Friday, July 31, 2009

Taking videoconferencing beyond boardrooms

As enterprises realize the benefits of videoconferencing, it is time to look at how they can connect their mobile employees and top executives into high quality videoconferencing sessions without too much of a hassle, writes Varun Aggarwal

Today, conferencing is limited to large boardroom set-ups—Delhi office boardroom talking to a boardroom meeting in Mumbai and so on. People have to rush to the room to participate. The market is full of great conferencing technologies that give a 360-degree view of the room, great sound effects, high quality experience, but these are prohibitively expensive for companies to provide to a large number of people in the organization. Then there are lower end Web conferencing tools available but these limit the impact of the true conference experience.

There are three clear segments in the videoconferencing market. The higher end of the segment is the real immersive market, where you talk about video applications that need 2 to 5 Mbps—these are high on the bandwidth at the same time offer high definition (HD) resolution so that you get a truly immersive conferencing experience. This is where telepresence and the real presence exist from the players like Cisco, Polycom etc. The medium side of the market is the high definition market, where video streams on a 1 Mbps pipe. Lastly, there is desktop conferencing where there is a lot of action.

People realize that in order to set up room-to-room conferencing, they need to put the equipment in place. In addition, a lot of money is spent on equipping boardrooms. Amit Mehta, Director-Unified Communication, Microsoft India, said, “One is the cost of setting up room-to-room. Second, is the inability to provide impromptu access to videoconferencing—it’s not always possible to have a video conference whenever you want to have one as the room is not always available. These are the major problems that have led to the concept of desktop conferencing tied to room-to-room conferencing—basically enabling an impromptu and ad hoc videoconferencing experience.”

Observing this untapped potential in the market, Microsoft, along with its partners such as Tandberg, is bringing the power of videoconferencing to the desktop in order to enable true anytime, anywhere conferencing straight off the desktop. In this way, there is no need to travel to a conference room or boardroom to participate in a video conference. This saves time for each employee, further increasing productivity and cost control. “Microsoft’s strategy is to democratize unified and videoconferencing. This means that we have to make the technology available to as many people as possible. That’s why we have a conferencing solution with Office Communications Server that provides VoIP, Presence and chat, audio, video and conferencing capabilities as well,” Mehta added.

Capabilities of desktop conferencing

Mehta explained, “In terms of capabilities we are able to, within the OCS, show the presence and integrate the same into room-to-room conferencing devices. Let us take the example of a manufacturing company that has three-four conferencing rooms. Assume that I am the R&D head of an Indian company in the US and I need to contact someone in my company for a critical issue. All I need to do is plug my laptop into the hotel broadband connection and with a variety of cameras (depending on the available bandwidth and the resolution required, you can choose one), I can activate OCS. The moment I do that, I have presence status of the conferencing equipment lying in, say, Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai. In this manner, I have the presence status of my colleagues, whom I want to contact; I will have presence status of the rooms where the conferencing may be happening. So now I can ask my colleague in Delhi to go to room No. 2 and another colleague in Mumbai to go to Room No. 4 and initiate a conference sitting right in my hotel room.”

In OCS R2, the latest version of this software, Microsoft can deliver 1 Mbps videoconferencing to the desktop so that a HD conferencing experience can be achieved from your desk. “We ensure that customers can leverage current investments. If an organization has already invested in a Polycom or Tandberg solution, we can interoperate with them. We have a strategic alliance where we do interoperability with them, and enable organizations to an impromptu conferencing experience,” Mehta added.

Another way of using desktop conferencing is through video phones available from vendors such as Cisco, Tandberg and Polycom. The Cisco Unified Video Advantage is a personal video telephony solution that allows users to place and receive video calls at their desktop. It consists of the Cisco Unified Video Advantage software and the Cisco VT Camera II, a video telephony USB camera that connects to a PC. “Users can then make calls from their Cisco Unified IP phones using the familiar phone interface, and calls are displayed with video on the PC. With Cisco Unified Video Advantage, video calls are as easy to make as telephone calls, without the complications of room videoconferencing systems or the need to press PC keys or click the mouse,” explained Minhaj Zia, National Sales Manager, Unified Communications, Cisco India & SAARC.

Getting started

For using Microsoft’s solution you need a camera, which costs anywhere between Rs 3,000 to Rs 20,000. The second piece that you need is the OCS server. The third piece that you need is the OCS CAL licenses. Depending on the category of client, or the volume, the price is decided. These licenses are of two types namely OCS CALs: Standard and Enterprise. The Standard CAL has the IM and presence capabilities including new group IM and rich presence features and costs roughly $21 for the average enterprise. The new Enterprise CAL provides all of the new conferencing and VoIP call management features and costs roughly $97 for the average enterprise. The Office Communications Server Standard and Enterprise CALs will also be included as part of the Microsoft Enterprise CAL Suite, a group of several Microsoft server CALs available at a discount. For most customers, the Standard and Enterprise servers cost about $488 and $2,791, respectively.

Today on OCS R2, Microsoft can deliver CIF based video capability, which requires 352 kbps of bandwidth; it can deliver VGA quality on a 680 kbps link and HD on a 1 Mbps link to the desktop.

The other thing that Microsoft has done is that it has been able to integrate videoconferencing with Web conferencing. For instance, if you’re a sales leader and you’re doing a field readiness review or training, then you can from your laptop, initiate a Web conference or a live meeting session, which is integrated into the e-mail calendar in Exchange Server. Microsoft offers a USB device called RoundTable (now being sold by Polycom as the CX5000), which can be plugged into a laptop and you can integrate video within it from the Web conference itself, so that people are able to see you while you speak. Alternatively, they can have 360-degree view of the room where you are speaking (there’s a panoramic view integrated). “That is how fruitful and ad hoc we have made videoconferencing in our environment,” Mehta commented.

Desktop vs. room-to-room

Looking at the enormous benefits that desktop conferencing brings to the table, one might assume that it may cannibalize the market for traditional room-to-room conferencing. However, experts believe that people would still want to do room-to-room conferencing. Mehta opined, “There are some things that will happen only in a room-to-room environment that will continue to happen. The only thing is that people now have a choice. With capabilities of the desktop reaching 1 Mbps, you will have some degree of cannibalization that can happen but not much. If you want to setup a conference with multi-party at one end and multi-party at another end, you would require room-to-room conferencing. Wherever there is a need for mobile workers to join a conference, that’s where you will need desktop conferencing.”

According to Zia, “Customers who would benefit most from Cisco Unified Advantage are multisite, geographically distributed customers who want the capability to communicate face to face with people at branch or remote offices, who have converged networks for increased productivity and reduced costs, and who want to use an existing installed base of Cisco Unified IP phones.”

Key considerations

With too many people getting access to desktop conferencing in an enterprise, bandwidth provisioning may become a daunting task for the administrators. This has to be done with care to ensure that the network does not become choked and that the conferencing experience is not compromised. Mehta said, “In the case of OCS, we can provision what bandwidth is allocated to which user. For instance, you don’t need to give 1 Mbps video to a sales person. You might want to give 1Mbps on the desktop to just a few senior people. You might keep just a VGA quality video for the medium level staff. With this kind of capability, you can easily manage who consumes what.”

If you look at what is required to setup desktop conferencing is, first you need the server and client side application along with the associated hardware. Then there is how you provision bandwidth between two locations because bandwidth provisioning is critical. This means that if you are looking at a good conferencing experience, you need to ensure that adequate bandwidth is provisioned. Other than this, desktop conferencing is straightforward. The biggest factor driving desktop conferencing is the culture. If the topmost people are using desktop conferencing more aggressively, then it permeates down to the rest of the organization. “Unified communications and some of the new tools are all culture and top brass driven. If it is driven well, then it permeates down, if it is not, then it is not a success,” concluded Mehta.


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