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Ask The Expert: Why should I be interested in new products featuring H.264 compression?

Image Network video offerings using the H.264 standard (sometimes also referred to as MPEG-4 Part 10) provide several major advantages over those employing the older MPEG-4 Part 2 standard. This new standard eliminates two obstacles facing companies looking to go all IP: bandwidth and storage considerations.



September 11, 2008
By Bob Moore

Topics

Of course in the past few years, storage costs have dropped by 50 per cent per
year and most companies have existing LANs that are capable of handling
IP video.  But while most companies can accommodate IP surveillance,
H.264 will make it less expensive with more benefits over commonly used
compression standards. Meanwhile, they present only minor hindrances
to organizations using them. 

H.264 is an ISO standard that has already been adopted and is used in a
number of business and consumer applications that you may already be
using, such as PlayStation 3, Blu-Ray Discs, HD TV and
telecommunications and broadcasting solutions.  YouTube is currently
converting all of its content to H.264 and within the past year, the
new standard has also been used in more network video offerings.  At
this year’s ASIS and CANASA shows, many suppliers will also be
announcing their H.264 products.

The new standard offers vast quality improvements, including 50 per cent
network bandwidth and storage savings compared to MPEG-4 Part 2 and up
to 80 per cent compared to Motion JPEG. The result is a more cost-effective
video-surveillance system and simplified deployment and management of
large video surveillance deployments.  H.264 also offers better quality
than MPEG-4 Part 2.  The prior standards tend to have “blockiness”
within the image – especially at lower bitrates.  H.264 has de-blocking
built in, which serves to smooth out the image in adjacent blocks. 
Without getting too technical, the algorithms essentially compare
adjacent blocks and average out the edges to give the image a better
appearance.

In real terms, the use of H.264 offers benefits in three areas. First
you can increase the video frame rate, even while using existing
bandwidth and storage capabilities. Second, you can increase camera
resolution to take advantage of megapixel capabilities without having
to increase bandwidth and storage requirements that would have been
necessary in the past. And finally, if you are satisfied with your
existing frame rates and resolution, you can still reduce bandwidth
requirements, which may be important in wide-area network setups and in
cases where you want to reduce the storage costs of large archives.

For example, some organizations are bound by regulatory requirements
that insist that data be stored for up to three years, such as our
federal prison system.  In fact, there are companies with over 40,000
terabytes of video storage.

Having gone through all of its benefits, you need to be aware of a few
potential pitfalls. First, not all H.264 products on the market are
100% compliant, some are proprietary versions. This happened when some
manufacturers jumped into the market early, prior to the standard being
established. Effectively, this means that even though the H.264 product
may perform nearly as well as a native one, the recorder and network
camera won’t be able to talk with other devices made by other
manufacturers. So be sure that anything you buy is native H.264 and can
be used interchangeably with products from other vendors.

Another potential issue is that H.264 is not backward compatible with
MPEG-4 Part 2. You can still use products using the new and old
standard on the same network. But it’s likely that your existing camera
and video management system can’t be upgraded and so cameras will need
to be replaced and video management systems upgraded.

Finally, H.264 achieves better compression and quality capabilities
through better algorithms. But to achieve this, more processing power
is required at the front-end — generally two to three times more. In
addition, about 25 per cent more power is required at the backend. In some
cases, this will mean that you’ll want to upgrade your servers.

Having said that, by purchasing native H.264 network cameras and video
management systems — and potentially upgrading your processing power –
you’ll be in a strong position to increase frame rates and resolution,
or keep them the same and just save on bandwidth. Beyond this, since
virtually all new network video products coming on the market within
the next year or so will take advantage of the new standard, now is the
time to “future proof” your system by investigating H.264 offerings.


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