The benefits of video conferencing are many
- Reduced Travel costs
- Increased productivity
- Real time collaboration
- Connecting geographically distributed work force
- B2B collaboration
to name a few
However, one of the biggest impediments to a successful deployment of a video conferencing system has been the lack of expertise in setting up the backend infrastructure that makes the whole design work. The need is felt even greater among smaller/mid-market companies that want to have a global foot print but don’t have the IT staff to manage and maintain an enterprise class video infrastructure.
There are other consumer based choices such as Skype, Google hangout, and Facetime but the intent of this article is to focus on enterprise based video systems that allow flexibility to join not just from a PC but also a room based systems and allow interoperability from any standards based endpoints that follow H.264 as opposed to being closed.
Let’s walk through what are some of the basic building blocks of an enterprise video conferencing solution.
The following devices make up the basic building blocks of a scalable enterprise class video deployment
1) Video Communication Server
Customers deploying video end points normally look at a central registration server aka Video Communication Server. Think of this like a PBX but optimized for video. This device performs many functions such as
- Ability to set policies on who can register and who is allowed to call which end point
- Ability to set up granular bandwidth policies so that users who need to make calls at higher bandwidth are allowed to do so and others who need to be throttled down to a lower level to reduce the impact on the Wide Area Network can be handled accordingly
- Ability to model your network such that different weights can be given to links that have higher bandwidth but provide fall back to lower speed links if needed
- URL dialing. What this means is alongside dialing by extension (aka Phone Number), the ability to also dial by a URL so that reaching someone whether internal or external is analogous to sending an email. Case in point, I could reach a certain user, let’s say Bob, by either dialing his extension or by dialing firstname.lastname@example.org
- Ability for new endpoints to be automatically discovered and reachable as the company grows. This allows for a more scalable approach. Without a central registration server, every endpoint would need to know about the other. This creates a full mesh and needless to say makes it very challenging for IT to manage and maintain. What if as soon as a device came up on the network we pointed it to this central server? That server could then decide how to route the call since all the other endpoints also talk to it. The end point in itself wouldn’t need to have any knowledge of how to reach all the other end points. It would just route the call to the server and let it figure out the backend logistics.
- Ability to network endpoints from various vendors like Cisco, Polycom, MSFT, or Life Size and allow for protocol interworking such as H323 to SIP.
In order to have B2B connections it would be impossible to let the security department open up pin holes in the firewall for every end point on the inside. It would be unmanageable and needless to say a security nightmare. But what if we put a server (Expressway) in the DMZ and let it talk to the server on the inside. Now only two devices are allowed to talk through the firewall (the registration server on the inside and the external device “Expressway” sitting in the DMZ) making this much more secure and manageable. This also allows any end point on the internet to reach your corporate end points through the power of DNS just like sending an email
3) MCU (Multipoint Conference Unit)
In order to provide video conferencing capabilities for more than two end points, a device is needed to bridge the call. These devices can be hardware or software based. They perform functions such as
- Providing Layouts. Different layouts such as continuous presence, voice activated, or enforcing the speaker to take a bigger square in the layout and so on.
- Ability to mix the streams at a central location such as a data center where higher bandwidth links usually are available
Deploying all of this infrastructure takes time and may also require some capital expenditure that many companies find daunting in the current business climate
This is where cloud based video conferencing systems are gaining traction. Here are a couple of options
1) Public Vendor lead cloud based Telepresence
Cisco WebEx Telepresence is a vendor hosted cloud based video conferencing service. In this service customers only need to buy the end points. Only certain end points are allowed to register to this service but these cover a wide range from personal desktop based units, software based endpoints running on a PC/Mac and USB Camera, to high end board room based end points and vertically focused clinical end points. These end points can be purchased on a lease or a capital expenditure. All the other components covered above, namely the Video Communication Server, Expressway and the MCU, will be hosted in the cloud. Once the end points are shipped, the end user will only need to enter a user ID/Password or activation code to register the endpoint to the cloud. Just because the service is a cloud service doesn’t mean end users or IT cannot customize and manage the system. Options are provided to enter device contacts, customize names for endpoints, running billing reports and hiding contacts.
The benefits are obvious – a central registration service, the ability to host multi party calls and access for B2B video calls all without the hassle of buying gear, configuring it and working with firewall groups to open ports. Just plug it, connect to the Internet and you are off making enterprise class video calls. The backend infrastructure and the configuration associated with it is managed by the vendor.
Even though this service is from Cisco and only certain types of endpoints can register to the service, this doesn’t mean only Cisco devices on the Internet can call you. Any video end point device that is H.264 capable, which is widely deployed standard in the industry, can call your device such as Cisco, Polycom, Life-size etc. One can also make incoming and outgoing audio calls and even make calls by dialing the IP address of an external end point or by dialing their URL.
There are various plans to choose from on a per device per month basis that can be billed monthly or pre paid for the year. There is no billing on a per call basis. Once the endpoint is covered unlimited calls up to 1080p resolution (assuming the endpoint can handle it and you have the bandwidth) are covered.
There are also plans to choose on the bridging side. If all that is needed is Adhoc group calling within the enterprise, the subscription on the endpoint provides that free of charge. This means a 6 or 9 way group calling feature is built into the subscription charge of the endpoint. Any user can start an Adhoc group bridge by dialing email@example.com. This creates a bridge on the fly that others can join.
On the other hand if one desires a bridge service that allows not just users within the company but also external to join then a paid bridge service is needed. These bridge services can be 6 or 12 ports where a port is a connection to the system whether it is audio or video. More details are covered here
Lastly one can extend this to even consumers or users who don’t subscribe to this service and also do not have a video endpoint to use.
If the entity on the other side has a room based system that is standards based or even for that matter a software running on their PC/MAC that is also standards based they could easily join the video call however let’s say they have neither. In this case the WebEx Telepresence service allows the end user to receive an email with a link to download a free video client that they can then use to dial the user within the company. The process works by first visiting this link and putting in the email address of the customer they would like to reach. They fill in the relevant details such as the video address of their endpoint which they get when they sign up for this service. Once the invitation is sent, the user gets an email with the link to click on, download the software and dial the endpoint. The call is set up for free by the Cisco cloud service. This client can even be pushed to an iPad.
Here are some sample use cases:
- Insurance adjustor who wants to get a hold of a client to solve an issue. They can send an email to the customer who clicks on a link downloads the client and now has rich video interaction. The insurance adjustor can even share his PC to help the customer follow the claim process*
- Health care. A doctor who may want to guide a patient at home through the process of administering an injection or checking on a prescription.
- A sales person trying to win a client. The client could have an iPad and by pushing the link he can now have a rich video session with their client no matter where they are located.
- HR trying to interview candidates who will want join from a PC/Mac or even an iPad by just installing a client
- Customer who wants to get in touch with a company through video – namely B2C interaction
- Company trying to demonstrate their products over video to their partners/suppliers or consumes
* There are many health care regulations that might have to be looked at but the idea of this use case is to paint a picture of how it can be used in various vertical and horizontal scenarios.
2) Hybrid Deployment
Some customers might invest in a video communication server and expressway but may desire to only have a bridge in the cloud. This too is a valid deployment model and one can buy just the bridge service on a per month basis to provide video bridging services. Vendors such as Cisco as a part of their WebEx Telepresence and Blue Jeans provide that capability
3) Partner Hosted Bridging service
CDW currently provides hosted services for UC which includes dial tone, voicemail, and presence as a part of the CDW Cloud Collaboration solution running within CDW Data Centers. As a part of that offering one can also register Telepresence endpoints to the CDW Cloud on a per user monthly charge.