Software Only VMS vs NVR Appliances

By Sean Patton, Published May 23, 2018, 11:03am EDT

Should you buy your own PC/server and load VMS software on it or get a turnkey appliance (both hardware and software, e.g., NVR, Hybrid DVR) from a VMS/NVR manufacturer?

While many feel strongly in both directions, both approaches have advantages depending on the scale of the system and the expertise of the deploying organizations. Our VMS/NVR deployment survey results showed 60% of systems are installed as VMS software installed on a server, and the remainder were turnkey appliances. In this report, we will examine the main drivers for both options.

In this report we will examine the advantages of each approach, focusing on:

  • Western vs Asian appliances
  • Setup Time
  • Hardware Flexibility
  • Virtualization
  • Troubleshooting
  • Recurring Costs
  • System Growth
  • Small vs Large System Deployments

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Comments (65)

This is where the Western manufacturers need to get with the program and get with it fast. It is getting harder and harder to sell systems that require IP and some even Base licenses. One is the upfront cost and two is the ongoing SSA's many of the VMS systems require. VMS manufacturers will say why pay for licenses you don't need that you get with an appliance. Well when the price of the appliance is so much less and a much quicker install it is hard to compete. Most customers don't want all the bells and whistles of a VMS system and if they do many of the appliances are starting to have some of the same advanced features.

I'm not arguing that appliances aren't attractively priced, and do the job for some customers, but almost every discussion about NVRs vs VMS results in the same discussion point:

Most customers don't want all the bells and whistles of a VMS system and if they do many of the appliances are starting to have some of the same advanced features.

So on one hand, customers don't want the bells and whistles, but on the other hand appliance manufacturers are adding bells and whistles.

I don't imagine they're doing this to spite their customers, so maybe customers actually want those bells and even the whistles?

64 channels or less, appliance usually always makes more sense. VMS on a PC with all the licenses and yearly costs and junk that may come associated with it is way too clunky for a small system. How long are PC's gonna be around anyways :)

Honest question: What "junk that may come associated with it" are you refering to?

Convoluted would be the better term. 

- First you have to buy a PC and dedicate the darn thing to just video surveillance. Depending on the software, you may have to buy a beast of a PC at that.
- Then you gotta buy the per camera licenses which is a huge turn off compared to an appliance which has a preset amount of "channels" built in.

By now you have more than likely blown past the costs of what an appliance would cost.

- So your customer wants to add another camera. Well not only do you have to pay for the extra camera, you gotta pay for another darn license. not good for the custy
- on top of that, im pretty sure that some of these softwares come with yearly fee's right? Lame!

Lets take a 4ch system for instance:

The only time a customer gets a software installed for a small system like this is because they were SOLD that system by an integrator that loves to build PC's and customize their software.  It reminds me, back in the day, of the guys who used to love to put in Geovision DVR cards in computers when a standalone DVR made way way more sense for everyone.  Its kind of "good ol boy. No disrespect but that is my honest opinion.

I think if that customer was given a fair comparison between a PC/Software and an embedded DVR, most customers would choose the appliance given the simplicity, low costs, and has everything they need for what they are trying to accomplish.

Sean, what happens when a customer has an 8 channel NVR/DVR and wants to add 2 more cameras? Now you have to sell them another NVR/DVR or worse replace the current NVR/DVR with a bigger unit.  What about how clunky the user interfaces are and how slow they are at searching video? 

The sad part of it is, adding another 8 channel NVR or upgrading to a 16 channel would still probably be cheaper than adding 1 channel of the software.

What software are you talking about? I mean swapping out an NVR for a bigger one is has a lot of time in setup.  You have to reprogram all the channels, setup users again, motion detection.  That's ALOT more money then adding another license.

The ONLY reason someone would go with a cheap NVR you sell over a VMS is because of the price. Then they complain how complicated they are use and export video. 



ha, no way man. i dont know how much you charge for your time, but It would take 5-10 minutes at the most on these basic systems. I mean if you have very specific motion rules and such, may take a little longer. Most likely though if you are buying the same series recorder, you can simply export the config and import it into the new one which would take you no time.

At any rate though, if the customer is buying 8 cameras to begin with, I would recommend they go with a 16 channel NVR to avoid this situation altogether. Would a 9 ch software/pc system be cheaper than a 16 ch embedded recorder?

ha, no way man. i dont know how much you charge for your time, but It would take 5-10 minutes at the most on these basic systems. I mean if you have very specific motion rules and such, may take a little longer. Most likely though if you are buying the same series recorder, you can simply export the config and import it into the new one which would take you no time.


So your DVRs drive themselves to the customer's site? I can install a VMS license remotely and connect the camera remotely. 

Only reason embedded are good is because they are cheaper and possibly easier to SETUP (not necessarily use).

PC have a lot more features, options, almost certainly better quality components. But are more expensive. 

Cost is a huge part of the buying equation especially when the spread between 2 systems is very large. Let me ask you this, if you took 10 customers that all needed a 4 ch system, and equally and fairly quoted them a cost of a 4 ch nvr with cameras or a 4 ch pc/software with cameras. Who wins most out of 10? Honestly?

With that being said, standalone systems really are not that hard to use for the basics of what most people need them for.

Im not saying your software isnt more badazz than an embedded system. A ferrari is more badazz than a honda civic as well.


Sean, I have ZERO interest playing the "who has the cheapest Chinese NVR that is going to get hacked" game that you love to play.  I don't sell at the price we sell solutions that solve problems and make peoples lives easier. If all a customer cares about is the price they are not a good customer for us.  

I didnt mean to fluster you, I know you are passionate about your software. I think you are missing the point of costs in a small system. Its not everything, but it is a very big part. You have to admit this right? I mean you cant honestly tell me that the majority of customers are going to pick a 4 ch avigilon software PC system over a low cost embedded system when completely presented with the 2. You say you arent interested in this type of customer. Well that is fine, but this is the majority of customers mentality that want this type of system right? 

There are ferrari dealers and their are Honda dealers. There is a demand for both. But you are going to have a hard time selling a Ferrari to a person who needs a 4 ch system when a Honda Civic will do just fine. In other words 9 times out of 10, the user will buy a Honda.

The ferrari wins on 64 cameras or more.



Bad analogy or maybe it's on point. Someone who buys a Ferrari is not buying their first car. They have already owner a Civic and a few others. Now they are ready to step up.

What a customer is comfortable paying for the cost of a system has more to do with type of business and specific customer then it does about how many cameras they are buying.

A one off retail location is not going to buy a PC based. But a midsized sized business or manufacture certainly would. 

A one off retail location is not going to buy a PC based. But a midsized sized business or manufacture certainly would.

Agreed! I think i was kind of saying this all along. Small systems = Embedded. Enterprise systems = Software

Dealers/Integrators tend to be geared up for a few verticals but not all. It's tough to sale and install Honda, BMW, and Ferrari. The sales team, install team, and service team for strategies and ways of doing things that don't necessarily translate across all vertices. 

Same reason you don't tend to see general contractors or developers that mainly do universities also doing retail. Even if it's the same square footage. 

So someone that says they aren't interested in this kind of customer or that kind of customer makes sense. 

I will say from my point of view. The VMS and US based embedded need to lower the price. We would be able to move more volume if that happened. 

Low cost embedded need to come up with a better interface. You should not have to explain basic functions of a User Interface (UI). Also there needs to be a better way of remotely managing them like what is available on PC. It's ok if the cost goes up as a result.

And all of them need to increase staff and training for their tech support. 

We just took over a system which the customer was told that NVR/DVRS were perfect for them.  They had 4 different DVRs (3) 4 channels and (1) 16 channel all on one campus.   It was so unreliable and huge PITA to control PTZ cameras, search video and export.   We showed them a VMS solution which gives them one big system which now everything is controlled via one interface and how much faster they could search for video and export video. They love the VMS over the cheap DVRs.  These are our best customers the ones that have dealt with all the pain of these cheap DVR/NVRs.

Our biggest client was the exact same story. Just over a hundred cameras across five DVRs plus one overloaded Axis server. Turned it into a DW Spectrum system and it has grown a lot since. If we stuck with DVRs, they would have had much more trouble expanding. 

Sean, I think your analogy is off....It's more like a Ferrari vs a Geo Metro.  It'll get you there, but you won't enjoy the ride.  

I think I made it clear that embedded are cheaper. They have always been cheaper even in the DVR years. I don't think that anyone can disagree with that. 

The point is that 99% of time that is the sole reason to use them.

But cost is not always the top1-5 things that end users are basing their decision on. That of course is true across all markets. 

Let's take a standard 16CH system....when the customer wants to add that 17th camera, you have to sell them another appliance.  Not only is it more expensive than to add a license, but far more "clunky" for the end user.  Hopefully your appliance manufacturer has a good multi-site VMS client, and even if they do, you now have to add this additional server to everyone's client and might even have to create custom screen layouts to make it easy.  If you can easily add camera licenses to an existing server, the labor and money required to scale should generally be less.  


Sean, I think you are a great guy in general, but this is a really bad take. If you knew how much more easy it is for an end user to use a VMS (specifically Nx Witness/DW Spectrum/Hanwha Wave), you wouldn’t take the hard stance against them. 

We have won many of our projects simply because the ease of use of our VMS choice. We can sell Dahua or Hikvision recorders if price is the only criteria. However, if a client cares even a little about usability, they will gladly pay the small premium. 

And to use PCs as a scare tactic is just silly, honestly. Computers aren’t that difficult to operate and maintain if well designed and configured. Hell, most of our servers run at least a year without downtime. Even then, it’s usually upgrades or updates that predicate downtime. 

Most of our clients with Chinese recorders NEVER USE THEM. Sure, they may open an app on their phone to watch a live stream, but they have no clue how to do an investigation or export video. Reason being it’s very difficult for the average end user to figure these things out. Heck, I even struggle on some of these systems. 

And with Nx and it’s variants, you pay a one time, per imager license to record that camera forever. You also receive all future updates for free. And I can say with ease that Network Optix has THE BEST product support I have ever needed to use. Well worth the license cost.

Bottom line, I know you don’t sell PCs, so I don’t expect you to advocate for their use, but you really come off as someone who isn’t very tech savvy when you use computers as a dog whistle. 

I have used Nx Witness and I think its wonderful, admittedly superior in some aspects over embedded units. And I love PC's, I am using one right now as we speak. All kidding aside, no diss to PC's and i think they are easy to use! I just think its overkill for most people who need a small system. I was simply comparing the clunkiness of the install, the footpriont, and the costs compared to a standalone which I believe is a valid argument.

I think my point is perhaps being missed. I don't deny that software is a great option and may have superior performance benefits over some embedded units. But  I think you are trying to sell me on that and you do not have to, i agree. 

But speaking objectively from a customer perspective...

for the majority of customers that need a small system, an embedded system makes the most sense after all things are considered. Cost being one of the major considerations. The cheap low cost NVR's will fit most clients needs. NOT ALL! But most. 

Most of our clients with Chinese recorders NEVER USE THEM.

This probably fits the majority of people who need a small system.

I guess to make my point clear. Considering all the 16 ch systems or less there are in the world, do you think there are more software/pc installs or embedded units. And why?

Sorry to disagree with you Sean. You have always been great to work with and have been very helpful in the past, so I say these things with all due respect. 

I think you’re acknowledgment of the fact that small system users DON’T use their systems is the reason why our approach works. Every single one of our DW clients can add, and usually have added, more cameras. We always make sure that the systems we sell have plenty of room to grow. No matter how small a system is today, it’s sure to grow IF they use it. If the end user never uses their system, they likely will never expand it, which is a bad thing for both parties. The more they use it, the sooner they get ROI, and the sooner they leverage their investment. Otherwise, if they never use it, what’s the point. It’s wasted money.

you dont have to powder coat it for me brother. You are not disrespectful at all.

nonetheless, my point still remains. take 100 people who need a 4,8, or 16 ch system and present them with both options. The embedded wins most of the time. yay or nay?

How long does the manufacturer of your DVRs/NVRs support firmware upgrades?

Especially for the Dahua units that were exploited. It’s not Sean’s (or other OEMs) fault that these devices were easily exploitable and he and others tried very hard to get Dahua to release updates, but in the end it was a lost cause. They simply didn’t care about older units. They would rather you buy a new unit. They move boxes. 

It’s not Sean’s (or other OEMs) fault that these devices were easily exploitable and he and others tried very hard to get Dahua to release updates

It's their fault for picking those manufacturers. Is that not a fundamental downside of picking low cost appliance providers? Their commitment and expertise at software development (as shown by the comically broken response by Dahua to the backdoor) is inferior to Western VMS developers.

In hindsight, yes it was a poor product to sell, but I was a party to that as well. I sold the same products to my clients, so who am I to judge harshly. Sean has always been very helpful to me so I won’t drag him over the coals. I’m sure if he knew ahead of time that Dahua was that easy to hack, he would have chose differently. While there was an understanding that cheap devices were likely more susceptible to hacking, I never envisioned it would be so widespread and easy. 

And so it won't happen again via some other future vulnerability? I am genuinely asking. Is that the belief of Dahua or Hikvision sellers now?

We no longer sell Dahua on larger projects because of these issues. Some smaller HD analog systems we will. We still sell Hikvision, but like all cameras, we airgap them from the internet and customer networks. 

I’m sure if he knew ahead of time that Dahua was that easy to hack, he would have chose differently.

Doesn't Sean OEM Hikvision now? 

You should ask him, but we don’t sell OEM anything, with rare exception of HD analog where clients already have systems that need minor expansion. 

You are talking about systems that outnumber avigilon 100 to 1 (or more) worldwide. The footprint was there to get hacked much easier. Furthermore, alot of the systems were installed by people inexperienced in cyber security. Not making excuses for their previous poor cybersecurity either. But noone tries to hack avigilon because of the comparitively small footprint. 

Look, u can tout your avigilon systems all day long. I agree they make a quality product but they will never even come close to being a threat in the small biz and resi market. People cannot justify the large amounts of extra costs and equate that with the small bit of perceived value that you are trying to slang. And that goes for most vms systems as well. Im only speaking the truth.

I currently have 5 cameras currently connected at my house. They are running on a Windows VM with Spectrum. Storage is on a Synology. I have lots of DVR/NVR recorders at my house. I never feel excited about connecting them and would never install them personally. They are painful to use. My wife will search on the app and playback. I didn't need to even show her how to use the app. Ease of use is EVERYTHING. I have a residential install with only 6 cameras and it works fine and is easy to remotely support. Avigilon is easy to use and so is Spectrum. If you purchase the right PC it should last a long time. I really don't have an issue with Hikvision or Dahua cameras, but the recorders are always difficult to use and the interfaces are vastly different when viewed at the unit versus using the website, versus using the CMS. 

I used to install Nuvico a while ago and I installed a few DW DVRs. They weren't my favorite, but they were still much better than Dahua and Hikvision in the area of exporting video. The files of course were smaller since that was SD resolution.

I would agree that stand alone systems will cost less. However, with Dahua having these case fans and CPU fans go bad without warning, the cost is seen later. Stand alone systems are relatively simple to install, often with little networking involved. Customers can get easy install and ease of use with Ring and good WiFi. I don't advocate for those systems, but they do work well. I know I've liked my Wisenet doorbell thus far because I can record it in Spectrum. 

I bring this up because we had a customer which we installed Avigilon CORE software for a 10 camera system 9/8 years ago.  Another company was trying to take it over with an LTS system telling the custom it's stupid to pay for VMS licenses.  I explained to the customer that their 8+-year-old system was not EOL and has been upgraded to the latest software just like if they would have purchased the software today.  There NVR box they were trying to push was obsolete the day they purchased it.   The other company also got stuck with the "pay more now or pay more later" issue with NVRs as the customer wanted to have more than 16 cameras but didn't want to pay for bigger NVR that they didn't need right way.  Then we got down to usability of the system.  Long story short we are adding more cameras to the Avigilon system.  

Another key point is quality of the hard drive used. Western appliance charge a large premium for this. Asia often have desktop HDD which is another reason they are cheaper. And software you can choose what to install.

Hikvision only ships with WD Purple drives, which have been argued on IPVM to be the best in the industry

I haven’t found this to be true. All of the Dahua and Hikvision units I have encountered have always used surveillance drives. That said, I never order recorders with storage included, due to the normally high markup on drives that manufacturers charge. I can always get drives much cheaper on the open market. 

If the IT department is awake, then no proprietary NVR appliances. We want consistency, so that means the same server series we run for other applications.  

HIKVISION is going to sell their NVR-appliance with Milestone XProtect!?

They presented a sample on a Milestone event, but no details / price list, yet.

Was it Milestone Arcus?  If so, it’s barely Milestone.

If true, congratulations on ramping up the disappointment Milestone.

No Arcus, some Windows based XProtect version.

Hikvision has been promoting their appliances for running 3rd party VMSes. See this brochure:

I'll ask Milestone for comment on any Hikvision based appliances in the works. Thanks.

Interesting. The top end processor in the Ultra unit has a 2015 model Xeon without hyperthreading that scores around 8k in Passmark.  For comparison in the desktop world the i5-6500 is essentially the same.  Milestone is pretty processor intensive and benefits from hyperthreading.  E3-1225 V5 is beneath the Xeon we used in workstations even in 2015.

Revised as I misread v5 as v3.  Not quite as horribly out of date product but still an underperformer.

But it's easy....


There are some other advantages of using an appliance:

  • no need to install OS actualizations, and sometimes this implies to change hardware elements on PC
  • there are appliances that don’t use OS like Windows or Linux, so no antivirus is needed and are out of cyberattacks
  • less electric consume, no fans, and save money


1) No customizations equals limitations to me. I want to be able to modify to my preferences.

2) Most appliances run on a Linux variant. The fact that I have limited access is not reassuring.

3) Less fans and energy are due to low performance components, which is usually a negative. I would rather have the performance over fanless designs. If I could get both, even better.

1) well, as a preference I won't discuss on that

2) I'm not talking about Lunix variant, there are RTOS kernels that are suited for the porpouse the system is designed

3)The key when using appliances is to fit for a specific project. So only use the performance that is needed.

The first point is clearly an advantage as far as initial setup time is concerned.

While I'm sure there are some manufacturers running on a completely proprietary OS, considering the hardware being used for most, I would be shocked if many weren't running some flavor of Linux, and fewer running Windows. It just wouldn't make sense to develop a completely new OS versus using some distribution of Linux. 

I don't see how an appliance would consume any less electricity with similar hardware specifications and load. If anything, using COTS servers could give you more options and flexibility of using newer, more energy efficient hardware and processors than an appliance that was designed/built 4-5 years ago.

I don't see how an appliance would consume any less electricity with similar hardware specifications and load

Overall I think its easy to see that a VMS system use more electricity. Take for example a 16 channel POE NVR. You take your cameras, you plug them into an NVR. Done.

VMS, you take a big honkin puter', which probably consumes more power than the POE NVR itself.  Then you need a seperate POE switch which adds to the overall load. I guess if you are using a laptop or a mini PC, maybe the possibility is there but I doubt the VMS guys are using things like this on their systems.

But to keep it real, i doubt anyone really cares about electricity load in the first place.

However, less electricity consume implies a more robust unit, no fan no dissipators


Overall I think its easy to see that a VMS system use more electricity. Take for example a 16 channel POE NVR. You take your cameras, you plug them into an NVR. Done.

Right so you've got a 16 channel PoE hub dedicated inside your NVR, how again is that more electrically efficient than a standalone switch? Do they generally use the same transformers for both the PC mainboard power supply and the PoE hub? That could save some energy loss I suppose, but could also require 1 larger transformer. 

An Intel NUC runs at roughly 28W with drives and standard load versus Hikvisions own specs show most of their servers draw between 10-40W without any hard disks installed. So let's say those are a wash.

In my world, a PoE switch is a PoE Switch and there should not be significant draw differences between one that is embedded vs standalone (unless one is using significantly more efficient power converters).

I'm not going to say that I know that an all-in-one appliance is not more efficient, I just don't think its completely clear without specifics.

Intel NUC? Is this what guys are installing 16 CH VMS systems on?

Just bringing up the counterpoint to the "big honkin puter'"

We do our testing on NUCs, no reason you couldn't use one in production. 

You certainly could, and many do. That is what flexibility means... the ability to choose the hardware to meet the application (power, form factor, cost, etc). You can also mic and match. Tiny PC's or SD cards for smaller locations, mixed with larger for larger locations.

Even further down the efficiency road, Network Optix fully supports installing on a Raspberry Pi.

Awesome! Sounds like a feasible solution for a 16 channel VMS server!

And very energy efficient.

But to keep it real, i doubt anyone really cares about electricity load in the first place.

Truth. Relatively few customers consider the long term energy cost of a surveillance system. Realistically, it's probably a small percentage of their overall consumption.

Running VMS software on a server doesn't necessarily need to take more energy than an NVR, though I'd love to see actual numbers to compare. In fact it's really common that lower cost hardware (in general, not specific to physical security) consumes more power as a result of inefficient design.

If you put the exact same load on a 16 channel NVR and VMS, I don't think the hardware requirements or energy consumption would be vastly different. It would depend a lot on which NVR and which VMS are compared as some are engineered better than others, and not all take advantage of hardware accelerated decoding.

A VMS running on a non-specialized OS build will use a bit more in resources due to unneeded services and drivers perhaps, but you make it sound like an NVR vs a server for a VMS is the difference between a Vespa and an 18-wheeler.

Depens on what will use the vespa and 18-wheeler. To move one person on a city a vespa will be the best.

To move one person on a city a vespa will be the best.

I don't think we disagree on that, but perhaps I didn't make my point very well. My point is that the disparity in hardware requirements for a 16 channel NVR and a 16 channel VMS are not drastically different. Sean's suggestion that you need a "big honkin puter'" for a VMS is suggesting that the hardware requirements for a VMS are dramatically different.

The relative difference between the two is probably more like a Ford Ranger vs F150 than a Vespa vs 18-wheeler.

Again, this is just an educated guess without real numbers. And there are strategies both NVRs and VMS software use to minimize hardware requirements including hardware acceleration, edge-based motion detection, and multistreaming. Assuming two comparable systems are using similar strategies, I don't think the energy consumption and hardware requirements would be dramatically different.

  • there are appliances that don’t use OS like Windows or Linux, so no antivirus is needed and are out ofcyberattacks

Not sure about the last part of this statement. 


You are correct to be skeptical, about 5 minutes of Googling shows a patched vulnerability in a FreeRTOS

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