RAM Buffers

About 13 years ago, we had a roundtable discussion about using RAM for the pre-buffering of surveillance video. I was against it. Coding wise, it would make things more complicated (we’d essentially have 2 databases), and the desire to support everything, everywhere, at any time made this a giant can of worms that I was not too happy to open. At the time physical RAM was limited, and chances were that the OS would then decide to push your RAM buffer to the swap file, causing severe degradation of performance. Worst of all, it would not be deterministic when things got swapped out, so all things considered, I said Nay.

As systems grew from the 25 cameras that was the maximum number supported on the flagship platform (called XXV), to 64 and above, we started seeing severe bottlenecks in disk IO. Basically, since pre-buffering was enabled per default, every single camera would pass through the disk IO subsystem only to be deleted 5 or 10 seconds later. A quick fix was to disable pre-buffering entirely, which would help enormously if the system only recorded on event, and the events were not correlated across many cameras.

However, recently, RAM buffering was added to the Milestone recorders, which makes sense now that you have 64 bit OS’s with massive amounts of RAM.

I always considered “record on event” as a bit of a compromise. It came about because people were annoyed with the way the system would trigger when someone passed through a door. Instead of having the door being closed at the start of the clip, usually the door would be 20% open by the time the motion-detection triggered, thus the beginning of the door opening would be missing.

A pre-buffer was a simple fix, but some caveats came up: systems that were setup to record on motion, would often record all through the night, due to noise in the images. If the system also triggered notifications, the user would often turn down the motion detection sensitivity until the false alarms disappeared. This had the unfortunate side effect of making the system too dull to properly detect motion in daylight, and thus you’d get missing video, people and cars “teleporting” all over the place and so on. Quite often the user would not realize the mistake until an incident actually did occur, and then it’s too late.

Another issue is that the video requires a lot more bandwidth when there is a lot of noise in the scene. This meant that at night, all the cameras would trigger motion at the same time, and the video would take up the max bandwidth allocated.


Video bandwidth over several days. The high bandwidth areas are night-time recordings.


24 hour zoom

Notice that the graph above reaches the bandwidth limit set in the configuration in the camera and then seemingly drops through the night. This is because the camera switches to black/white which requires less bandwidth. Then, in the morning, you see a spike as the camera switches back to color mode. Then it drops off dramatically during the day.

Sticking this in a RAM based prebuffer won’t help. You’ll be recording noise all through the night, from just about every camera in your system, completely bypassing the RAM buffer. So you’ll see a large number of channels trying to record a high bandwidth video – which is the worst case scenario.

Now you may have the best server side motion detection available in the industry, but what good does it do if the video is so grainy you can’t identify anyone in the video (it’s a human – sure – but which human?).

During the day (or in well-lit areas), the RAM buffer will help, most of the time, the video will be sent over the network, reside in RAM for 5-10-30 seconds, and then be deleted, never to be seen again – ever. This puts zero load on disk IO and is basically the way you should do this kind of thing.

But this begs the questions – do you really want to do that? You are putting a lot of faith in the systems ability to determine what might be interesting now, and possibly later, and in your own ability to configure the system correctly. It’s very easy to see when the system is creating false alarms, it is something entirely different to determine if it missed something. The first problem is annoying, the latter makes your system useless.

My preference is to record everything for 1-2-3 days, and rely on external sensors for detection, which then also determines what to keep in long term storage. This way, I have a nice window to go back and review the video if something did happen, and then manually mark the prebuffer for long term storage.

“Motion detection” does provide some meta-information, that can be used later when I manually review the video, but relying 100% on it to determine when/what to record makes me a little uneasy.

But all else being equal, it is an improvement…



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