IT, IP and the Hard Truth

If you’re not already well versed in computer networking, you better get versed — and quickly. These days, if you don’t know things like the basics of setting up a LAN, port forwarding, and virtual LANs (VLANs), then you’re probably behind the curve. The AV world has changed, and for some of us, the basics aren’t enough.

Not only do you need a pretty robust knowledge of basic networking, in many cases you already need to know advanced networking. Things like actually setting up those VLANs (Virtual LANs), as well as managed switches and other methods of improving performance and eliminating glitches in today’s high-speed, mobile device-saturated networks. Many of the new systems and devices we install today require more overhead than your average network is used to providing.

In addition, if you work in commercial AV, you’ll be required to interface with most companies’ IT personnel, not only to get your systems online, but also to perform remote management and other ongoing work. They will need specific information about your AV systems. And more than likely, you will need to assist them in getting everything working.

The more that AV systems incorporate TCP/IP, the more you will need to use advanced networking methods to ensure performance. Most companies doing high-end systems such as Crestron, AMX, or Extron should have someone capable of understanding these methods — or else they should hire someone. Most of us get this; it’s not all that hard to figure out. You don’t need to know everything about everything in a network to set up something good, robust and secure, but you need to know more than a little.

What do I consider more than a little?

Start with IP setup and configuration. You need to know the basic IP structure, how to assign IP addresses, how to ensure you aren’t using conflicting addresses, how to set up static versus dynamic IP networks, and how to mix them. You’ll need to understand subnetworks; the difference between an internal IP network and an external or Internet/public IP network.

If you don’t know them already, next on the knowledge list are ports and port forwarding. Put simply, port forwarding allows you to use an external IP address or domain name system (DNS) to remotely (from outside the house, business or network) connect to and access various IP-based devices within the network.  Of course, how you do that isn’t as simple. Plus, you don’t want to open up just any ports, because then hackers, sniffers and other malcontents can snoop around your network and devices. See why you need to know this stuff?

In related networking news, get a handle on DNS hosting and controlling DNS information. This will allow you to work with dynamic IP addresses (like the public IP address your Internet service provider gives you, which may change and change often at the whim of the ISP). If you’re using a dynamic IP address to access, for example, your church’s AV systems and it changes, you’ll be cut off.

But perhaps most importantly, you’ll need to know how all this networking applies to your AV applications: streaming media, digital signage, videoconferencing, etc. Because it most definitely does.

Really, I don’t need to tell you that more and more of our products are TCP/IP-capable, which typically means we can integrate them with more systems. But if you don’t have a fundamental understanding of networking, that TCP/IP goodness isn’t worth much.  Furthermore, you must have a working knowledge of networks to work in many commercial environments, because your client’s IT department will be involved.

Some are starting to say that AV is being absorbed by IT, but I beg to differ.  Having been in the integration industry for 17 years,  I know there are distinct differences between these two disciplines, even though both may use the term “systems integrator” similarly. IT people typically integrate software systems so that entering data into one system automatically distributes it to other software or databases. In our industry, we integrate hardware — often hardware that isn’t designed to work together. We develop user interfaces that are designed to be intuitive. This is not something IT folks typically do.

Working together is the next big thing our industry needs to grasp. Interoperability is the buzz word here. Manufacturers from a variety of industries and disciplines need to make products that use open-source standards so they can communicate with each other, with software, and with “apps.”

But don’t lose sight of the cold, hard truth: If you don’t learn IT, IP and everything else networking, working together and interoperability won’t mean much to you.

[A note from InfoComm University: As Dan suggests, the industry needs more advanced networking education. That's why InfoComm will be debuting a new three-day class at this June's InfoComm trade show, NET212 Networked AV Systems. The course will also be offered at InfoComm University in Fairfax, Va., Sept. 10 - 13.]

About Dan Fulmer

Dan Fulmer is president and founder of FulTech Solutions Inc., a residential and commercial systems integration firm headquartered in Jacksonville, Fla. He has more than 20 years of computer control experience, and more than 15 years in the home automation industry. For more, visit the Blogger Bios page.

One Response to “IT, IP and the Hard Truth”

  1. Dan, you’re absolutely right. Everybody who intends to build more than small stand-alone rooms needs to get a handle on computer networking. Many customers are in IT, and they expect you to understand their networks and data handling problems. You’ll need Windows and Cisco administrative folks on your team, and need to know models and functions of a wide variety of LAN and WAN equipment. Many IT folks are skeptical of AV equipment that could cause them headaches on their networks, and could leave openings for hackers. You need to be able to not only understand how your AV equipment behaves on a LAN or WAN, but also be able to analyze the customer’s existing system to find and avoid potential problems.

    InfoComm is smart to recognize this and offer courses. In addition, InfoComm could partner with established IT vendors to include and / or link to existing IT educational materials. It would be great to see a follow-up article that listed suggested sources of reading materials, links, vendor web sites, etc. so AV people could focus their learning efforts.