Before A/V and IT systems started merging together into one overall network, organizations typically managed each system separately. Data signals were routed through IT’s servers and sent out to end users over Category 5 cables, video traffic was contained within its own platform and ran over coaxial cable and phone calls transited a private branch exchange (PBX) system before being carried to the desktop via an old school Category 3 cable. The systems were usually managed by different groups, with no crossover in equipment or expertise.
But today, those disparate systems are gradually coming together, and a single cabling backbone is often the launch pad for companies interested in converging their A/V and IP networks. “I think what we’re seeing now is that the A/V industry probably has a more structured cabling approach, which very much mirrors where folks who’ve been exclusively IT-, data-, or telephony-focused in the past have already gone,” says Derek Joncas, manager of Product Marketing at Extron Electronics in Anaheim, Calif.
An increasingly wide range of systems are being merged into the traditional IT network architecture, including Voice over IP telephony solutions, videoconferencing platforms and presentation systems. And because conventional data cabling is ubiquitous in most modern buildings, a shared backbone is attractive to many organizations, who can often save money by using existing cables to distribute A/V signals throughout their facilities.
Misconceptions abound about what AV-IT convergence really is, says Ken Colson, vice president of Sales and Engineering at Tucker, Ga.-based LMI Systems, Inc. “A lot of people assume when you say A/V over IP, you’re simply running an audio/visual signal over a category cable, like Cat 5,” he says.
While that may indeed be the limit to convergence in some situations, other organizations have progressed to the implementation of more holistic network architectures, which often share switching equipment and other components in addition to backbone cabling. In those increasingly converged environments, the distribution of an A/V signal frequently occurs in a way that directly mirrors more conventional IP-only networks.
“A/V over IP is the ability to take analog or high-definition audio/visual signals and inject them into a network — either the existing IP network or it could be a closed network (meaning it’s separate from telephony or data traffic) — and distribute it to multiple endpoints,” Colson explains.
With the evolution of A/V and IT technologies, Joncas says the line between the two disciplines is blurring. “There’s not a big difference between how you manage a computer or server versus how you would manage an A/V appliance,” he says. Those similarities are leading more organizations to merge their previously standalone A/V systems into their overall IP network architecture. “IT administrators may be a little more comfortable with the idea that you can have many more A/V appliances on your network nowadays, and have some confidence that you’re going to be able to manage them,” Colson says.