The invisible control room

Residential Security Handbook 2021: Secure Living Editor's Choice, CCTV, Surveillance & Remote Monitoring, Integrated Solutions, Residential Estate (Industry)

Security services offered ‘as-a-service’ from the cloud are becoming more common in the residential estate security market, although they were primarily used by smaller complexes that don’t have the budget for control rooms and big-ticket expenses. Technology today has changed the playing field and now allows for much more to be done as a service on a much larger scale.

One example is the control room. While many would think that control rooms are too large and complex to be completely outsourced to a cloud provider, the latest solutions available make Control Room-as-a-Service (CRaaS) a reality. Hi-Tech Security Solutions spoke to Kelly McLintock, who was responsible for developing and running a control room in the cloud for ITACC, a monitoring solutions cloud service provider.

McLintock explains that the control room setup is 100% cloud-based. This means there is not a single server on site, the physical site only consists of 12 monitoring stations and, of course, Internet connectivity and the South African necessity of power backup. In addition, the control room does not have a video management system (VMS), which means doing away with software licencing and the costs of maintaining the system. The actual VMS, analytics and video storage components are all in the cloud.

The result is a control room that can manage any site, anywhere, with almost any cameras – as long as they are connected to the Internet, either directly or through the site’s server (if they choose to keep one). The video is streamed to the cloud, although it can be streamed to the control room as well, but the operators work via a black-screen approach where they only respond to alerts the analytics raise, whereupon they can view any cameras and are presented with predefined SOPs (standard operating procedures) to follow as per the client’s requirements. The SOPs are also saved in the cloud. For more modern cameras, video footage can also be stored on SD cards as a backup or if connectivity is lost.

Dispersed control room

The benefit of this type of setup is that the control room itself does not have to be in a single location. Because the cloud services are available anywhere with a connection, operators and supervisors can log in from anywhere, even if working from home in case of riots or pandemics.

ITACC’s control room currently makes use of servers based in data centres in Johannesburg (Teraco), Cape Town (AWS) and Virginia, USA (AWS). The interface, however, is seamless and operators are unaware of the location they are getting their information from – as are the end users.

McLintock adds that the control room is not invested in hardware and software, so expanding its service for new clients is simple and fast, as is contracting it if required. In addition, the system is ideal for use as a call centre as well using VoIP (Voice-over-IP) and, once again, cloud-based management systems.

When tasked with setting up the control room and considering cloud-based services, McLintock was especially aware of three issues that needed to be addressed: false alarms, operator fatigue (also called monitoring fatigue) and the time it would take to process alarms.

Real-time response

If it takes about 20 to 30 seconds to deal with a false alarm, the number of hours false alarms consume in a month is equivalent to the time a full-time operator would be working for that month, and most probably even more than that. In ITACC’s case the first month of using cloud analytics and AI services to prevent false alarms coming through to the operators saw a 68% reduction in false alarms. The second month saw this rise to 80%, which McLintock says equates to around 8 hours per day of time saved.

Each transaction, or event, makes use of three different cloud-based AI/analytics engines in the cloud to determine if the alert is a false alarm or not. This sounds like a process-intensive and expensive exercise, and it would be if it was all done onsite. Since the systems are cloud-based, processing and storage are not an issue as the service makes use of the plentiful supply of resources in the cloud.

He says it takes less than a second to process an alert, identifying humans, vehicles, etc. before the system sends an alert to an operator along with a 5-second video clip. The operator will naturally be able to pull in other video data if they decide there is a real problem. The AI services also include facial and licence-plate recognition (LPR) in the cloud (without needing cameras specifically designed for these functions) and provides other useful metadata such as demographics.

Backup services and green capital

The savings experienced by going with the CRaaS model has allowed ITACC to not only save money but has provided it with the capital to grow its off-grid efficiencies. The control room is almost 100% ‘green’, able to work without Eskom power because of the green energy solutions installed. This off-grid enablement is made easier because there are no power-hungry servers, these being cloud-based in data centres with their own backup systems.

The one area where the company has had to invest is connectivity, which has been easier with the availability of fibre and its decreased costs. The company currently has four independent connectivity solutions: two fibre connections, a GSM (cellular) connection, as well as a wireless 200 Mbps connection to make sure it can continue operations in any circumstances. McLintock says the control room can monitor up to 32 000 cameras with its current infrastructure – although it may find itself a few operators short with this number of cameras.

He also notes that the control room is currently ‘manned’ exclusively by women because they have proven themselves more accurate and disciplined at managing their clients’ environments.

A virtual doorman (or woman)

One of the solutions ITACC has launched that is managed from the control room is its Virtual Doorman service. This provides the same services as a traditional receptionist/doorman or guard at the gate, but at a lower cost. The same processes, such as scanning drivers’ licences, identifying vehicle details or making informed decisions around the access of individuals or groups is managed via the operators in the cloud, ensuring the entrance is secure.

Building a channel model

McLintock says the CRaaS solution is ideal for mid-sized environments where a full control room budget would be out of the question. For example, a small shopping centre with around 70 cameras can benefit from the services without a large outlay of money. As far as residential estates are concerned, the company provides control room services to three estates with 148 cameras in total at the time of writing, with proof-of-concept projects at another two sites with a combined 242 cameras.

ITACC is building a channel model to take the control room services to market, allowing system integrators (SIs) to sell it to their clients and make a margin off the offering as an annuity income, apart from the camera installation and maintenance work. The cost is calculated per camera channel and would depend on the services the client wants, but will be far less than the cost of building and/or running a control room. Additionally, the service can be expanded or contracted as required with almost no limit on the amount of storage or processing available.

And since the system is cloud-based, McLintock adds that it will be a simple process to integrate other monitoring services into the same platform to become a full IoT (Internet of Things) operation. In other words, the same infrastructure can be used to monitor for water leaks, energy consumption and other operational issues by connecting the sensors to the cloud and raising an alert when a reading goes beyond acceptable levels.


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