VMS Buyer's Guide

By John Honovich, Published Oct 03, 2011, 08:00pm EDT

VMS Key Issues

Before selecting a manufacturer, buyers should recognize a number of key issues in select any VMS. We review the following ones:

  • Price
  • VMS Vendor Product Tiers
  • Simplicity of Use
  • 3rd Party Camera Support
  • 3rd Party Security System Integration
  • Enterprise Management
  • Redundancy
  • 500+ Camera Systems


While not always the most important factor, price levels are pretty straightforward to understand. For IP systems today, the main way to buy Video Management Software is licensing per camera. This has two parts:

  • Up front 'purchase' license cost - This is the amount paid during the initial system deployment. Sometime this is the only license cost ever paid.
  • Recurring maintenance/support license cost - This is an amount paid on a yearly basis to secure access to software upgrades and phone support. This is not universal. Some vendors have no charge ongoing charges and even the ones that do, sometimes it is negotiable or can be delayed until the user wants it (e.g., decline it in years 2 and 3 but pay in year 4 etc.)

The up front license cost falls into 3 basic categories:

  • Free to <$100 USD per camera- this is almost always for basic VMS software that records, displays and exports video but generally lacks access control integration or centralized management of multiple sites. Also, total number of cameras is limited routinely to 16 - 32 cameras max.
  • $100 to $200 USD per camera- The next tier up, this generally adds access control and centralized management integration but often does not provide enterprise type features like redundancy, network video distribution and advanced bells and whistles
  • $200 to $300 USD per camera - This is the enterprise tier where you get all the advanced features typically required in large scale surveillance operations.

VMS Vendor Product Tiers

Most VMS vendors have product tiers that is the same basic application but with different functions enabled. This is similar to Windows Operating Systems.

On average, VMS vendors have 3 tiers that map roughly to our pricing levels above. However, many of only 2 and a few have up to 6.

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The most important thing is to look at the features provided because the naming is confusing. Some companies label their top tier version 'Enterprise' while for others that is a mid tier version, etc.

Important Features

This review just scratches the surface Big VMS systems use dozens if not hundreds of features. If you are going to have hundreds of cameras you must do more investigation. Below are just the most common ones:

Simplicity of Use

Ease of use can be subjective but simplicity is not. Many of the so called 'best' VMSs are very complex because they layer in dozens of functionalities. Understand who your operators are going to be. For instance, an integrator friend was telling me recently how an office building was using a very complex VMS but the main operator loved it. He mentioned how the operator took the manual home at night to study. There are definitely people who enjoy and have the time to study manuals at home. If your staff does not meet this description, be careful. In our VMS manufacturer review, we discuss how simple we feel each one is.

Third Party Camera Support

The good news is that most VMSs today support a broad number of cameras. There are a few free VMSs provided by camera manufacturers that support only their own cameras. Do not use them. There are a number of free or very cheap options that provide the same fundamental features and support for various camera manufacturers. We look at these in the VMS vendor review.

Enterprise Management

If you have more than a few servers or sites, you are most likely going to need enterprise management. This gives you the ability to log in once to see all cameras, access all the cameras from a single screen and configure all the cameras without having to log in to multiple 'boxes'. You pay more for this - on average about $100 more - but not having this is a huge pain.

Security System Integration

If you want to integrate your other systems on site such as access control or intrusion system, you must verify two things:- That the VMS you wants support your system. This is not guaranteed at all as there are hundreds of security systems and most VMSs only support a dozen or less.- That the version of your VMS allows for security system integration. Often, you need to select the mid or high end VMS version to have this functionality enabled.


From time to time, the computers running your VMS will go down. This will result in either recording to stop or access to your cameras to go down. You can overcome this by using VMS systems that support recording and/or management server redundancy. This is rarely used. Keep in mind two things:

  • Most VMS systems do not support redundancy of recording or management servers. Any VMS supports storage redundancy (i.e., RAID but that is a function of the storage system, not the VMS).
  • Most VMS users simply tolerate losing recording or access every once in a while. For a small percentage of larger users, this is untenable. If you fall in that category, you will need to limit your VMS systems and pay more.

500+ Camera Systems

Most users with a few dozen or even a few hundred cameras typically use video in a simple manner. Display some videos live on the monitor and periodically replay recorded video. Most systems can do an acceptable job for small systems.

If you have a large number of cameras, the needs tend to change significantly - from how video is used to how it is managed. If your deployment falls in this category, you need to carefully evaluate what advanced features you need and who can provide them. This is an important element but beyond the scope of our basic buyer's guide.

VMS Software Safe


Good Stuff: Simple to setup and use, optimizes image quality displayed automatically,

Bad Stuff: More expensive than average, not as many high end features as Milestone and Genetec

Bottom Line: A very solid mid level VMS that security managers will find easy to use


Good Stuff: Simple to setup and use, low cost across the board

Bad Stuff: Not as many high end features as Milestone and Genetec

Bottom Line: An inexpensive and very solid mid level VMS that security managers will find easy to use


Good Stuff: Tons of advanced features, can do nearly anything with it

Bad Stuff: Very complex, hard to use unless you have real IT skills and training, 500+ page manual, etc.

Bottom Line: Great for big, sophisticated projects but simpler, easier options for small to mid size jobs

Milestone Systems

Good Stuff: Strong across the board with competitive versions from the smallest to the biggest deployment

Bad Stuff: Often clunky to use and setup, they have a completely free version that is booby trapped with only 5 day recording and no web/mobile access

Bottom Line: Milestone is the safest VMS choice but moderately better choices can often be found at each level (Avigilon, Exacq, Genetec)

VMS Software Acceptable


Good Stuff: Sophisticated built in analytics (very rare for VMS software)

Key Limitation: Complex, hard to use unless you have real IT skills

Bottom Line: If analytics are key to your deployment, this is an interesting option. Otherwise, there are moderately cheaper and easier options (Exacq, Milestone Essentials) or more sophisticated options (Genetec)


Good Stuff: Free full featured 16 channel VMS, advanced professional version

Key Limitation: Company is new to the US/North American market, not that much of a track record/organization locally

Bottom Line: The free full featured 16 channel VMS is very appealing for those who wanted to get started with minimal investment.


Good Stuff: Sophisticated high end features

Key Limitations: Expensive for small to mid size deployments; Tries to sell their own IP cameras as well, limited 3rd party IP camera support

Bottom Line: An interesting alternative to Genetec and Milestone for high end projects but a little more closed than the others.


Good Stuff: Sophisticated high end VMS features, offers high quality PSIM as wells

Key Limitations: Expensive for small to mid size deployments; Limited 3rd party IP camera support; Limited number of integrators / dealers are approved to provide support

Bottom Line: An interesting alternative to Genetec and Milestone for high end projects


Good Stuff: Offers both VMS software and appliances, built in analytics

Key Limitations: Limited high end features, built in analytics work poorly, costly for the features offered

Bottom Line: An established provider and the most sophisticated Taiwanese/Chinese offering, it offer less value and features than our safe choices.

Pelco (Digital Sentry)

Good Stuff: Ease to use for operators

Key Limitations: Clunky interface for advanced administration, relatively limited 3rd party camera and security system integration, limited enterprise management/advanced functionality

Bottom Line: It is like Exacq but more expensive and with less functionality.

Risky VMS Software

These are companies who have at least modest presence in the market but that we feel are generally poor choices relative to competitors.


Risk: Their value is heavily dependent on using their built in analytics and facial recognition which has a questionable track record at best. Only available as NVR appliances, not as software only limiting deployment options.

When to Use: If you really want facial surveillance but be very careful you understand the risks and issues in making it work. The product is also relatively mature for retail branch banking applications.

American Dynamics

Risk: A former leader, American Dynamics has fallen greatly over the past 5 years. The company now has two overlapping NVR platforms - VideoEdge and HDVR. HDVR, while an attractive product, is a re-branded version of Exacq.

When to Use: If you are locked in as an existing AD customer and need to for legacy interoperability reasons.


Risk: A stumbling IT giant, Cisco has never established firm footing in the surveillance market. The product portfolio is limited and weak.

When to Use: If you use Cisco for everything else and are OK with getting a significantly worse solution at a significantly higher price.


Risk: Their VMS software is really hard to use unless you are technical and willing to spend lots of time reading their huge manuals. In our experience, it's the least usable of any VMS client/software. A UK trade magazine actually called their VMS software, 'truly horrible'.

When to Use: If, after testing, you are comfortable that your operators can deal with Mobotix's complexity. Mobotix has solid cameras and are often better combined with rival VMSs (if they support Mobotix).


Risk: Their offering is primarily an OEM/re-brand of Milestone. In this last few years, they have added a client/middleware on top of the Milestone VMS that has questionable value. OnSSI has struggled since Milestone entered the US market and competed directly against them.

When to Use: We do not see the point of using OnSSI. If you like the features, use Milestone, get it direct from the 'real' manufacturer.


Risk: A long time ago, Vicon was one of the best and most respected companies in the market. Now, they are a struggling, continuously shrinking company. There's real risk of whether Vicon will even be around in the future.

When to Use: Too many good choices are available to take the risk of using Vicon.

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