In 20+ years at Cisco I’ve 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 #1 IT company, we know we must have a diverse, and inclusive, global workforce committed to technology innovation that connects us all. In doing this, Cisco continues to change the way the world works, lives, plays, and learns.
Besides guiding technical strategy for our DevNet organization, I have the privilege to lead Cisco’s Interfaith Network, one of many groups in our Inclusion and Collaboration Communities. Our employee network provides education and visibility across the spectrum of belief systems, helps inform corporate policy and is a ‘sounding board’ for understanding people of faith.
Beyond the diversity perspective, it’s interesting to see how technology is used in houses of worship. While there are some belief systems that purposely shy away from technology, there are others that choose to take advantage of it. I’ll elaborate on the latter and how it has provided opportunities to use networking technologies in ways that benefit their communities.
Worship and Presentation
In auditorium and worship spaces we see technology enhancing presentation of song slides, teaching notes, and providing a rich audio and lighting experience. All these uses involve connecting audio-video (AV) systems. There are varying degrees of adoption, budget and staffing resources, but more and more houses of worship are recognizing the benefits of having integrated systems.
Audio mixing consoles connect vocal microphones, instrument audio pick-ups, 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 dimmer packs which regulate power to lighting fixtures. Newer systems have digitally controlled lighting fixtures which direct lighting intensity at the fixture and may have moving heads and color-changing features.
Some houses of worship get into recording and Internet broadcast. This image
shows some of the technology behind the scenes to support the AV systems.
How these systems are being connected
Something to note is how these systems are being connected. Originally audio and lighting systems used their own dedicated wiring methods with thick 3 and 4 wire cabling, XLR plugs and analog signaling. Below is an example of a large lighting setup for an event using legacy dimmer pack and dumb lighting fixtures – image courtesy of Twitter’s @mdrache.
Cat-5/6 and packet-based networking
About a decade ago we started seeing Cat-5/6 being used for an alternative wiring solution. The transformation has accelerated with a shift using packet networking to embed audio and lighting signals. A 32-channel audio mixing console at the rear of an auditorium would require 32 thick analog XLR cables for microphones, instrument pickups and speaker outputs run to the stage. Now a pair of Cat-6 cables is used as a ‘digital snake’ which is thinner, less expensive, and easier to deploy. Similarly, the lighting system above can be reduced to just a few Cat-6 cables when intelligent lighting fixtures and control protocols, like DMX, are used.
Video projectors can use Cat-5/6 and packet-based 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 signaling, putting this equipment on an IP-enabled network provides management benefits. The audio mixing console at my church is in the balcony and is network-connected. I use a wireless tablet to control the system and occasionally sit with my family in the main seating area. The mobility of using a tablet also allows the audio engineer to move around to check the audio experience across the whole space.
As a network technologist, I was keen to note over 200 IP-connected devices that make up the infrastructure of network devices, audio-video equipment, thermostats, phones, computers, servers, etc. We may have over 400 mobile devices from attendees on the wireless networks. And we’re leaning on IPv6 when the devices support it!
Connecting and protecting people
We have separate staff, guest, AV, and IoT networks. We segment the network to protect resources and enable connectivity for non-routable broadcast protocols. We also want to protect our children and attendees from inappropriate content on the Internet. So, we use Cisco Umbrella Family Shield and other content filtering.
The wireless network allows people to access sermon notes, event registration forms, and other sources of information. Our restricted AV network connects our audio/video equipment and the wireless control tablets. It also provides our broadcast streaming connectivity out to our service providers. Our restricted IoT network connects our building management systems – security, thermostats, cameras, phones, and printers.
As we started building more and more services like security badge readers, cameras and thermostats we saw an increase in needing to poke holes in our firewalls for remote administration of those services from staff-members’ homes. We know that swiss-cheese firewalls are not optimal and few of these IoT vendors had strong networking expertise, so their implementations were suspect. A VPN service was provided to allow for remote, secure connectivity back into the church network without continued “swiss-cheese holing” of the firewall.
The need to quarantine had an impact
I know, many of us are weary of pandemic stories, but permit me to share how the past 18 months have impacted houses of worship – specifically mine. In March 2020, like many businesses and meeting places, we were directed to close our doors to in-person gatherings. Our AV team pivoted hard to an increased level of sophistication with our service broadcasts.
The only people in the building were ministers and worship group team-members, in front of an empty auditorium. We had to rethink our earlier fixed camera broadcasts to be more dynamic in reaching the whole church from their homes. This compelled us to install more networked devices. We added dedicated broadcast audio and multi-camera control systems that were all IP-enabled.
Additionally, we needed to change how in-person counseling and meetings were handled. For this we turned to Cisco Webex meetings. With a few quick start training sessions, before you knew it there were many simultaneous meetings going on.
Now, with some return to in-person events, we’re continuing the best practices learned, enabled with technology, for those continuing to participate from home.
SaaS solutions and programming skills create opportunities to serve
A common artifact of houses of worship not having technical staff is the dependency on SaaS solutions. Many locations use resource scheduling applications, cloud-based telephony, contact management, social media engagement, and document management services. The cloud-based telephony solutions often allow staff to keep their personal mobile numbers private while still being highly available. Another interesting tie-in to SaaS and mobile technologies has been an increase in the use of digital financial solutions to enable charitable giving with minimal personal interactions.
For houses of worship that do have technical staff or members, there can be opportunities to serve. You already read about the Audio-Video aspects. For most houses of worship having a web presence is needed to reach out to the community and share events. I’ve had projects in helping to build web pages and digital signage inside the building that reflects current events and project status. Think of your home automation projects, but on steroids – Python scripts doing REST API calls to thermostats, lighting control systems, security systems – reporting out to digital signage, texting alerts to building managers and toggling power to PoE-capable lighting fixtures.
Hopefully you’ve got an inkling of how technology and networking has been used in houses of worship. If you feel an urging to use your technical skills in a way that benefits your communities, I will greatly encourage you. It has been most rewarding for me! And, if you’re thinking you’d like to further develop your skills in programming and networking, visit DevNet’s Start Now page.
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