Collaborative Conferencing Meets The Network
BY MARTY TAKESSIAN
A cost-effective alternative to ISDN-based visual collaboration is taking root in
corporate infrastructures large and small. IP-based videoconferencing, with its broad
reach across corporate networks and relatively low implementation and operation costs, is
an alternative that complements and extends the reach of ISDN-based conferencing systems.
IP-based visual collaboration is the fastest growing segment of the market, and its
potential is expansive. With improved speed and reliability across corporate networks,
companies are finding that IP-based visual collaboration solutions can lead to increased
productivity and lower costs by enabling face-to-face communication over intranets,
extranets, and virtual private networks (VPNs) - when time, distance, or cost prohibit
A NETWORK CONFERENCING SOLUTION
IP-based visual collaboration brings high-quality conferencing solutions to desktops,
conference rooms, and offices. These same solutions, when used in conjunction with a
gateway, can also interoperate with ISDN-based videoconferencing systems and connect with
systems outside corporate networks.
Improved corporate communication and reduced costs have always been two top benefits to
implementing an enterprise-wide videoconferencing system. The return on investment from
visual collaboration comes with increased work productivity and travel cost savings.
Employees can spend more time on work projects and less time driving to remote offices or
making flight connections. IP-based visual collaboration increases the cost savings even
further. Not only is it easier to implement across an entire enterprise, but it also saves
the expense of ISDN usage charges. More importantly, visual collaboration can happen every
day among colleagues in remote locations when videoconferencing is part of an overall
visual-collaboration solution integrated into an enterprise network, allowing for more
effective corporate communication.
While business-quality, IP-based visual collaboration is possible over an enterprise
local area network, today's Web is somewhat limited in its ability to deliver such
high-quality performance. Because the Web is asynchronous and not built for real-time
communication, even networks that have high-speed Internet connections will be unable to
take full advantage of voice, video, and data collaboration on the Web. However, networks
are being built all around the world today that will deliver much higher performance for
this type of visual collaboration. These next-generation Internet networks are being built
primarily to accommodate visual collaboration and real-time videoconferencing
applications. Until those networks are online, large-scale VPNs can connect disparate
corporate locations in an intranet or extranet environment.
Still, packet-switched, IP networks can transmit real-time audio, video, and data - and
provide top-quality visual collaboration. But it is a complex process. Companies that are
considering deploying an IP-based videoconferencing solution must determine if their local
or wide area network has the ability to handle audio, video, and data without drastically
slowing the overall network.
Some videoconferencing vendors offer a complete service program to help businesses
evaluate and expand existing infrastructure, choose the right solutions, integrate
IP-based visual collaboration into the network, and ensure interoperability with ISDN
systems. Once in place, service providers offer continuing support and consultation so
businesses can maximize their investment.
International standards also enable connectivity between networks and systems. All
business-quality, IP-based visual collaboration is based on a protocol known as H.323 -
the comprehensive standard for simultaneous voice, video, and data over IP. H.323 is based
on a series of standards that encompasses synchronization, transmission, and audio coding.
Products that adhere to the H.323 standard will interoperate with one another regardless
of the network, platform, and application that is being used. However, a gateway is needed
when users of H.323 standards-based solutions want to collaborate with systems run on
other protocols, such as H.320 for ISDN-based conferencing.
Today, videoconferencing vendors are integrating streaming video and document-sharing
capabilities into their IP-based conferencing solutions for added benefits and value that
broaden the potential uses for visual collaboration.
Streaming video enables hundreds or even thousands of people to simultaneously view a
live or stored videoconference from a Web-enabled desktop. Applications for streaming
video extend from the executive office suite to the boardroom and classroom. Chief
executives can address their entire organization live or store their speeches for later
broadcast throughout the network. Trainers can offer seminars from their offices and reach
off-site salespeople and distributors. Question-and-answer sessions can be conducted via
chat or e-mail technologies.
Videoconferences can hold long-term value with the benefits of streaming media. Live
videoconferences between multiple locations can be streamed to one or many Web-attached
desktops. That same conference can also be stored for later viewing by people who may have
missed the meeting.
Tradeshow and conference organizers may have a better chance at getting top industry
experts to present a keynote speech if the speakers don't have to travel. In March 1999 at
the Federal Office Systems Exposition (FOSE) in Washington DC, some keynote presenters
addressed FOSE attendees via videoconference. Streaming video also delivered presentations
to a broader audience, as speeches were broadcast live via an IP network throughout the
Document and data-sharing technologies also add value to a videoconference by actively
engaging meeting participants. Whiteboarding, which enables users to share and edit text,
graphics, and data, allows meeting participants to brainstorm ideas using a common
electronic document, or suggest changes and revisions to a presentation.
IMPLEMENTING A SOLUTION
To get the most from an investment in visual collaboration, users should understand all of
the components to a complete, H.323 standards-compliant videoconferencing product family.
A network audit from a qualified vendor is the most important first step, and the audit
provides important recommendations on what network upgrades are needed to help create a
seamless, IP-based conferencing solution. Vendors with comprehensive service plans can
lead businesses through the entire process of network evaluation, implementation and
Ensuring high-caliber audio is vital to the successful implementation of a visual
collaboration solution. Less-than-perfect video can still provide a quality conferencing
experience - less-than-perfect audio can ruin a meeting. Television-quality video runs at
30 frames per second, but with visual collaboration, video can run anywhere between 15 and
30 frames per second. Network transmission rates, system specifications, and the amount of
traffic on a network can all lead to less than optimum video transmission. However,
full-duplex, FM-quality audio performance - which most upgraded networks can easily
support - is a necessary component for ensuring a rich collaborative experience.
A complete solution includes the endpoint or client videoconferencing station, a
gateway product that provides interoperability with H.320, ISDN-based videoconferencing
products, and software for bandwidth control, conference management, and multi-location
connectivity. The client includes the most obvious components of a videoconferencing
solution: A camera, a video and audio codec card, speakers, and a microphone. Many
solutions include hardware components that process the audio and video. In the future, it
is expected that computer processors will eventually become powerful enough to deliver
high-quality visual collaboration with less reliance on specialized hardware assistance.
Gateway solutions allow for interoperability between IP-based solutions and ISDN-based,
H.320-compliant products. In short, the gateway translates between the two protocols. This
component is vital to making a complete videoconferencing infrastructure. The gateway
enables companies with existing ISDN-based videoconferencing infrastructures to protect
their investments in those visual collaboration solutions while expanding and jointly
implementing the cost-efficient, emerging standard of IP-based conferencing. Gateway
products should also provide scalability to run at a wide variety of network transmission
speeds, enabling both 128 Kbps and high-speed 384 Kbps transmission rates, as well as
audio conferences using voice-over-IP (VoIP) standards.
Companies that want to videoconference with multiple locations on a single call should
certainly invest in virtual conference server software to enable multiple point
conferencing on demand. Conference server products can allow three locations - or dozens
of locations - to participate in a single videoconference. The software can accommodate
several different conference environments as well. Switch-on voice lets all participants
see whoever is speaking, and continuous presence allows for up to four locations to be
viewed simultaneously on a single screen. Broadcaster select allows an operator to control
which site is being viewed by meeting participants.
For those who decide not to invest in multiple-point server software, there are many
telecommunication service providers who can supply the network bridging and support for
multiple-location videoconferences as needed.
As DSL and broadband network infrastructure are laid in place, the next-generation
Internet will emerge ready to sustain real-time audio, video, and data traffic. With
IP-based conferencing products, videoconferencing providers are already developing and
producing the solutions that will be needed to make high-quality conferencing possible on
the next-generation Internet.
In the meantime, IP-based videoconferencing is a way for companies to reduce extraneous
travel time and expense while providing a means for colleagues who are miles apart to
collaborate daily via video. In a global economy, technology eliminates the barriers of
distance and enables business units in remote locations to seamlessly work together.
Marty Takessian is senior product manager, Internet multipoint solutions, for
PictureTel Corporation. PictureTel is the world leader in developing, manufacturing and
marketing a full range of visual- and audio-collaboration and streaming-video solutions.
The company's systems meet customers' collaboration needs from the desktop to the
boardroom. PictureTel also markets network conferencing servers and a comprehensive
portfolio of enterprise-wide services. For more information, visit the company's Web site