Video Surveillance Systems: Complete Guide for Businesses

Comprehensive guide to commercial video surveillance systems, including an overview of business surveillance components and trends to help you decide on the best solution. Contact our security experts with questions about improving business security.

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Commercial video surveillance is a popular and time-proven method to catch and interrupt threatening behavior or activity as it happens, provide evidence of security incidents, and deter or at least displace threats. Forecasting firm IHS Markit predicts that a billion surveillance cameras will be in operation in 2021. With artificial intelligence, edge computing, and other technological innovations transforming the market, a baffling number of options are available for a business looking to install or upgrade its surveillance. 

This guide will navigate the important considerations associated with commercial video surveillance to help maximize a system’s operability, including best practices when buying and implementing one for businesses.

Key takeaways:

  • Types of video surveillance cameras and their features
  • Overview of video management systems
  • Video surveillance as a service

Security Cameras

It all starts with the camera. Cameras are the most important element of commercial video surveillance. While IP video surveillance cameras are favored today, many organizations still use analog cameras. Other key considerations in camera selection include coverage area, resolution, frame rate, compression, light sensitivity, type of use (indoor/outdoor), and audio capacity.

One of the most important decisions is between the two types of security cameras: IP/digital video surveillance and analog cameras.

1. Analog Cameras

Analog cameras, whose underlying technology predates World War II,  send images over coaxial cables, which are then transformed into digital data, compressed, and stored. (Compression shrinks file size by eliminating duplicate images, allowing the data to be transmitted and stored faster.) Because analog cameras don’t receive digital data, they lack edge processing (i.e. processing in the camera itself) and storage capabilities.

Millions of analog cameras are still in use since and continue to be manufactured today.

Benefits of analog cameras

  • Convenience: They often remain on-site from a legacy application
  • Cost: Analog cameras typically cost less than digital cameras
  • Lower bandwidth: Analog images tend to be smaller than digital files. Because data is transmitted via coax, the setup uses less network bandwidth

Disadvantages of analog cameras

  • Cabling/wiring: Analog cameras can require extensive wiring, often meaning drilling into walls or masonry and threading conduit to a monitor or storage device. Cameras also require wiring to a separate power supply
  • Narrow field of view
  • Camera placement: Limited by wiring, architecture, power supply, and other considerations
  • Lower image quality than IP video
  • Video can’t be encrypted until it is converted into digital format

2. IP/Digital Cameras

In 1996 came the first digital camera. Digital cameras, often referred to as IP-enabled cameras, feed digital images to the server, usually via the corporate network or Internet. IP video surveillance uses cameras with one of two types of sensors: CCD (charge-coupled device) or CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor). CCD sensors are less susceptible to noise than CMOS. They also work better in low light. CMOS sensors are much smaller–thus better for covert camera placement–and capture fast-moving images better.

Benefits of IP/digital cameras

  • Superior image quality/better resolution
  • On-board video analytics
  • Can be powered by Power Over Ethernet (PoE) systems
  • Reduced cabling/wiring
  • Can use wireless networks
  • Images can be easily encrypted

Disadgantages of IP/digital cameras

  • More costly on average than analog cameras
  • Require significant bandwidth
  • Require significant storage space

Additional Types of Business Security Cameras

Thermal Cameras

Thermal imaging cameras fashion images from the differences in heat levels within or among objects. They don’t rely on light, so their images aren’t distorted by dust, fog, or artificial light. Thermal cameras have been widely used during the pandemic to identify people with elevated body temperature. However, their value in this application is questionable because many thermal cameras may not be sensitive enough to pinpoint the minimal difference in temperature that separates a healthy person from a feverish one. In addition, for temperature reading to work, individuals must be scanned individually, and the environment must be set up appropriately, as allowing a person to warm up or cool down before a reading, and using a black body (a device set at a constant rate of heat emission to which a person’s body temperature can be compared)

Infrared Cameras

Infrared cameras capture the reflection of images from infrared light, which is outside the visible light spectrum. So IR cameras are limited by how far its light projects. While it works well at relatively close range to view parking lots and alleys at night time, it can not capture distant images.

Security Camera Features

The following are important elements in selecting a security camera for commercial video surveillance.

  • Coverage area: How much territory will the camera have to cover? Will it be trained specifically on, say, a locked door in a pharmacy, or will it be expected to cover part of a large office lobby? Larger coverage areas require pan, tilt, and zoom (called PTZ) capabilities to track moving targets.
  • Resolution: Resolution is the number of pixels that make up an image. The more pixels, the sharper the image. The level of necessary resolution depends on the level of detail sought. For instance, identifying license plate numbers, tattoos, or eye color demands high resolution cameras. Typical HD cameras (1080p) generate more than 2 million pixels. Today’s cameras can get up to about 9 million.
  • Frame rate: Frame rate is the number of frames per second that the camera captures. At one extreme, 1 frame per second suits environments where there is no movement or very slow movement, such as the view outside of a property’s far perimeter. Thirty frames per second is the standard for fluid movement, but that rate uses a lot of bandwidth and storage. Businesses typically set their frame rate at 15 frames per second to balance image fluidity and bandwidth/storage issues.
  • Compression: IP video surveillance cameras include so-called “codecs”–programs that compress data to speed its transmission to a server or other site, where it is decompressed. While compression reduces bandwidth and storage requirements, too much compression can lose key video detail. Two types of codecs exist: lossy and lossless. Lossy compression creates much smaller files–it actually “loses” some data. Lossless retains all data but doesn’t decrease file size by much. Today’s most common compression algorithms include H.264, the newer H.265, MJPEG, and JPEG2000. In the case of H.264 and H.265, smart codecs have emerged. They work, in part, by dynamically adjusting compression for movement in the field of view of the camera.
  • Light sensitivity: The less ambient light, the more sensitive the camera must be. Will the camera be used in a well-lighted area, such as an office building? Or will it be outside, where it will have to operate in low light for 12 hours a day? Camera sensitivity is measured in “lux.” The lower the number of specified lux (e.g. 0.05 lux), the better the camera works in the dark. Day/night cameras are a good choice for cameras with varying light conditions. A key consideration is whether the camera needs to retain the ability to see color–rather than reverting to black and white–in the dark.  Infrared cameras are ideal for the pitch dark, though most capture images in black and white in such conditions..
  • Indoor/Outdoor: Not surprisingly, outdoor cameras must be more durable than ones slated for inside use. They have to resist the ravages of rain, snow, cold and ice, heat and humidity, animals, insects, smog, and so on. Various types of housings exist to protect the camera.
  • Audio: Audio is still a niche camera feature, in part because of perceived privacy issues. Some audio-enabled cameras have onboard storage and/or two way audio communication.
  • Power over Ethernet (PoE): Video surveillance cameras need power with the appropriate voltage and current. That information is often on the camera label or in the installation manual. Some cameras draw power through batteries or the sun, but these options can be less reliable. Power over Ethernet (PoE) has greatly simplified the process of providing power for cameras. Not every camera can accommodate PoE, however. They must have a special power switch. Through the same Ethernet cable, cameras both receive power and connect to the network, transmitting their data. There’s no need to daisychain to an electrical outlet. One PoE switch can accommodate 8 cameras
  • Monitors: Footage is only as good as the monitor it is viewed on. Often monitors don’t match the high resolution delivered by security cameras. Here are issues to consider when shopping for monitors.
    • Commercial or consumer grade: Commercial grade monitors are more expensive but more robust. Unlike consumer grade monitors, they can be run 24/7, don’t suffer from pixel burn(ghost images), and have multiple inputs 
    • Screen size
    • Resolution: Like cameras, very high-definition monitors can reach up to almost 9 million pixels
    • Refresh rates: How often the screen refreshes
    • Panel type: LED panels use less power, generate less heat, last longer, and are more cost-effective over time than LCD panels. Image quality is also superior. LCD tends to have better viewing angles and anti-glare features, as well as having a lower purchase price.

Video Management Systems

Other important elements of commercial video surveillance include transmission and storage systems. They will be discussed as parts of a video management system. It takes video management systems to tie all the components together and produce meaningful security intelligence.

What Is a Video Management System?

A video management system is a piece of software that collects data from either analog or IP cameras, delivers it to where it can be viewed, and stores it for later search and retrieval. On the Internet, a router is sometimes colloquially called a “traffic cop” because it directs traffic. Likewise, a video management system coordinates the movement of digital data.

Types of Video Management Systems

Three types of video management systems exist, each with its own upsides and drawbacks. They include cloud-based, edge-computing, and NVR-based systems.

1. Cloud-Based VMS

As in all cloud-based applications, data is stored on remote servers in the cloud and accessed by the user via the Internet.

Advantages of cloud-based systems

  • Cost: Much lower upfront cost because software is licensed, not purchased
  • Low administrative burden: system updates, patches, maintenance, and troubleshooting are the responsibility of the cloud provider
  • No dedicated staff required
  • Since it is off site, data is protected from disasters such as floods or power surges
  • Scalability: Many cloud providers can accommodate system growth

Disadvantages of cloud-based systems

  • Organizations with high-security requirements may wish to control their own data
  • As video installations get more expansive, they drive up licensing costs

2. Edge-Based Systems

Edge computing means that processing, and often storage, occurs on the security camera itself, rather than (or in addition to) being transferred to a central server for processing and storage. 

Advantages of edge-based systems

  • Less use of bandwidth because video is analyzed and/or stored locally and only certain data is transferred to the central server
  • Storage space: flash memory can hold terabytes of data in the camera
  • Less use of bandwidth because video can be viewed in lower resolution, with critical video being saved in higher resolution
  • Well suited for small businesses or applications where images are static or the system takes in limited data
  • Cost: May eliminate the need for storing images on a server. 
  • Open platform: Most systems can accommodate different types and manufacturers of hardware

Disadvantages of edge-based systems

  • Vandalism, hacking, environmental impacts, and device failure at the camera level threatens stored video
  • Cost: It may prove more expensive to infuse a lot of processing power in cameras

3. Network Video Recorders

Network video recorders are hard drives on servers, usually kept on the user’s premises. NVRs store video routed there through the network from cameras. Video surveillance system administrators can watch live footage through NVRs, watch stored footage, or search for footage. 

Advantages of NVR-based systems

  • Data security: data is kept within company control
  • Scalability: Organizations can keep adding NVRs to accommodate hundreds or even thousands of cameras, so that approach may be suitable for large companies and extensive campuses
  • Many NVRs can accommodate multiple brands of cameras

Disadvantages of NVR-based systems

  • Cost: High initial expenditure
  • Physical security: NVRs can be stolen, vandalized, tampered with
  • Maintenance and support: These systems require dedicated staff resources
  • Large infrastructure: Requires heavy networking and bandwidth use
  • Large numbers of cameras require multiple DVRs

NVRs vs. DVRs

Though similar, network surveillance systems differ significantly from a digital surveillance system in terms of video recorders. NVRs record digital video from the network, either through Ethernet cables (called PoE NVRs) or wirelessly (called WiFi NVRs). DVRs record either digital or analog video transmitted through coax cables. NVRs offer superior image quality and flexibility, while DVRs are cheaper and work exclusively with analog cameras. Commercial video surveillance looking to wield the power of IP networks and sophisticated on board analytics need not consider DVRs.

Considerations for selecting a commercial video surveillance system are almost infinite. But the issues and features mentioned here will provide a strong foundation for selecting the system that best suits an organization’s needs.


A video management system consists of core software. But it may also contain features that might otherwise be found in security cameras or in other related hardware or software. Additional features include:

  • Motion detection: Video management systems can be bandwidth hogs if the system is constantly recording footage. Video management software with motion detection resolves that problem by only recording when triggered by motion in the field of view. Security cameras themselves often have embedded motion detection capability.
  • Audio: A video management system can add audio to otherwise silent images. Audio provides a valuable new dimension for business surveillance, analysis, and investigation.
  • Alarms: Another feature is the ability to process alarm signals. The video management system can then trigger an alarm, activate video recording, notify a security officer, or take a similar action.
  • PTZ: A video management system can also control camera movement. It can pan, tilt, zoom, rotate, and otherwise orient a camera to capture the optimal image.
  • Analytics: Data has almost limitless value. But it’s up to video analytics software–which may be embedded in a video management system or integrated with it –to generate meaningful data that can benefit the organization. Examples include face recognition, directional flow, people counting, and license plate recognition.
  • Mapping: A video management system should allow the user to plot the location of video surveillance cameras on the map of a room, floor, building, or campus. Clicking on one of the cameras calls up the images from that camera. Advanced mapping features might include depicting each camera’s field of view or locating security assets using geospatial data.
  • Recording options: Rather than record continuously all the time, the video management system should offer options for recording. It should include the ability to schedule recording, record after motion, and record upon an alarm state or other trigger.
  • Search: Manually scrolling through hours of video defines drudgery. The more sophisticated the search features are, the better the video management system is. For example, users should be able to search for any time that a person (or people) or a vehicle enter the frame.
  • Simultaneous viewing: A typical video management system allows security to monitor the feeds of multiple cameras at once.
  • Adjustable frame rates: Through a video management system, an administrator can adjust frame rates per camera. This is important, because higher frame rates use more bandwidth and storage space. But higher bandwidth captures motion better and yields clearer video. One option might be to record continuously at 15 frames per second, which would increase to 30 frames per second when motion is detected.
  • Size reduction: Similar to adjusting frame rates, a video management system can resize images. For example, in the case of limited bandwidth, the video management system can reduce an image to enable it to be sent to remote locations and mobile devices, for example.

1. Cloud Migration

Ease of administration, reduced staffing requirements, and almost unlimited storage space are driving the migration of video management systems to the cloud. Sometimes organizations start by putting only a piece or two of a video management system in the cloud, then add from there. Factors limiting that development, however, are storage costs, control and security issues, and bandwidth when dealing with transmission of high-def video among multiple sites.

2. Multiple Integrations

Organizations are trying to maximize use of the avalanche of data produced by their commercial video surveillance. Video management system developers are creating interfaces that allow them to integrate with tools such as artificial intelligence for live event notifications or post-event forensic searches.

Commercial video surveillance integration with other building systems will only become more prevalent. Other security system integration like access control and visitor management give facilities more control and greater visibility of the overall security ecosystem. It also improves building processes, such as package management when integrated into package rooms.

3. Growth Areas

Forecasters predict that video management system sales will grow at between 24 percent and 27 percent compound annual growth rate from 2020-2027. The vertical market most driving that growth will be the government, and retail will see robust growth as well. Asia Pacific’s growth is expected to outpace the growth of the other regions of the world. North America will continue to hold the largest market share, however.

4. Nonsecurity Uses

Although video management systems are designed for security applications, they are being used by other departments and for other purposes. For example, organizations are using video management systems to enhance operations, improve processes, and to bolster customer service.

Video Surveillance as a Service (VSaaS)

VSaas means hosted cloud-based video surveillance. It does not require an organization to use a video management system. A VSaaS might be viewed as a VMS “lite.” However, terms are sometimes used interchangeably in commercial video surveillance.

However, IPVM distinguishes the two by noting that “While VSaasS offerings can theoretically deliver similar capabilities as traditional VMSes, many cloud-first VSaaS have simplified user web interfaces with limited deep configuration capability, minimal advanced user features, and limited 3rd party camera support.”

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