total the installation consumed approximately 800MB of drive space. However, despite the complexity, the installation wizard appeared to do a good job in coordinating the installation and checking various components required for install.
Once the server side is installed, services monitoring icons populate the system tray. These should be checked to see if the required services are, indeed, running. Other than that there is very little management or configuration tasks that can/need be done on the server console itself. The bulk of the configuration, management, licensing and operation of the system require a thick client application suite dubbed ControlCenter.
Note that NICE does not recommend the client application suite be installed on the same machine as the SVR or AMS. Genetec and ExacqVision are examples of VMS systems that support client applications directly on VMS servers. For NICE the installation files for server applications (SVR, AMS, etc.) are on one installer package, while the client application suite is on another installer package.
Client Application Suite (ControlCenter)
While the SVR/AMS software works on both 32-bit, and 64-bit Windows 2003/2008 Server operating systems, ControlCenter is limited to only 32-bit Windows operating systems (XP, Vista, and 7 Ultimate). This limitation, according to NICE, will be addressed in an upcoming release (NiceVision Net 2.5).
The client application suite is comprised of six (6) separate applications and consumes roughly 120MB of hard disk. However, the six applications are all accessible using a single logon and unified launcher interface. The installation wizard does a good job of simplifying the client installation.
For larger scale client application deployments, NICE provides a Web Deploy feature based on MS Click Once. This allows workstations to browse to a URL or centralized server (typically the AMS) hosting the client application installation files. The files are pushed to the workstation, and a wizard then conducts the installation automatically onto the remote machine.
Administration of the system requires three (3) different client applications: SiteBuilder, Administrator, and Supervision. This type of multi-application administration technique has been observed in the more complex VMS offerings, such as DVTel and Genetec, and results in workflow challenges not seen in the more streamlined architectures such as ExacqVision's VMS.
Upon first logon to the client application, licensing of the system must be performed. The licensing process is fully web enabled, but provides an offline method for licensing as well.
After licensing, the SiteBuilder is launched, where recorder(s) and IP cameras are added to the system. Adding recorders (SVR) to the system is fairly straightforward - just requires input of the SVR IP address.
There is no discovery tool available to find IP cameras within the network. The IP address of each camera must be known beforehand to associate it to the system. NICE recommends using the vendor specific discovery tool for the IP camera to provide a proper assignment. If cameras are allocated a contiguous block of IP addresses, NICE's add camera wizard can improve the workflow by automatically incrementing the IP address by one on each subsequent camera add. However, each camera still needs to be individually configured, adding time and cost to the installation process.
Out of the box the breadth of NICE's 3rd party camera support list is an abbreviated one. The server requires the latest 'IP Plug-in' component to support the full current breadth of NICE's 3rd party camera partners. One exceptional feature of NICE's IP camera integrations is that each and every supported camera's resources/specifications are programmatically modeled inside of the system. This, allows the camera's streaming and compression settings to be more intelligently optimized. The graphical nature of this feature is a usability plus as well. (To further simplify large camera deployments, the SiteBuilder application also provides for bulk IP camera configurations using a function called 'apply to').
The 'Administration' client application is intended primarily for user account management and granular system privilege assignments and control. Active Directory integration is available only in the Enterprise package and requires additional licensing costs. Client and administrator logons to the system are 'brokered' centrally through the AMS, providing enterprise scalability of user management, auditing, permissions control etc. Furthermore, one AMS can manage 100s of SVRs, so there is no scenario in which multiple/distributed user databases must be integrated or coordinated.
System logs and health monitoring are performed using the 'Supervision' client application. This application monitors the low-level operations and services of the AMS in real-time. It also can generate reports based on the information it processes. While, having the ability to monitor such facets of a VMS in real-time is a desirable feature, the necessity of using a separate application for this is a usability disadvantage.
The NiceVision VMS architecture supports one Application Management Server (AMS) and one or more Smart Video Recorders (SVR). Recorder redundancy is available as a licensed feature in both the Professional and Enterprise packages. Recorder redundancy uses an N+1 strategy, whereby 'N' represents active SVRs and '1' represents one (1) standby SVR to take over in case of one of the 'N' SVRs should fail. A maximum of 15 active SVRs per cluster is supported.
It's a definite plus that NICE elected to incorporate the redundancy feature into its software package - as the process is much simpler than using a COTS solution such as Microsoft's Clustering Service. However, the cost/licensing structure doesn't allow choosing specific cameras across SVR servers. Thus, users or designers should (if possible) aggregate critical cameras on a subset of SVRs, and then provision redundancy licenses for only those SVRs supporting 'critical' cameras. This may or may not be practical in some networking environments, however.
SVR N+1 clusters are defined using the SiteBuilder client application. Within an N+1 cluster, there are no prioritization options in the event that multiple active SVRs should be in failure at the same time. (There can be multiple N+1 clusters on a system. Theoretically, N could be equal to 1, providing 1 standby SVR for every active SVR).
In the event of an AMS failure, recording and live viewing will still function. AMS failure will impact new user logons, and PTZ functions. In order to provide redundancy of the Application Management Server (AMS), third party technologies such as Microsoft's Clustering Services have been tested and approved by NICE. The other NICE 'certified' option is a product manufactured by Marathon, a specialist in high availability for Windows applications.
As a general philosophy we tend to frown upon high-end VMS manufacturers who fail to provide built-in redundancy features within their own software packages. It is unfortunate, that the majority of IT challenged security installers and engineers need to 'fumble' with 3rd party tools to accomplish functionality that is very commonly desired in critical high-end IP video systems.
Another interesting high-availability feature is the 'Advanced Streaming Package'. This allows cameras to directly stream IP multicast video to requesting clients. With this enabled, if the associated SVR is not operational, video will not be recorded, but clients will still be able to access video. The feature is not available in the eXpress package, is a licensed feature in Professional, and is included 'free' in Enterprise. If recording video is critical to a deployment, then SVR redundancy would likely take precedence over the 'Advanced Streaming Pack', however, there is a steep cost associated with SVR redundancy.
In a larger scale NiceVision VMS deployment, there could be a large number of SVRs operating under one AMS. NICE resells a 3rd party tool by New Boundary Technologies called Prism Deploy to simplify the upgrade of multiple SVRs. It is a licensable feature in Professional, and 'free' as part of the Enterprise package.
The core components are the same for all three packages: eXpress, Professional, and Enterprise. Because of this NICE claims that a straightforward upgrade path exists from one package to another - essentially requiring only a license key upgrade.
NICE has indicated that the NiceVision Net 2.5 release will be available sometime around Q2 2011. E.g., the 2.5 release will provide the ability to install the client suite on 64-bit Windows machines, a web client, and increased SVR through-put. Keep in mind that the AMS needs to run the new version 2.5 as well in order to support the 2.5 version clients, while upgrading the SVR from 2.0 to 2.5 is optional.
Live monitoring of video and alarms is accomplished through the 'Control' application. The layouts have a variety of configurations (single large, 2x2, 3x3, 4x4, 5x5, etc.) not unlike other VMS live monitoring applications. The maximum is a 5x5, 25 camera layout.
The 'Control' client also provides playback functionality and controls (e.g., fast-forward/ fast-rewind up to 1000x, frame-by-frame both backwards and forwards, etc.) directly on the primary screen. Although the 'Investigator' provides more robust playback and search functionality, having some level of playback functionality in the 'Control' application offers some additional usability benefits.
An interesting feature is that the username of the person manipulating the PTZ is shown directly on the video display. We have not seen this feature in any prior live monitoring software tests. It's an interesting feature that will provide users/administrators added visibility and accountability into the use of the system.
In NICE's lexicon, 'pages' are synonymous with favorites or pre-programmed layouts. They can be configured to feature both live and historically offset (e.g., have both a live view of camera A, and a 5 minute offset view of camera A within the same layout) video from multiple cameras. They can be pushed to virtual matrix displays on associated events or manually using the Virtual Matrix tool inside the 'Control' client.
A thoughtful convenience in the live viewing client is the ability to 'remember' the previous layouts and pages that have been viewed. Back and forward and buttons permit navigation between the 'remembered' pages and layouts.
Exporting video in AVI and NVF (NiceVision Format) are supported within the 'Control' application. The clips' beginning and end are delineated by time using an export wizard; multiple channels or the current layout can be selected for export as well. There are other 'short-cuts' for exporting available as right-click initiated fly-out menus for additional intuitive workflow options. Certain playback 'short-cuts' exist as well - e.g., play last 3 minutes.
Flagging video with comments can also be done through the 'Control' interface. This marks the video with event class metadata within the video archives. It can later be used as an event based search criteria to locate 'interesting' video for export or review purposes. Flagging can also be done inside the 'Investigator' interface for marking historic video as events. Note that in NICE's terminology, 'trigger' refers to the exact point at which something interesting occurs, whereas 'event' refers to the video clip generated around the 'trigger'. Pre- and post- durations that define the time 'envelope' of video around the trigger is a global setting.
The NVF video files require the 'Player' application for playback. The 'Player' installer can be added to the export folder for convenience, however, some VMS systems such as ExacqVision provide a single video file with an embedded player. NICE has indicated that this enhancement will be available in the 2.5 release. The embedded player is the preferred method for distributing investigative video clips to third parties such as law enforcement agencies.
Distributing feeds to remote systems is limited to PC-based decoders and NICE decoders. The outputs support DVI/VGA so higher resolutions such as multi-megapixel video can be rendered on remote displays supporting higher resolutions. This is an improvement over the analog composite outputs that could only provide SD resolutions. On the downside, video cannot be pushed to other remote "Control' clients.
Virtual Matrix is a licensed feature for all levels: eXpress, Professional, and Enterprise.
PC number of decoder outputs is scalable based on the PC's specifications. NVD-5104 has 4 outputs, and the NVD-1002 has 2 outputs.
Search functionality is provided in 2 applications - the Control Client and the Investigator application. While the Control Client is primarily a live monitoring tool, it provides integrated and instant playback of recently recorded video. This would be used if an operator wanted to check what happened a few minutes ago.
The 'Investigator' application is for longer term video investigations (days, weeks ago, etc.) and provides more robust video searches based on metadata, such as user comments (a form of trigger), video motion, and other triggers/events (3rd party system originated and pre-defined). Multi-channel exporting and user audits are also available using this interface.
The 'Investigator' provides synchronous and asychronous playback of multiple video feeds. Exported video can be multi-channel. The 'Player' is defaulted to playback multiple channels synchronously but has the option for asynchronous playback as well.
Searches based on triggers will return event clips of pre-defined pre- and post- trigger durations. They can then be exported in AVI or NVF formats. Comment triggers can be renamed and video clips can be associated with a particular case number for more efficient and organized forensic campaigns.
The Enterprise class package supports licensing of a CSS or Centralized Storage Server. In this architecture video clips can be manually or automatically backed-up to another recording device.