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Take 5: The Case for Conferencing

By Neil Lieberman


The case for investing in enterprise-wide conferencing and collaboration has never been stronger. The track record of voice, Web, and video conferencing in reducing costs and increasing productivity has earned them recognition as birthright workplace tools tools that are universally useful and should be deployed to almost everyone in the company, similar to e-mail and the telephone.

Most businesses are already using some combination of teleconferencing, Web conferencing, and video conferencing. As currently delivered, however, these applications impose economic and technical limitations that prevent companies from deploying them more widely.

High-performance companies are asking how to put conferencing and collaboration tools in the hands of everyone without breaking the bank or the network. They can achieve this goal by considering five factors: licensing model, breadth of functionality, scalability, integration capability, and deployment options.

Licensing Model

There are two basic license models:

Usage-based licensing in which you pay only for what you use, but the more you use, the more you pay.
Fixed price/unlimited usage licensing which treats conferencing as a fixed price utility similar to e-mail.

Virtually all conferencing offerings today use some form of usage-based pricing for at least one component of their offering. The most common forms include (1) simple per-minute pricing for the combined voice, Web, and video event and (2) per-minute audio pricing combined with either named user or concurrent user pricing for the Web and video components. In addition, concurrent user pricing itself usually carries a stiff overage penalty for usage that exceeds the licensed number simultaneous participants.

Fixed price/unlimited usage license models have, until recently, been limited to on-site, hardware-based systems. They are now being offered by select voice and Web conferencing vendors under plans similar to local and domestic long-distance telephone services or enterprise software site licenses.

Licensing models have a strong impact on the use of conferencing. Simply put, the adoption of conferencing within the enterprise is hindered by usage-based models and is helped by fixed price/unlimited usage plans.

Questions to consider:

Which licensing model makes the most sense for me?
If I unexpectedly exceed my license, what penalties or charges I will incur?
Will the vendor allow me to convert from a usage-based plan to a fixed price/unlimited use plan?

Breadth Of Functionality
Businesses will find three major approaches to conferencing functionality, each with its advantages and disadvantages:

Individual point products for voice, Web, and video conferencing This model permits organizations with the time, money, and expertise to assemble best-of-breed products in each category; however, this approach requires a good deal of IT support, user training, and may cause confusion if the various products include similar functions.

Loosely bundled integrated solutions An example of this approach would be a Web conferencing vendor who bundles third-party voice and video conferencing services and integrates them just enough to allow users to schedule voice, Web, and video events at the same time and receive a single bill for the multiple elements. While the components may share a similar interface, this approach is more cosmetic than substantive, lacking the critical architectural and data level integration.

True integrated conferencing solutions This model offers seamless operation between the voice, Web, and video components. The integrated nature of these offerings provides a broader range of functionality as well. For example, these products typically offer advanced eLearning, Web seminar, and on-demand recording capabilities, in addition to basic voice, Web, and video conferencing.

Companies seeking to encourage conferencing will benefit from the broader functionality of true integrated products. These products can meet the needs of all of a companys business groups, allowing the company to standardize on a single common product. This simplifies life for end users, who have just one product to learn, and of the IT teams, who have just one product to manage and support.

Questions to consider:

What business functionality do I need?

Can I find this functionality in a single product or must I build my own solution from multiple products?


The more a company encourages conferencing, the more important scalability becomes.

There are two aspects to scalability: the number of people that can participate in an event, and the number of events that can occur simultaneously. The type of audio conferencing also has an impact: most conferencing products that scale well using traditional TDM audio have problems supporting the same load if participants use VoIP.

Questions to consider:
What conferencing volumes do I expect, both average and peak usages?
Can the product demonstrate the ability to meet my volume needs with both TDM and VoIP participants?
How does the product handle usage spikes, both planned (e.g., an all-hands meeting each quarter) and unplanned?

Integration Capability

The ability to integrate with business applications, IT infrastructure, security frameworks, telecom networks, and other systems and processes offers usability, security, administration, and cost benefits. For example:

Usability Being able to schedule and enter a conference via the Outlook or Notes interface increases adoption and usage.
Security Integrating with a reverse proxy server increases the security of the conferencing application and eliminates the need for separate conferencing domains for internal and external participants.
Administration Managing user access via an existing LDAP directory greatly eases the workload on an IT staff.
Cost Savings Integrating with a companys PBX or IP Gateway can dramatically reduce conference calling costs.

A products integration capability is a function of both the application itself and its deployment model. On the application side, some products have rich APIs designed to simplify linking with products from multiple vendors; others dont. True integrated products (described above) are simpler to integrate into infrastructure elements than multiple products from different vendors. On the deployment side, on-site products tend to offer simpler, richer integration capabilities than hosted solutions; and sound security policies argue against making sensitive data, such as directory servers, accessible to hosted services over the public Internet.

Questions to consider:

How rich are the products integration capabilities?
Can the vendor put you in touch with companies who have done the type of integrations that we want to do?
Which of my specific application and infrastructure products does the conferencing product integrate with?

Deployment Options

There are four major deployment options available today:

Hosted Service Generally chosen when the volume of conferencing is not well known, when most meetings are external, and if there is a lack of in-house IT skills to manage the solution.
On-site Implementation Generally chosen when the level of conferencing use is high, most meetings are internal, security is a key concern, integration with existing IT infrastructure tools and processes is important, and there are sufficient in-house IT resources to manage the solution.
Managed Service An on-site deployment that is managed on an ongoing basis by the conferencing vendor or third-party service provider.
Blended Deployment This hybrid, available from vendors who offer both hosted and on-site implementation, can be managed as a single integrated system. It provides the cost savings, security, and control of an on-site implementation with the rapid rollout, broad reach, and overflow/failover protection of a hosted service. This model is especially popular with mid-sized to large organizations due to the flexibility it provides.

Forcing businesses to choose between either a pure hosted or on-site deployment is unnecessarily limiting in todays business environment. Most companies need to work with both internal and external participants and few would accept a lower level of security if given a choice. To provide broad access to conferencing and collaboration capabilities, and to avoid buying multiple conferencing products to meet different requirements, companies are often best served by the blended deployment model.

Questions to consider:
What are my needs from a volume, security, integration, and geographic perspective?
What options does the vendor offer?
How can the vendor help me if my needs change?

High-performing companies understand that broad use of conferencing and collaboration can increase innovation, shorten response time, strengthen customer and partner relationships, and improve process effectiveness. They have demonstrated that conferencing saves money and increases individual productivity. They have also shown that giving conferencing to everyone, like e-mail, is not just desirable; it is technically and economically feasible.

Mid-sized to large companies looking to use conferencing throughout their organizations can use the criteria above to guide their search. For many, the ideal solution will combine a fixed price/unlimited usage license model, broad functionality to serve as an enterprise-wide standard, scalability to support significant demand without requiring active resource management, integration with key business applications, IT and telecom infrastructures, and a blended deployment model. IT

Neil Lieberman is vice president of marketing at Interwise. For more information, please visit the company online at (news - alerts)

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