VIDEO SURVEILLANCE

Cloud Surveillance vs Traditional Surveillance: What's the Difference?

November 8, 2023By Daniel Collins

Setting the stage for surveillance showdown 

If you cashed a check at a bank in the 1960s, you would have seen a movie camera mounted on the wall. Triggered by alarm, its purpose was to record bank robberies. The police would take the film from the camera, have it developed at a lab, and watch it to see if they could figure out who the bad guys were. This was a primitive but effective means of security surveillance. 

In the intervening 50 years, video surveillance has become so common and pervasive that few of us even notice it. We are on video almost constantly, in stores, banks, and on the street. The technology is entirely digital in nature. Behind the scenes, though, surveillance technology is evolving. This article explores how things are changing. It examines the differences between traditional digital surveillance and the newer cloud surveillance.   

A prelude to the clash of surveillance titans 

Surveillance today comes in three and a half flavors. There are wholly on-premises digital systems that rely on video storage infrastructure hosted in company-owned data centers. There are wholly cloud-based solutions, which store video files in the cloud. Hybrid systems combine traditional on-premises systems with cloud storage, which often serves as a backup. The “half” comprises those systems that still rely on old fashioned video tape. This kind of long tail is common in any technology that’s evolving.  

Establishing the context and cruciality of surveillance 

Why are digital security cameras seemingly everywhere these days? One simple reason is that the technology has become quite a lot cheaper to deploy, so while it may have made sense to have a handful of cameras a generation ago, by now, it costs the same, or less, to deploy hundreds.  

Cost alone, however, does not explain the growth of surveillance. One factor is crime. Companies and government agencies want to prevent crime, so they use surveillance to deter criminals or catch them in the act of theft or vandalism. The rise of terrorism has also driven increases in surveillance, with government players, in particular, wanting to stay on top of threats to public safety. 

Corporate risk management has also led to an increase in video surveillance. Companies want recordings of workspaces to help them reduce their liability if employees get injured on the job or claim harassment. On a related front, insurance companies may request that companies employ surveillance so they can determine the causes of accidents and other insurance loss events. Police and fire agencies may similarly want video of emergencies so they can determine what happened and who is at fault. Such videos may become evidence in court cases.  

Surveillance Unveiled – A Snapshot of Its Evolution 

Surveillance has evolved as the technologies that power it have grown more sophisticated, smaller, and less expensive over time. From humble beginnings, we now routinely employ surveillance capabilities that were once the province of science fiction.  

Tracing the roots – the genesis of surveillance systems 

The earliest surveillance systems were based on film cameras like the one described in the bank example above. Quite early on, however, as far back as the 1930s, people started experimenting with closed circuit television (CCTV) as a means to watch places that required security guarding. Without any way to record video, however, these early CCTV systems were not efficient or particularly effective.  

The major breakthrough occurred in the late 1960s with the advent of video cassettes. Now, it was possible to record video with a freestanding, unmonitored camera. The equipment was bulky and expensive, but companies that wanted surveillance found the solutions helpful in their security operations. 

From analog days to digital dawns: Transitioning eras of surveillance 

By the 1990s, video cameras started getting smaller and cheaper. As video chips replaced analog tubes with digital recording chips in the late 1980s, the cost/performance curve started to flatten. The output was still on tape, even if the image capture was digital, but things started to change rapidly at that point. 

By the late 1990s, low-cost digital cameras began to predominate in surveillance systems. Coupled with increasingly inexpensive computer systems and storage arrays, they offered newfound abilities to deploy a large number of cameras that could record seemingly endless amounts of video without tape. This process has accelerated, with current IoT and surveillance systems able to manage thousands of cameras operating at higher picture definitions than were previously possible.  

Dissecting traditional surveillance systems 

Comparing cloud surveillance with traditional surveillance may seem like an exercise in hair splitting. Both execute the same workload. Both function in comparable ways. Where they are especially different, however, is in terms of economics and administrative overhead.  

Wired, recorded, stored: The operational dynamics 

The standard surveillance setup today involves digital cameras that are connected by wires to a data network. Digital video signals travel on the network and are recorded on on-premises storage, such as hard disk drives (HDDs) or solid-state drives (SSDs). An on-premises video management system (VMS) coordinates all of this activity. Administrators use the VMS to track activity, update camera positions, manage files, and more. 

Appraising the strengths and shortcomings of conventional models 

The traditional setup has several advantages. Being wholly owned and operated by the company that uses it, on-premises, these systems offer greater stability and control.  The wired network approach makes the system relatively robust and free from signal interruptions that can occur with wireless networks. 

On the downside, the traditional video surveillance system tends to be costly to acquire and operate. And, as video storage capacity runs low, which is a virtual certainty, the company must invest in additional expensive storage hardware. Running the system requires people who know how to support every aspect of it, from the cameras to the network, the VMS software, and the storage hardware—as well as any supporting data center infrastructure.  

Soaring in the clouds – understanding cloud surveillance 

Today, surveillance is starting to migrate to the cloud. In some cases, the cloud’s only role is backing up video files from on-premises storage infrastructure. However, a new generation of cloud-based surveillance solutions is gaining traction in the market. 

Decoding the mechanisms behind cloud-based systems 

Cloud surveillance involves placing the elements of a video surveillance solution onto a cloud platform like Amazon Web Services (AWS). The cameras feed their video data into a cloud-hosted VMS. The VMS facilitates the storage of those video files on cloud storage volumes. Admins can access the VMS and video files from any internet browser. 

Evaluating the pros and cons of surveillance in the cloud 

Surveillance in the cloud has a number of advantages over the traditional approach. There is no capital expense (CapEx) to implement the system. Instead, users pay a monthly fee, or operating expense (OpEx) for the service. Setup is comparatively easy, because you don’t have to acquire and stand up hardware and install software on-premises. You don’t have to run a data center for the system, either. These differences translate into a lighter administrative load. The cloud platform and cloud surveillance provider do a lot of the support work.  

As far as “cons” are concerned, cloud surveillance may cost more, on an OpEx basis, than traditional systems. You lose control, to some extent, because you’re not running the VMS or storage. And, there can be some delays and performance lag due to moving video data up to the cloud and back. 

Accessibility and user interaction in surveillance 

One big advantage offered by cloud surveillance is the ability for users to access the VMS from virtually anywhere on any device. In contrast, traditional surveillance systems tend to require users to be on-site. 

On-premise vs remote: Scrutinizing accessibility modes 

Remote access means that users can be at home or on the road when they use the VMS.  The capability enables rapid, convenient response to incidents that require video viewing.  

User interfaces and interaction: Traditional vs cloud 

Cloud surveillance systems are almost always browser based. They can be accessed on PC, smartphones, and tablets. In contrast, traditional surveillance systems may require a purpose-built client running on an on-premises PC.  The latter is inconvenient, forcing users to be on-site, in specific rooms if they want to manage or view videos. 

A financial perspective – costs and investments 

Traditional surveillance usually involves a significant CapEx for equipment, software, and installation. In contrast, cloud surveillance is almost always subscription based. This pricing model keeps the initial expenditure comparatively low. 

Weighing the wallet: financial implications of traditional surveillance 

Traditional surveillance is capital intensive. In addition to the cameras, you have to acquire and install all the servers and storage required to run the system. This means having a data center, which itself is a costly proposition to build and run. You must also employ skilled people who know how to manage each element of the system, further adding to the total cost of a traditional surveillance system.  

Penny for your clouds? Investing in cloud-based surveillance 

Cloud-based surveillance, in contrast, typically has no CapEx. You subscribe to the service and pay a monthly subscription fee. You also don’t need as many people to run the system since the functions that would ordinarily be run in-house, like storage and maintenance, are handled by the service provider. That said, cloud surveillance is not necessarily cheaper than the traditional alternative, in OpEx terms. On a monthly basis, the cloud system may cost more in subscription fees than the traditional model, even with fewer admins on the payroll. However, with cloud surveillance, you're always equipped with the latest software updates automatically—unlike with traditional systems where you have to perform manual, cumbersome upgrades.  

Data management, storage, and retrieval explored 

Traditional and cloud surveillance solutions differ when it comes to data management, storage, and retrieval. Traditional systems have finite data storage, while cloud systems have infinite capacity and scale elastically with your needs. Traditional systems require the acquisition and installation of new storage hardware in order to scale. This can take time and may cause lapses in service continuity. In contrast, cloud surveillance systems can scale on demand, and instantly. 

Securing and accessing data in traditional surveillance 

An on-premises video surveillance system can usually only be accessed by on-premises hardware. It’s harder for a malicious actor to access video data if he has to penetrate a private network first. That said, traditional systems need all the basic cybersecurity countermeasures, including identity and access management (IAM) for user access control, privileged access management (PAM), and encryption for data protection.  

Cloud shield: Ensuring data safety and system security  

Cloud surveillance needs all the same security controls as traditional surveillance, along with a few additional security investments because cloud-based security must mitigate risks that don’t exist on-premises. The potential for anywhere/anyone/any device access, while great for flexibility, increases the risk of unauthorized access. Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is a necessary control to implement, as well as a cloud access service broker (CASB) that restricts access to cloud video file repositories based on security policies. 

Managing multitudes: Data handling in cloud surveillance 

Video file access is instantaneous with cloud surveillance. You can retrieve data easily from anywhere on virtually any device. A further advantage is that cloud surveillance systems can easily ingest and store video files from multiple locations. An admin can access video from any site, versus the need to travel from site to site to view videos with a traditional system. 

Legal and ethical aspects of surveillance systems 

When it comes to legal, compliance, and ethical considerations, cloud surveillance and traditional surveillance are broadly comparable. However you approach surveillance, your organization is bound by regulations affecting privacy, evidence preservation, and security. Regarding compliance and surveillance, some differences emerge in the cloud. For example, most compliance frameworks, such as those developed by NIST, specify access controls. In the cloud, you may not be able to control access by personnel who work for the cloud platform vendor. There are solutions to this challenge, but you have to address it.  

Real-world applicability – use cases and implementations 

Companies are using traditional and cloud surveillance across multiple industry sectors. Where cloud surveillance is proving itself to be a popular choice is in industries where companies have multiple locations and significant video storage needs. The cloud is comparatively strong in this context. For example, a business with many branch offices may prefer a cloud surveillance solution because it greatly reduces the logistics of deploying surveillance equipment to multiple sites—and similarly streamlines the storage and management of so many distributed video inputs.  

Industries where compliance requires video access by law enforcement, insurers, and other stakeholders also favor cloud surveillance solutions. A chemical plant, for instance, which may need to provide videos of an accident to many different agencies, will be well served by a cloud surveillance platform with remote access capabilities.  

Industries that are building IoT networks are also well suited to cloud surveillance. An old field services company, for example, might deploy thousands of digital cameras as IoT devices. These are not on-premises, by definition. Their distributed nature makes them a great fit for a cloud surveillance solution, which can ingest their data in real time from wherever they are located.  

Future forward – anticipating changes and adaptations 

What lies ahead for traditional surveillance systems? It is likely that use of traditional surveillance will endure as long as storage hardware continues to be commercially viable. However, as cameras increase in resolution and quantity, cloud systems will begin to emerge as the first choice along cost, flexibility and capacity lines. At the same time, the future of traditional surveillance will probably see more integration of cloud technology into traditional systems. The resulting hybrids will leverage the advantages of the cloud to make traditional systems work better, e.g., cloud data backup.  

The future of cloud surveillance will almost surely include wider use of AI and automation to make surveillance management more efficient. Tools for facial recognition and incident detection via AI software are already entering the market and will surely expand and improve in time. 

Conclusion: Drawing the battle lines – summing up the faceoff 

Video surveillance is currently dominated by two different models. Traditional surveillance systems are on-premises and utilize customer-owned and operated infrastructure. Cloud surveillance, in contrast, places the VMS software and video file storage in the cloud.  

Traditional surveillance offers some benefits in terms of control, and potentially a simpler security attack surface to defend. Cloud surveillance has advantages that its traditional rival cannot match, however. It’s infinitely, instantly scalable. It handles multi-site deployments more easily. There’s no CapEx, and less of a need to hire and retain people with hard-to-find skillsets.  

Surveillance future trends may include developments such as dynamic traditional/cloud hybrids. Additionally, the future is likely to witness new uses of AI technologies to improve security and make security management more efficient. Over time, traditional systems will probably be phased out and replaced with cloud alternatives. 

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