ONVIF: The Evolution of A Standard

By Per Björkdahl

ONVIF has achieved a lot since its founding in 2008. The member consortium began as a small group of manufacturers that wanted to collaborate to accelerate the acceptance of systems based on network surveillance cameras. While ONVIF’s mission has not changed significantly since then, its application and influence has; it is now an industry alliance for the physical security industry. ONVIF has become a nearly 500-member strong organisation with more than 7,500 ONVIF-conformant products in the market today. With members on six continents, ONVIF’s specifications for video and access control have also been adopted by the International Electrical Commission (IEC), one of the world’s most influential standards organisations. Not bad in eight years.

Like many other standards, ONVIF has evolved incrementally and its development, use and acceptance have as well. The journey ONVIF is on is quite typical for a standards organisation. Other standards such as IEC, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), HDMI and Bluetooth have experienced similar ebbs and flows, hurdles, successes and acceptance in many of the same ways that ONVIF has. Over time, these organisations have expanded the scope of their standards, changed their approaches to standardisation when needed and have dealt with issues of false conformance, just as ONVIF has.

Building a Foundation

Standards organisations are often founded to create, at least initially, one specific kind of benchmark within an industry. ONVIF was founded by Axis, Sony and Bosch to create a global standard for the interface of network cameras and video management systems to be an alternative to the very much standardised analogue CCTV industry. The organisation sought to provide greater freedom of choice so installers and end-users can select interoperable products from a variety of different vendors. By establishing a basic standard for video in its early days, the founders also hoped to simplify product development for manufacturers. The philosophy was that establishing a basic integration standard within the industry would allow developers to spend more time on creating innovative features and designs and less effort on creating multiple application programming interfaces (APIs) for simple integrations between products.

Even in its early days, ONVIF made some significant achievements, most notably by creating and releasing its first specification soon after its founding. When the first specification was deployed for real-world use, ONVIF realised it had to make some adjustments to its approach to creating a standard. Although members had agreed on how to specify APIs for video, the way the manufacturers actually deployed these in their products varied. All were following the specification, but there was no agreement on which features to support. For example, a camera manufacturer may have only implemented specific video functions to interact with another manufacturer’s video management software (VMS) using ONVIF, but that particular VMS supports many additional functions of that camera. So, when users of the VMS expected to be able to utilise a specific function in the camera, it was not supported through ONVIF; all of which gave room for some doubts regarding the usability of the standard.

Why ONVIF Standards Matter to Integrators

A common interface allows integrators to use technologies from different manufacturers together. This concept of designing devices to work with other brands or technologies is often referred to as interoperability. Interoperability typically equals a reduction in the time spent on the design and installation process, both in current and future installations or upgrades. From the end-user side, the benefit is freedom of choice. Using ONVIF-conformant products prevents end-users from being locked into using solutions from a single manufacturer and being tied to that manufacturer for years to come.

A Broadening Vision

Less than a year after ONVIF was founded, members began to develop the profile concept to address the variance in supported features between manufacturers. The advantage of the profile approach was that a number of features and implementation specifics could be defined under one umbrella and with greater specificity. The idea was that if manufacturers developed products in accordance with the profile, their products would work together regardless of the manufacturer of the VMS or camera. ONVIF’s first profile, Profile S, was released in 2011 following two years in development. If a product is Profile S conformant, it will always be conformant, regardless of when it is manufactured.

Bluetooth experienced a similar chain of events when it introduced an updated version of its specification for headsets in 2005. Bluetooth’s new version of the specification for headsets did not initially support an older version of the specification and, as a result, conformant devices could not always communicate. Because of this, Bluetooth introduced Headset Profile (HSP), designed to work regardless of when the device was manufactured. Once HSP was defined, it was not to be changed. A new profile with a new name was created when future changes were needed, which is the same profile approach that ONVIF employs.

Changing the specifications of a product can be a long process, but development of a new profile can happen rather quickly and lets ONVIF and other standards adapt as market and member demands change. Adaptability is paramount to maintaining real-world, usable standards and is an integral part of maintaining relevant standards across industries.

An example of this can be illustrated with ONVIF’s Profile S and an ONVIF profile that is currently in development. Profile S was released in 2012 to include support for pan, tilt, zoom (PTZ), audio and metadata streaming, and relay outputs on devices; it also encompassed configuration, requests and control of streaming video data over an Internet Protocol (IP) network by a client. Profile S bridged the gap between conformant clients and devices on a basic level.

In the four years since the release of Profile S, video technology has changed. To address new developments in video technology, ONVIF will introduce Release Candidate Profile T, which employs a new media service that enables the support of H.265 video compression. Once the new video profile is released, Profile S will most likely lose significance over time – both profiles will be in circulation, as not all products in use will necessarily employ H.265 compression standards. Profile S conformant devices and clients, therefore, will always be Profile S conformant, independent of the new video profile. The Release Candidate Profile T will be circulated to stakeholders for at least six months before being released in its final form.

Profile Q

Profile Q, one of ONVIF’s newest profiles, is especially relevant to system integrators. The two main features of Profile Q are easy set-up and advanced security features. Profile Q makes configuration and the use of advanced security features easier.

With an easy set-up mechanism and basic device level configuration, Profile Q manufacturers have ONVIF automatically enabled for products that are Profile Q conformant. For the integrator, that means time saved, because the installer does not need to activate ONVIF or search for instructions on how to do so. Profile Q conformant devices are also easily discovered and feature factory reset functionality.

Profile Q supports Transport Layer Security (TLS), the widely used cryptographic protocol that is designed to provide communication security. TLS uses certificates and asymmetric cryptography to authenticate the data transferred between parties. TLS protocol allows Profile Q to manage certificates and keys on ONVIF devices themselves. Once set up, Profile Q devices and clients can communicate across a shared network without being vulnerable to tampering and eavesdropping.

Profile Q is just one example of how the framework established on ONVIF’s formation has enabled the group’s scope for standards to include any discipline within the physical security industry. In addition to Profiles S and Q, ONVIF has continued to use the profile concept to develop and release four additional profiles: Profile G for video storage, Profiles C and A for access control, with Profile T to follow.

Collaboration Between Standards

Standards bodies and the standards they create cannot operate independently – today’s world demands cooperation and collaboration. As the demand for interoperability between all devices increases and the concept of the Internet of Things becomes a reality, standards groups must work together on standards themselves. ONVIF and the IEC are working together in this collaborative way. The ONVIF specification has been included in the international IEC 62676 standard, the first international standard for video surveillance systems.

Members Matter

ONVIF and other standards groups are member-driven organisations that operate on the basis of consensus. The next ONVIF profile will be developed based on feedback from ONVIF members and the physical security industry at large. It is important to note that ONVIF is not only for manufacturers. ONVIF values input from all stakeholders, which is why it has developed four different membership levels that are geared to manufacturers, consultants, integrators, specifiers, end-users, installers, members of the media and those outside the physical security industry. Input from across the industry and beyond is needed to continue to produce meaningful and effective standards.

The Future

By examining the evolution of other standards, it is obvious how vital they are to industries, often beginning with a relatively small focus on one specific market and expanding to include others as acceptance and use grows. It is hard to predict if ONVIF will follow a trajectory similar to other standards like IEC. It is safe to say, though, that wherever ONVIF goes in the future, its path will be determined by its members and the physical security community, who ultimately are together at the helm, driving ONVIF forward as new technology develops and evolves.

Per Björkdahl is the chairman of the Steering Committee for ONVIF.