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April 2007
Volume 10 / Number 4
Feature Articles
Richard "Zippy" Grigonis

Conferencing and Collaboration for the Enterprise

By Richard “Zippy” Grigonis, Feature Articles
 

Taken together as two facets of the same phenomenon, Conferencing and Collaboration was labeled as a “killer app” for decades, and yet its popularity was always subject to slow, steady adoption rates. After the 9/11 attacks, it was predicted that this technology would enjoy explosive growth — in actuality, there was a bit of a spike in usage after the disaster, but it now appears that cheap, high quality broadband and modern, inexpensive IP Communications equipment has had more to do with its recent increase in popularity.

That’s not to say that business are completely unaware of terrorist threats or other business continuity concerns. Indeed, in a 2006 customer survey by one of the world’s largest providers of multimedia conferencing and collaboration services, Genesys (News - Alert) Conferencing (http://www.genesys.com), almost 80% of the 586 respondents said that conferencing can potentially help maintain business continuity and team interaction in the event of a major disruption during which workers cannot meet in person. The survey also found that many companies aren’t very prepared for a crisis, with some 60% of the customers reporting that either their companies have no crisis preparedness/continuity plans in place or that they are unaware of them if they do.

Yours Truly recently spoke to Denise Persson, EVP Marketing for Genesys Conferencing, and Tony Terranova, VP of Product Marketing, using — what else? — Genesys Meeting Center, which is their core application, a 100% IP Communications app that integrates whatever you could possibly need for a virtual meeting.


Founded in France in 1986, and now with presence in 24 countries, Genesys has some experience in this conferencing and collaboration area, having delivered 2.5 billion collaboration minutes in 2006, which works out to 2 million meetings per year or 70,000 meetings per day, up over 25% from 2005. The Genesys Meeting Center interface has been translated into 8 languages. Much of Genesys’ business, however, is done in the U.S.

“In terms of multimedia we refer to the integration of voice, web and desktop videoconferencing service into one application,” says Persson. “As an innovation- driven company, Genesys does all of its own research and development internally. We’ve developed true multimedia collaboration using AJAX technologies that’s firewall friendly as well as of low bandwidth. Genesys started out as an audio conferencing provider, and then we scored a number of ‘firsts’, such as the first to launch an automated audio conferencing service (1988); the first to launch PC-based audio-control software (1994); the first to launch audio-web-video integration (2000), the first to launch the multimedia minute (2003). Genesys Meeting Center is deployed on over 300,000 desktops. November 2006 was a record month with 80,000 web meetings.”

Genesys’ solutions require no downloads, no Java Virtual Machine, no disabling of pop-up blockers. Only a web browser is required, such as IE 6.0 (Windows), Firefox 2.0 (Windows, Linux), or Safari 2.0 (Mac).

The are many other reasons for enterprises to love Genesys Conferencing. “When we’re chosen by an enterprise as a service provider, we have an implementation team that kicks into action quickly and works with our customer so that everyone in that company gets an account and is up and running quickly,” says Genesys’ Tony Terranova. “We provide training and various rollout services. We pride ourselves on customer service, having a 24/7 global help desk with local language support. The help desk hands both audio and video — many of our competitors have different help desks for different functions.”

“We’re also adept at customization, since every large enterprise has unique needs,” says Terranova.

“We have flexible pricing options but our main pricing option, and the one that’s most popular, is what we call the Multimedia Minute,” beams Terranova. “This is a single per minute rate, whether you’re using audio, the web, video or all three combined simultaneously. So, there’s no incremental charge if you add web functionality.”

The latest reason for enterprises to gravitate toward Genesys Conferencing is the launch of Genesys Meeting Center 4.0, a brand new Windowsbased platform.

As Terranova explains it, “Once again, it’s designed specifically for large enterprises. It’s also designed from a large enterprise perspective to be very ITfriendly: easy to deploy and centrallyadminister. Over the years we’ve found that, with large enterprises, obviously many of them are locked down, and we’ve worked with a number of IT directors over the years to really perfect how they can deploy Genesys Meeting Center across their desktops and to the end users.”

“Version 4.0 is very bandwidth friendly,” says Terranova. “It takes up no more bandwidth than if you surfed the Internet. We have about 20 percent or 30 percent more bandwidth efficiency with 4.0. There’s also several levels of security through the system.”

Polycom (News - Alert) (http://www.polycom.com), which first gained public attention with its superlative triangular conference phone many years ago, also follows trends and other happenings in this industry like a hawk.

Polycom’s Joan Vandermate, VP of Marketing, Polycom Network Systems Division, sees the following trends: “High definition [HD] is being adopted faster than we anticipated. Customers love it. There’s also a lot of interest in telepresence, which is raising the awareness level of video among C-level executives. There’s also interest among carriers for video mobile applications — 3Gtype stuff. And there’s continuing interest in integrating video into core unified communications environments, making video an extension of the phone or presence- based collaboration applications, such as IM, softphones, web collaboration, and so forth.”

“All of these dynamics are driving the need for a new platform that can support both the high computational requirements of HD and telepresence,” says Vandermate, “as well as the scale and integration flexibility required for mobile and desktop video applications. Polycom’s RMX 2000 is our solution and is also part of an IMS [IP Multimedia Subsystem (News - Alert)] strategy.”

The RMX 2000 Real-Time Media Conferencing Platform to which Vandermate refers is a sophisticated IPbased platform for easy multipoint conferencing. It’s built on a powerful rackmount computer constructed using the Advanced Telecommunications Computing Architecture (AdvancedTCA (News - Alert)) form factor. The RMX 2000’s modular IMS-ready design makes it highly scalable and gives it the ability to handle next-gen conferencing application deployments. Initiating and joining an RMX 2000 conference is simple: users access on-demand meeting rooms which come pre-configured. The RMX conferencing platform supports many video resolutions (CIF, standard definition, and high definition). It can scale from 20 to 80 ports.

“As video is moving to IP,” says Vandermante, “it is becoming more of an IT responsibility — it’s moving away from A/V specialists. IT wants systems that work seamlessly in their IT ecosystems, and our RMX is designed for this. Also, video is driving interest for IMS in the enterprise, particularly among large, global customers. We are seeing interest in both the AdvancedTCA platform and IMS capabilities of the RMX 2000 among large enterprise customers. Our sales teams had originally not planned to talk about IMS within enterprise accounts, but we are in fact seeing interest.”

Support for HD (High Definition), scalability and ease-of-use seem to be the watchwords these days for advanced conferencing systems that use video. Take the MCU 4500 from Codian (News - Alert) (http://www.codian.com), for example. This, the latest of Codian’s (news - alert) Multipoint Control Units, enables users to partake in fullmotion HD continuous presence conferencing with a mix of SD (Standard Definition) and HD endpoints. It is said to have more than 10 times the per-port processing capability of competing conferencing platforms. When running in HD mode, Codian’s video conference bridge should be well-suited for such applications as telemedicine, distance learning and corporate training, all of which demand transparent telepresence along with the flexibility to communicate with various types of endpoint hardware. The MCU 4500 can handle up to 720pixels at 60fps running under H.264, anticipating the next generation of endpoints.

The MCU 4505 serves 12 video participants, with 12 more voice participants that can be added. The MCU 4510 serves 20 video participants, with 20 more voice participants. The MCU 4515 serves 30 video participants and 30 more voice users. Finally, the MCU 4520 serves 40 video participants and 40 more voice users. You can view a live demo of Codian’s HD technology at http://www.codian.com/demo.

Converged Conferencing and Visual Sharing
The concept of ease-of-use in conferencing and collaboration is a big one among service providers and those who develop the underlying technology. Once inexpensive broadband became available, one of the last challenges to make any IP Communications application popular is to make it easy to use.

Take WebDialogs (News - Alert) (http://www.webdialogs.com), which has been in the web conferencing space since the middle of 2002, with a technology called WebInterpoint, which WebDialogs offers to conferencing service providers. According to Waynehouse Research, WebDialogs WebInterpoint is the most widely-deployed private-label, re-branded web conferencing solution in the market.

Lou Garcia, President, CEO and Director of WebDialogs, says: “Back in 2002 we looked at the phenomenal growth — about 35 percent a year — of the automated conferencing market, more popularly known as the ‘reservationless’ conferencing market. We said at the time that we wanted to offer service providers a web conferencing technology that is really well-suited to this fast-growing, automated conferencing market. So we came up with WebInterpoint, and we made it so that the service providers could re-brand it, and then we gave them a tool that was easy to use, but sufficiently feature-rich so that the providers could package and promote it with their service.”

“We work with half of the top ten conferencing service providers globally,” says Garcia, “but we also have experience with small, mid-size and regional service providers. That experience has given us a real insight into where we think the market is going.”

Garcia drills down: “What I’m really excited about — and I spoke about this at your ITEXPO West conference — is the whole notion of ‘converged conferencing’, which is the ability to enter into a multimedia type of conference experience completely on-the-fly, but generally as a result of using presence and Instant Messaging [IM] technology. As all of these different IM platforms — some hosted, some premise-based — get used in the market, there’s now an ability to escalate from presence to IM, and then from IM to VoIP-based conferencing, and then to extend that to include both web and videoconferencing. You could say that ‘web conferencing is to audio conferencing as visual sharing is to instant messaging and VoIP’.”

“In other words,” says Garcia, “a web conference such as ours or WebEx’, or whomever, is almost always used in conjunction with an audio conference call. So, even though the delivery platforms may be automated in a sense, the fact is that conferences are still planned; they’re ‘scheduled appointments’ on people’s calendars. But in the world of converged conferencing, I might have my presence showing that I’m online; you and I may be co-presenting next month at an ITEXPO East conference somewhere, and you may say, ‘Hey, it looks like Lou is online. Let me ping him and ask him if he’s there,’ and I respond, ‘Yes, I’m here,’ and you ask, ‘Lou, you want to talk?’ and we just enter into a Skype (News - Alert) call. After a minute or so, we may realize that we need, say, Rich Tehrani in the conversation too to talk about the format. We see that Rich is online and we bring him into the call. Then I may say, ‘Hey guys, this is what I’m thinking about presenting at the show,’ and I escalate this so that all three of us can collaborate on a PowerPoint presentation. That’s what I mean by convergence. Notice how the platform that initiated the multimedia conference experience wasn’t some Outlook scheduling event, and it wasn’t an email that was circulated around a week ago; rather, it was this amazing little thing called ‘presence’ that initiated an IM and then we escalated that to voice, and the web, and then we tied in one or more people.”

“My core message is that, in this world, I think you need a level of simplicity for sharing information and collaborating on data,” says Garcia. “It must so simple that it ‘just works’ without any training whatsoever. That type of technology I refer to as ‘visual sharing’. I think the best evidence of that in the market today is our Unyte Product [http://www.unyte.net]. Unyte (news - alert) is a certified Skype application that enables real-time collaboration through visual, desktop sharing. Since we went into beta in February 2007, we have over 200,000 users. Unyte makes it very simple right now for Skype users to escalate their chats and Skype VoIP calls to include a visual sharing component. That’s the distinction between web conferencing and our WebInterpoint with visual sharing and Unyte.”

The key point here is that I believe that we’re sort of ‘on the cusp’ of a major change,” says Garcia. “The web conferencing companies such as WebEx, Microsoft (News - Alert), Citrix and Adobe may be vulnerable in their customer bases when it comes to folks who are not ‘power users’ of their technologies. Time and again I learn that people are only using a small fraction of those platforms’ capabilities, whereas I think that if you just want to quickly have a two-to-five person meeting — you want to share some Excel information, or you want to co-browse something that’s behind the firewall, or you want to jointly run an application, or do a software demo, or go through a PowerPoint presentation — you don’t necessarily need WebEx or Adobe or Microsoft LiveMeeting for that. You may just need a very simple-to-use, secure product that just works without any software at the endpoints. It’s really like a Web 2.0 product that has a heavy AJAX experience and gives the user what they need on their desktop without any client software running. And that’s what Unyte is.”

“In short, I think we’re moving from being in a sort of ‘by appointment’ kind of conferencing environment to one where we do things more contextually and ‘on-the-fly’,” says Garcia. “People will increasingly run their lives through their presence and their IM, the enabling technologies for all of this.”

Such “on demand” convenience and cost efficiency are also imbued in the conferencing offerings of Global Crossing (http://www.globalcrossing; com). Their collaboration services include the expected triumvirate of audio, video and web-based conferencing tools for boosting productivity while reducing related meeting expenses.

For example, Global Crossing’s Ready-Access Video service allows users to simultaneously display presentations and high-quality video, thus coalescing the benefits of videoconferencing and web conferencing into a single screen. Ready-Access Video gives users real-time content control and supports on-demand multi-point video bridging, integrated recording, streaming and broadcasting, web-based presentations and archiving. Meeting participants can connect to a discussion through a standard videoconferencing system by phone and the web, or by watching a full video stream at their computers. A reservationless Personal Identification Number (PIN) system allows users to start videoconferences as easily as if they were initiating Ready-Access audio conferences.

Global Crossing offers Ready-Access Video in partnership with IP technologies provider Applied Global Technologies (AGT). Ready-Access Video and IP Video are applications that dwell within Global Crossing’s converged IP offer, which supports ISDN and IP-based endpoints for videoconferencing services.

Bringing It All Together, Wiki-Style
Central Desktop (http://www.centraldesktop. com) is an independent wiki-based collaboration tool designed for business teams. Often compared to JotSpot (recently purchased by Google (News - Alert)), Central Desktop requires no configuration or programming. It’s been called the “wiki without the wiki.”

More than 12,000 users around the world use Central Desktop technology, including engineers. Interestingly, Central Desktop was recently chosen by BusinessWeek readers as the number two collaboration tool behind Wikipedia and ahead of JotSpot. It’s a natural — a 100% web-based collaboration tool with integrated web conferencing capabilities. There is no software to install or download, and Central Desktop can be accessed via Internet Explorer, Firefox or Mozilla browsers, from just about any location. Their On-Demand Model appears both affordable and scalable. Version-tracked files and documents can be stored in a full-text searchable environment (PDF, Word, Excel, PPT, HTML and Saved Bookmarks). Corporate project calendars can be shared and syndicated via iCal and RSS. Real-time collaboration can occur both inside and outside the enterprise firewall.

Isaac Garcia is co-founder and CEO of Central Desktop. He says: “We’re a small team collaboration software company that provides collaboration solutions to teams in the small and medium- sized [SMB] market. However, we do reach quite a bit into the larger enterprise market too; we have several Fortune 500 companies and Global 2000 companies using our tools, but in those cases our software is used by small teams within those companies — pockets of 25 users here, 50 there, and so forth.”

Garcia continues: “Many times, to the dismay of the people with whom I often speak, I say: ‘Fundamentally, there’s nothing new under the sun that I’m going to talk to your about or show you today.’ This is not necessarily new technology. As a collaboration platform we are a wiki-type platform; that’s how we do our traditional collaboration. Well, the wiki technology concept has been around for almost 12 years now. We have web conferencing integrated into our tool now, and hey, that concept has been around for decades. However, 10 or 15 years ago these concepts just didn’t work well — or at all — in a circuit-switched environment. Now they do. The point is that these ideas have been around for a long time.”

“Although we’re a small company and there’s a lot of crowding and noise in the SMB collaboration space,” says Garcia, “it all comes down to execution. This technology has been around for a long time, but few companies have been able to execute it well. We’re excited because we’re one of those companies”

“In many ways the collaboration space can be a bit frustrating,” says Garcia. “Essentially, telephony reaches into call centers and supports how dispersed teams talk to each other, which is nothing new. But at the same time it’s an interesting space to be in, because various aspects of it are now always changing; it’s so dynamic. For example, one of the most used peer-to-peer tools for telephony, at least in the SMB market, is a free service now provided by eBay (News - Alert), which we all know as Skype. It’s both odd and frustrating, but it’s very exciting too.”

“As for our traditional collaboration stuff, says Garcia, “we provide lightweight project management, tools for dispersed teams that collaborate with each other and share such things as files and calendars. We have some interesting twists to these, but I think what’s more interesting is that we’ve integrated web conferencing as part of this collaboration platform. We see very few companies doing this kind of thing.”

“As collaborators, we need different tools for different situations,” says Garcia. “That’s why we resort to different solutions. I’ve always experienced the frustration of, ‘I’m going to write a document here, I’m going to schedule my calendar there, and how does that work with my web meeting tool that I’m using? Does it work with the other clients?’ Things like that. Applications tend to be compartmentalized. What we’re doing with Central Desktop is to meld synchronous and asynchronous collaboration concepts together. By asynchronous I refer to traditional collaboration, which we provide as a platform and web service. By synchronous tools, I mean Web Meeting and Web Conferencing. We feel that it’s the easiest way to replicate that ad hoc, ‘walkinto- your-office-to-show-you something’ environment on your desktop. We enable that quick face-to-face, ‘I need to quickly show you a document,’ environment for example, and bingo, here it is.”

“Our concepts of web conferencing revolve entirely around how teams share information,” says Garcia. “It’s much less about ‘Please use our web conferencing tool for presenting to your sales team’. There are plenty of other tools that already do that, and they all segment their technology.”

“We do free conference calls,” says Garcia. “We provide the number and automate the dialing numbers to synchronize with the web conferencing. We handle that through Central Desktop. So you eliminate having to coordinate all of these different pieces. That’s what we’re trying to bring to SMBs.”

Integrating It All
Dimension Data (news - alert) (http://www.dimensiondata.com) is a global solutions integrator. They have several practice areas, including a converged communications line of business, security, co-routing and switching, a data center and storage practice, and a call center-specific practice. Collaboration and conferencing comes under their converged communications line — this includes such things as IP Telephony, Cisco MeetingPlace, legacy video installations, and so forth. Dimension Data works with major technology vendors such as Cisco, Microsoft, Tandberg and Nokia (News - Alert) to construct practical solutions.

Shaun Struckmann, Senior Solutions Architect at Dimension Data, says: “In the conferencing and collaboration space, the options are huge right now. One challenge customers face is that there are so many options. We’ve all heard about collaboration and we want to use it. But it’s just as if you were to go to an electronics store and you look at a table full of PCs ranging from $400 to $2,500, and you need somebody to explain the differences. Dimension is really good at that kind of thing. We use consulting engagements to determine what the customer is really looking to do with a technology, what they’re requirements are, and their budget, obviously. The options could be Cisco MeetingPlace, the rich media collaboration platform, where you can do full video, web collaboration and integrate it with your email and your Outlook calendars. Then there’s also ‘lite’ versions of these for customers who don’t want as much integration, or possibly not video, such as Cisco MeetingPlace Express. And there are legacy video systems and people who just want a pure, point-to-point video, such as a Polycom or Tandberg (News - Alert) endpoint, where they just put a camera and a microphone in a room and you’ve now got simple, traditional videoconferencing.”

“As for trends," says Struckmann, “because the cost of bandwidth is dropping, we’re seeing a lot more customers come to us and say, ‘We’re ready now. We have the bandwidth available. We know we need it. Tell us what our options are and how we can get things done’.”

“Several years ago, bandwidth was probably the biggest issue,” says Struckmann. “It was expensive and customers couldn’t justify the cost of adding ISDN lines or other things needed for legacy point-to-point videoconferencing. Nowadays, the cost of landline bandwidth has dropped, so customers are saying, ‘Hey, we have this bandwidth, we’ve heard about converged communications, and we want to use our existing infrastructure. We’ve already deployed VoIP technology in our organization and we’re happy with it. So what’s the next step?’ Well, the next step is to add web collaboration, videoconferencing and those types of options.”

“The biggest compelling factor seems to be the web collaboration,” says Struckmann. “It’s being used much more than ever before. I attend many conference calls now where the presenter has his PowerPoint slides, and we’re listening to him present his solution or his sales pitch, and then he just clicks over to a demonstration of what he’s using. So it’s a very powerful tool. We don’t have to fly to a lab somewhere and see a product. You can actually see it working live right on the screen.”

“Telepresence is also getting a lot of traction,” says Struckmann. “With products such as Cisco’s TelePresence Meeting 3000 and 1000, meeting participants can pick up on non-verbal cues normally difficult or impossible to discern with traditional videoconferencing, but easy to discern on Cisco’s system with its 65- inch plasma screen, full-duplex microphones, enhanced video, balanced acoustics and other high-tech items that conjure up the feel of faceto- face, lifelike communication.”

Conferencing and collaboration tools are becoming more and more familiar to workers throughout the world. For home office workers, the days of sitting around unshaven in a bathrobe are numbered. You are warned!

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