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Unified Communications
Simon Moss

Facing the Future: Adding Video to Unified Communications

"The way in which individuals communicate and collaborate in the business setting has changed dramatically in the last few years, but we are just on the cusp of even more dramatic change."


These are the words of a study into unified communications (UC) by Wainhouse Research and In-Stat, two analyst groups that specialize in communications technologies. At present, "cusp" is the operative word; very few enterprises can claim to have an all-embracing UC system in use today. Yet anybody who reads the technology trade media will be aware that hardware, software and network vendors are currently engaged in a grab for market share that's as fast and ferocious as early pioneers hoping to make their fortunes in the American West.


And while you're more likely to find office-casual and corporate mission statements than Stetsons and caravan trails, the potential returns glitter as much as any gold. Wainhouse and In-Stat predict that the UC industry will be worth US$48.7 billion within five years.


Market Pressures


Technology fundamentalists may argue for a strict definition of UC that is nothing short of a single, presence-aware platform delivering voice, video and data collaboration, and capable of being accessed via different devices. It's an alluring ideal, but the reality is that in today's nascent industry no single company can provide a complete UC service that is truly satisfactory in all areas.


Ira Weinstein, Senior Analyst and Partner at Wainhouse, asserts that convenience, system intelligence and usability define UC more than the completeness of integration of technologies. "The difference between UC and regular communications is that I have everything in front of me, it's easy to use, and I don't have to keep switching between tools to communicate and share what I want," he explains.


As business becomes more international, and teams more geographically dispersed, the coalescing potential of UC is capturing the attention of senior management. Many of the pressures they face are not new – boost worker productivity, speed decision-making, reduce time to market, improve customer and partner interactions. However, rising travel costs and time, increased global competition, and a darkening economic climate have created new imperatives. The value derived from collaboration between knowledge workers, whether inside or outside of an organization, has never been more crucial.


With UC today worth $22.6 billion (Wainhouse and In-Stat), it's clear that the market already perceives the benefits. Scratch the surface, however, and you find that deployments primarily cover voice and data. A key element of the UC mix, video, is often overlooked.


Face Value


Asked about the value of video communications, Weinstein is in no doubt. "Adding video to any communications session extends the impact of that session," Weinstein says. "It matters especially when people rather than data are the focus of the interaction. Expression and subconscious body language convey more information than we think and these come into play when we're trying to build a relationship with other people."


David Marshak, Senior Product Manager for Unified Communications and Collaboration at IBM, seems to share this view. "Our aim is to make it easer for people to find, reach and collaborate with one another through familiar devices, applications and processes. When video is added to the UC mix, it provides richness to the collaboration element that aids more natural communication, and can be a vital tool for some processes."


Videoconferencing technology is hardly a new phenomenon. First demonstrated in the 1960s, high costs and poor quality meant it was slow to catch on. By the late 1990s however, ISDN-based systems were a regular feature of corporate boardrooms. The technology seems to be stuck there, bound by the need to schedule calls, lingering technical hurdles such as the need to enter passcodes or IP addresses, and poor interconnectivity between different vendors' systems.


This legacy doesn't marry well with ease-of-use expectations of UC. Melanie Turek, Principal Analyst at Frost & Sullivan, says: "The problem with room-based systems, including sophisticated telepresence systems, is that they aren't readily available to everyone. This is especially true for home-based or remote workers."


Frost & Sullivan believes IT managers should plan to include video in UC deployments, but site it at the desktop. In a whitepaper published earlier this year, it states that when integrated into business processes, video-enabling UC at the desktop ensures that the human element doesn't get lost as companies go virtual.


"As people become familiar with what UC can do, they start asking for more features to be added," says Turek. One approach is to get room-based videoconferencing systems to integrate with a broader UC deployment so they become easier to use, gaining presence awareness for example. The other way is to deliver videoconferencing at the desktop, so I can see it right on my screen."


The likely scenario is that video will become part of UC via both of these routes, but the analysts concur that the ease and familiarity of desktop appliance software delivers the strongest return on investment.


Metcalfe's Law


According to Weinstein, it's when videoconferencing becomes available at the desktop that the benefits multiply. "Don't underestimate the importance of convenience," he says. "Though the benefits of video apply irrespective of the way you access it, adding it to a UC environment takes communication to a whole new level. The analogy is everyone in an organization sharing one telephone, compared with putting a phone onto everyone's desk. Making it so accessible results in a big leap forward."


Weinstein cites Metcalfe's Law, originated by Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe, which states that the value of a communications network is proportional to the square of the number of users of the system. Put simply, the more people are connected, the better!


Bob Romano, Vice President of Enterprise Marketing at RADVISION, a provider of enabling technologies for UC, says that the addition of video is the final link in the UC chain. "Firms start with VoIP and add UC features such as presence and click-to-call connection. The next stage is to integrate collaboration tools for data – essentially the webconferencing that exists today. Video comes next, but has been restricted to the conference room and not taken off at the desktop as predicted."


Please Release Me


So, what's preventing video from escaping the confines of the meeting room?


Fear that video will suck up all available bandwidth and crash the network is, in my view, the biggest hurdle for universal inclusion of video within UC. At my company, Avistar, we've had more than a decade of experience solving this problem and I'm in no doubt that unless you have a satisfactory remedy for this, no IT manager worth his iPhone will want to know.


The analysts see the same issue. "The leading players – Microsoft, IBM, Nortel, Avaya, Cisco – all incorporate video into their UC offerings, but there are limitations that come from it being a kind of bolt-on," says Weinstein. "Their platforms weren't designed around video, so they struggle to deliver it at scale with the quality and reliability that's expected." Turek also sees bandwidth as the biggest hurdle to widespread adoption of desktop: "Lot's of IT managers simply disable the video capabilities of their UC system to avoid problems."


IBM's Marshak recognizes the market's concerns. "There are three key issues when adding video to UC: service quality, network impact, and proving the business case. At one time these were often insurmountable hurdles, but technology has moved on. Today, people can and should expect high quality video. Also, network management to ensure reliability of service is essential for UC video integration. And with quality and reliability having been addressed, the business case – less need to travel, cost savings, increased efficiency and productivity – starts to come true."


"The fourth factor is today's younger generation," says Marshak. "As they start to enter the workplace, apps like Skype and YouTube mean they assume that video is a normal communication tool. These expectations will become a key driver in the UC market."


Wainhouse sets out three options for organizations seeking to add video to UC:


1. Limit video access to small groups. This largely prevents bandwidth issues, but limits the benefits that come from wide deployment.


2. Overpipe the network to deliver the bandwidth needed to switch video on for everyone. This approach ensures universal availability, but could prove to be expensive.


3. Deploy a solution that manages video's access to available bandwidth to ensure that other network traffic can continue unhindered.


"If you want to roll out video-enabled UC to many users, and you don't want to spend on big network upgrades, you need a solution that has bandwidth management," adds Weinstein. "In today's market, that means integrating technologies from more than one provider."


No Hero


RADVISION's Romano also believes that there's no standalone solution: "We're convinced about the benefits of visual communications, and it makes sense to include video within a rollout of UC rather than maintaining a separate platform, so our business is focused on enabling different hardware and software endpoints to interact successfully. An engine that supports video and integrates with UC systems is the best answer in the current market. We won't see enterprises going with a single provider in the medium term."


This marries with the direction that Avistar is taking in the market. Our earlier customers tended to be the video evangelists – some of them having been using desktop videoconferencing for years. Now most of the interest is in the bandwidth management capabilities of our technology. Companies want to build that into their UC setup so they can switch on video with confidence. I believe there are now significant growth opportunities for Avistar to integrate with the UC systems of major software and hardware vendors. To this end we're pursuing a UC components strategy to deliver key elements that support wide-scale video deployments, plus we're readying software to support multiparty video and improve interoperability between different vendor systems.


Inevitably, as more people use video-enabled UC, there is greater demand for bandwidth. Frost & Sullivan state that with the right management tools in place, the increased usage can deliver better ROI and needn't put a strain on IT resources or personnel.


Weinstein concludes, "I expect the primary players will soon seek to add bandwidth management to their solutions, either natively or by integrating technology from other vendors. Until now it hasn't been their priority, but it looks as though UC will be the catalyst that finally gives desktop video its day in the sun."


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