Cisco: Technology in Places of Worship


In over 20 years at Cisco, I have seen the company evolve in various aspects of technology, but also with the different facets of diversity that exist within our employee base. To be the premier IT company, we know we need to have a diverse and inclusive global workforce engaged in the technological innovation that connects us all. In doing so, Cisco continues to change the way the world works, lives, plays and learns.

In addition to guiding the technical strategy of our DevNet organization, I have the privilege of leading the Cisco Interfaith Network, one of the many groups in our inclusive and collaborative communities. Our network of employees provides education and visibility across the spectrum of belief systems, helps inform company policy, and is a “sounding board” for understanding people of faith.

Beyond the perspective of diversity, it is interesting to see how technology is used in places of worship. While there are certain belief systems that deliberately eschew technology, there are others that choose to take advantage of it. I will expand on the latter and how it provided opportunities to use networking technologies in a way that benefits their communities.

Worship and presentation

In auditoriums and worship spaces, technology enhances the presentation of song slides, teaching notes and provides a rich audio and light experience. All of these uses involve connecting audio-video (AV) systems. There are varying degrees of uptake, budget, and staffing resources, but more places of worship are recognizing the benefits of having integrated systems.

Audio mixing consoles connect vocal microphones, instrument audio sensors, PCs, and other audio sources. An audio engineer uses the mixing console to perform audio source channel muting, volume control, effects, and audio signal routing.

Legacy lighting control systems connect to dimmers that regulate power to light fixtures. Newer systems have digitally controlled light fixtures that direct light intensity to the fixture and may have moving heads and color changing functions.

Some places of worship are embarking on recording and broadcasting on the Internet. This image
shows some of the technology behind the scenes to support AV systems.

How these systems are connected

Something to note is how these systems are connected. Originally, audio and lighting systems used their own dedicated wiring methods with thick 3- and 4-wire wiring, XLR sockets, and analog signaling. Below is an example of a large lighting setup for an event using a legacy dimmer pack and mute light fixtures – image courtesy of @mdrache on Twitter.

Cat-5/6 and packet networking

About a decade ago, we started to see Cat-5/6 being used for an alternative cabling solution. The transformation accelerated with a shift using packet networking to integrate audio and lighting signals. A 32-channel audio mixer in the back of an auditorium would require 32 thick analog XLR cables for microphones, instrument mics, and speaker outputs to the stage. Now a pair of Cat-6 cables is used as a “digital snake” which is thinner, cheaper and easier to deploy. Likewise, the above lighting system can be reduced to a few Cat-6 cables when smart lighting fixtures and control protocols, such as DMX, are used.

Projectors can use Cat-5/6 and packet networking to receive content and management signals to switch inputs, change settings, or turn on / off.

Beyond using Cat-6 cabling for Layer 1 connectivity or digital signage, putting this equipment on an IP network provides management benefits. My church’s audio mixer is on the balcony and is connected to the network. I use a wireless tablet to control the system and occasionally sit with my family in the main living area. The mobility of using a tablet also allows the sound engineer to move around to check out the audio experience throughout the space.

As a network technologist, I made a point of noting more than 200 devices connected over IP which constitute the infrastructure of network devices, audio-video equipment, thermostats, telephones, computers, servers, etc. We can have over 400 participant mobile devices on wireless networks. And we put on IPv6 when the devices support it!

Connect and protect people

We have separate networks for staff, guests, AVs, and IoT. We segment the network to protect resources and allow connectivity for non-routable broadcast protocols. We also want to protect our children and participants from inappropriate content on the Internet. So we use Cisco Umbrella Family Shield and other content filters.

The wireless network allows people to access sermon notes, event registration forms, and other sources of information. Our restricted Audiovisual network connects our audio / video equipment and wireless control tablets. It also provides our streaming connectivity to our service providers. Our restricted IoT network connects our building management systems – security, thermostats, cameras, phones and printers.

As we started to create more and more services such as security badge readers, cameras and thermostats, we saw an increase in the need to drill holes in our firewalls to remote administration of these services in the homes of staff members. We know that Swiss-cheese firewalls are not optimal and that few of these IoT providers had strong networking expertise, so their implementations were suspect. VPN service was provided to allow remote and secure connectivity into the church network without a continuous “Swiss cheese drill” of the firewall.

The need for quarantine has had an impact

I know many of us are tired of pandemic stories, but let me share how the past 18 months have impacted places of worship – especially mine. In March 2020, like many businesses and hangouts, we were ordered to close our doors to in-person gatherings. Our AV team has pivoted strongly to an increased level of sophistication with our service broadcasts.

The only people in the building were ministers and worship group members in front of an empty auditorium. We had to rethink our previous stationary camera shows to be more dynamic and reach the whole church from their homes. This forced us to install more devices in the network. We added dedicated broadcast audio and multi-camera control systems which were all IP compatible.

Additionally, we needed to change the way boards and face-to-face meetings were handled. For that, we turned to Cisco Webex Meetings. With a few quick start training sessions, before you knew it, there were a lot of concurrent meetings going on.

Now, with some return to in-person events, we’re continuing the best practices learned, made possible through technology, for those who continue to participate from home.

SaaS solutions and programming skills create opportunities to serve

A common artefact of places of worship without technical staff is reliance on SaaS solutions. Many sites use resource planning apps, cloud-based telephony, contact management, social media engagement, and document management services. Cloud-based telephony solutions often allow staff to keep their personal mobile numbers private while remaining highly available. Another interesting link with SaaS and mobile technologies has been an increase in the use of digital financial solutions to enable charitable giving with minimal personal interactions.

For places of worship that have technical staff or members, there may be opportunities to serve. You have already read about the Audio-Video aspects. For most places of worship, a web presence is required to reach out to the community and share events. I have had projects to help create web pages and digital signage inside the building that reflect current events and the status of the project. Think about your home automation projects, but on steroids – from Python scripts making REST API calls to thermostats, lighting control systems, security systems – from reports to digital signage, from text alerts to managers. buildings and the activation of PoE-enabled lighting devices.

Hope you have some idea of ​​how technology and networks have been used in places of worship. If you feel the need to use your technical skills in a way that benefits your communities, I will give you great encouragement. It has been very rewarding for me! And, if you think you’d like to further develop your programming and networking skills, visit DevNet’s Get Started Now page.

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