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Meeting Business Communications Challenges Head-On

By Lori Scribner

 

It has been 40 years since Intel (news - alerts) co-founder Gordon Moore made his now famous observation, which appeared in the April 19, 1965 issue of Electronics magazine and states that innovations in technology would allow a doubling of the number of transistors in a given space every year and that the speed of those transistors would increase. About 10 years later, Moore adjusted the rate to every two years to account for the growing complexity of chips.

Moores prediction, now popularly known as Moores Law, had some startling implications at the time, predicting that computing technology would increase in value at the same time it would actually decrease in cost.

There is no better example of Moores Law in practice than the collaborative, real-time communications software market. The development of Web and video conferencing technologies has paralleled Moores prediction and, today, communicating instantly using video and audio, and other applications is as easy as just a click of the mouse. What, approximately 10 years ago, could be accomplished in a hardware-based video conferencing system, costing between $20,000 and $50,000, has now made it to the desktop. With equal, if not better video and sound quality, boardroom-quality video and Web conferences can now be conducted utilizing a standard desktop PC and any Web camera.

Video conferencing has an illustrious history, making its debut just before Moores prediction was made public, at the 1964 Worlds Fair in New York. At the time, it was no more reasonable to launch a space shuttle into orbit than to use video for any of the applications its being used for today, including telemedicine, live distance learning, business meetings, sales presentations, job interviews, and the like. The first attempts at using traditional telephony networks to transmit slow-scan video failed mainly because of the lack of efficient video compression capabilities that produced a very poor picture quality. By the 1980s, ISDN digital transmission networks became available to the public. These networks assured a minimum bandwidth (generally 128 kilobits/sec) for compressed video transmission. In some instances, multiple ISDN lines were used, often in groups of four and eight, to achieve acceptable video performance. Throughout the 1990s, video teleconference systems continued to rapidly evolve due to standards-based technology advancements. The decade also saw the emergence of Internet Protocol (IP)-based video conferencing and more efficient video compression technologies were developed that permitted PC-based, desktop video conferencing. Free services, such as Microsoft NetMeeting, MSN Messenger, and Yahoo! messenger, brought the general public and consumer market inexpensive, yet low-quality video conferencing.

The shift to on-demand desktop Web and video conferencing didnt happen overnight, but accelerated advancement of IP networks and other technological innovations have all helped to drive collaborative applications to desktops around the world.

Web Conferencing Software Outshines Overpriced Hardware-based Video Conferencing
Perhaps most important to the evolution and growth of the popularity of Web conferencing is the rapid advancement and development of the Pentium processor. New generations of processors are able to process and transmit data, voice, audio, and video at amazing speeds. High-speed Internet, standards-based technologies, and processor speeds have combined to bring real-time communication and collaborative computing to desktops in schools, business, government, and the military.




While there may always be a market for high-end hardware-based video conferencing systems, the cost is out of the question for most mid-market organizations which limits its accessibility and is definitely a barrier to ubiquity. Traditional boardroom conferencing systems generally require physical leased lines and two hard wired fixed route endpoints cost upwards of $50,000. For installations with more than two endpoints, the routes and endpoints are pre-determined and conferencing connections are established using video-specific routers called Multiple Channel Units (MCUs) or Video Multiplexers (MUXs), which often double or triple the cost of a video installation.

Still, there are many large corporations, educational, and government and military facilities where the scale, staff, and costs can sustain an expensive hardware-based, fixed route solution. However, video capabilities are limited to pre-determined endpoints and there is no collaboration component without additional cost.

The ability for video and Web conferencing to be accomplished via software applications, on standard PCs and with browsers on standard Internet connections has made the widespread adoption and proliferation of Web and video conferencing possible. It has reached desktops in the smallest of organizations and the cost savings benefits are starting to make sense to even the largest Global 500 companies. Standard applications for Web and video conferencing are familiar to most: distance learning, sales and ad-hoc meetings and presentations, human resource interviews, company orientations and employee training, to name some.

Web conferencing has enabled companies to save money on business travel for personnel training, meetings, and has maintained the integrity of the meeting by adding a new dimension of interaction and collaborative abilities that are second only to being there in person. Browser-based video conferencing technology, and the end user experience, have caught up and, in many cases, have surpassed that of hardware-based video conferencing systems. A Pentium processor running at 1.0 GHz or better is far more powerful than legacy video hardware codecs. Although both types of systems use standard algorithms for encoding/decoding, there are major variations in implementation. Software-based IP video can be browser-based, dramatically increasing the reach and applications set for a video conferencing investment. Software can also connect via port 80, and maintain compatibility with industry standard Web services, so as to maximize connections among employees and customers behind firewalls. Legacy hardware solutions cannot do this without MCUs and MUXs. Most importantly, high-quality software can take advantage of symmetric multiprocessors, multithreading, Intel MMX optimizations, and especially good techniques in synchronizing VoIP, video, desktop sharing and collaboration. Which brings full-screen, high-quality video plus desktop sharing into a single, fluid and productive conferencing experience right to and from the users desktop.

In short, Moores Law has caught up with video conferencing hardware endpoints. Well designed software on a Pentium desktop now matches previous generation full-screen, full-motion video conferencing. Moreover, it brings expanded reach to anyone with a PC and an Internet connection, connectivity, and a fully collaborative desktop sharing experience far beyond what legacy video systems can provide.

Deploying Web Conferencing in Complex Networks and Secure Environments
Managed service providers provide organizations of all sizes from nearly all industries Web and video conferencing services. However, services can be expensive, because of per minute prices and inevitable overcharges. This type of pricing model makes it difficult for any size organization to manage Web conferencing costs, not to mention the reliability of the application due to bandwidth constraints, and the security of the conference session and its contents. Now that Web and video conferencing can run on any standard PC server, many organizations are finding out firsthand the benefits of owning the Web and video conferencing application. For example, Hawaii Pacific University (HPU), which has 10 campuses on the island of Oahu, including eight military satellite campuses, decided to purchase Web and video conferencing software for use throughout the campus. HPU found that the application was easy to install and use and it didnt have to assign any special IT resources to manage the application on the back end. While the simplicity of the Web conferencing application was critical, so was its affordability, said Justin Itoh, CIO at Hawaii Pacific University. We are saving about one half of what we paid previously for just remote control from a leading service provider. Not only are we saving money, but because we own the software, we can offer it to other departments as needed.

HPU has found that Web and video conferencing comes in handy for job interviews in the Human Resources Department, which may be interviewing potential employees on another island, or three time zones away. It is also being used for live distance learning, administration staff meetings, IT helpdesk, and enabling teacher and administrators from all campuses to gather virtually.

Without a tremendous strain on IT assets already stretched to the maximum in many organizations Web and video conferencing software can provide a fast return on investment by keeping key personnel in the office to focus on their daily responsibilities.

And because it is so versatile, Web and video conferencing software can find a home in nearly every department in an organization and actually become a critical component in the continuity of business processes especially to organizations in regions that experience harsh seasonal weather conditions that make it difficult, or even impossible, to make it to the office.

Organizations that place a high priority on security, such as financial, legal, government agencies, and the military can also benefit from the collaborative, real-time communications capabilities that Web and video conferencing offers. Because the installation of the software is behind the firewall vital information being presented during the conference session is secured. However, not all Web conferencing applications are created equal. Some are designed to work seamlessly, reliably, and to scale easily in a secure network environment. Other approaches to real-time communications utilize T.120, peer-to-peer connections, and UDP broadcasting, all of which can be difficult to deploy in a distributed enterprise. In some traditional communication software solutions, especially those that provide voice and video, many attempt to connect endpoints directly between peer computers using a combination of protocols. It is common for peer-to-peer protocols to utilize TCP and UDP transports to communicate as quickly as possible.

Many, if not most, video and audio real-time products utilize UDP. This is especially true of educational applications originally designed to operate between desktops on the same LAN. These products require opening entire ranges of ports, which is often a violation of security policies, or the application simply cannot route between multiple offices or over the public Internet. However, Web conferencing solutions that utilize only TCP/IP connections over Web services standard ports (80, 443) within their routing schema solve these problems. While TCP adds additional latency versus a UDP classroom broadcasting approach, for practical purposes the former successfully connects users over the Internet and between offices while the latter does not.

However, as network address translation (NAT) devices, proxies, and firewalls have become more pervasive, solutions that use these scenarios tend to be unreliable in many corporate networks. Organizations that employ stringent security policies can still take advantage of the latest Web and video conferencing software. As with any application, some software developers take security more seriously than others. There are Web conferencing solutions that secure conference sessions from end-to-end. Those that route audio and video over separate ports and separate broadcast or TCP/IP connections make security and encryption problematic or nearly impossible to implement. However, those that transport data, video, and audio over the same TCP/IP connection can provide end-to-end security using industry standards.

In Web conferencing, it is standard practice to utilize SSL and TLS for securing conferencing sessions. IT administrators can employ the routing and server access restrictions, plus account names and passwords for conferencing rights. Meeting hosts can also add conference room passwords. The IT administrator can configure the SSL and TLS features to use RC4, DES, AES, and even RSA depending upon their security requirements. This provides the highest degree of commercial secure encryption. In addition, well-designed software will also allow customers to use their own security certificate, and for sensitive installations, even allow the customer to use their own Public Key Infrastructure (PKI). By using SSL and TLS, customers can leverage existing investments in their current Certificate Authorities (CA) and PKI. In addition, organizations can confidently operate their Web and video conferencing applications without making any exceptions to their internal security policies.

Conclusion
No longer relegated to the largest organizations and corporations that have immense IT spending budgets, the Web and video conferencing software industry has flourished because of PC processor advancement, technology standards, and widespread access to high-speed Internet connections. Purchasing on-premise Web conferencing software has become affordable for every organization that can afford a standard PC server. And it can truly benefit any entity by saving money on business travel, decreasing time spent out of the office, and increasing the interaction between conference attendees who can simply click to join a meeting from anywhere in the world.

Even the most secure, locked down enterprise that employs firewalls, NATs, and proxies can easily deploy and utilize Web and video conferencing software. The IT administrator needs only to find a suitable solution that utilizes a pure TCP/IP approach that only utilizes one secured connection to transport data, voice, video, and audio.

Web conferencing software is on par with expensive video systems in terms of the visual experience, especially with equivalent bandwidth availability, but it definitely surpasses legacy hardware systems in terms of affordability, dramatically expanded reach, ease of deployment, security and enhanced multiparty video and collaboration capabilities. IT

Lori Scribner is a freelance technology writer based in San Diego, California. For more information, please visit the company online at www.wiredred.com.

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