December 2007 | Volume 10/ Number 12
Multimedia Just Around the Corner
On October 16th, I witnessed the launch of the much anticipated Microsoft® Unified Communications (UC) product suite in San Francisco. Having spent many years following and actively participating in the Computer Telephony (CT) industry, I was psyched to hear Bill Gates speaking our language - the language of open-standard communications. As his presentation unfolded, the message aligned with the one that the CT industry has championed for years. Here was a high-profile tech leader talking about open-standard platforms enabling software developers to deliver innovation in multimedia communications for the enterprise during one of the most closely watched announcements of the year.
Gates' message puts the capstone on the many years of hard work by the industry to converge voice and data networks and transition from proprietary big iron PBX systems to real-time communications delivered as a software application on standard IT networks and platforms. Gates drew the parallel that we in the industry had often drawn before - that we are beginning an age of innovation similar to the one unleashed when the computer industry shifted from vertically integrated mainframes to personal computers and standards-based servers in the 1980s and 1990s. While the CT industry has campaigned for this change for decades with substantial success, the stars now seem finally to be coming into alignment to complete this transition. We can now deliver competitive and flexible media and signaling platforms for the enterprise as software on standard compute platforms, and enable our industry's next move forward into multimedia application development and delivery.
What is fueling the next stage of this transition?
• A single standards-based signaling protocol
SIP (Session Initiated Protocol) has been accepted as the standard protocol of choice for communications systems. No one expects traditional TDM interfaces and protocols to disappear overnight, but SIP promises to be an important part of our future. Many development and deployment costs are reduced for solution providers when they use SIP in media server platforms, since they no longer need to support a range of TDM interfaces.
• Heavyweight software vendors such as Microsoft are helping drive uniformity in standards implementation.
Although SIP is the accepted standard, it has been implemented in slightly different ways. As a consequence, vendors and network providers must fund hour upon hour of interoperability testing and related development work to make sure their SIP-powered products work together seamlessly. This interoperability testing is not only expensive but also impedes progress towards a universally accepted multimedia application environment. With Microsoft lending its weight and many IP-PBX vendors announcing plans for direct SIP interoperability with Microsoft applications; the industry may decide to accept Microsoft's implementation of SIP as the standard. Microsoft's ownership of the desktop and its energetic move to lead the way with UC solutions could make this a reality. Industry participants that reject interoperability with Microsoft UC may put themselves at a competitive disadvantage.
• Standard off-the-shelf compute platforms are achieving multimedia-level performance without specialized hardware.
Although its obituary has been written many times, Moore's Law continues to prove true. Multi-core, multi-socket processors now bring the equivalent of eight processing cores to a standard 1U dual-processor rack mount server from mainstream manufacturers such as Dell and HP. At the same time, seasoned media technology developers are providing software solutions that make these standard multi-core processors do the work of specialized DSPs.
Recently I reviewed a technical report on host media processing performance testing. Our engineers were able to support approximately 500 active IP conference participants while utilizing only 50% of a single quad-core host processor - and all this was accomplished with software. The engineers used no specialized hardware and didn't need any special integration techniques. Production releases delivering 1000 channels and more are already available for basic IP media functions and IP signaling on multi-core compute platforms. Only a few years ago, this density could only be achieved via multiple high-density PCI and CompactPCI boards with DSPs in a large industrial server chassis, usually equipped with traditional TDM network interfaces (T1/E1).
The ability to shift to standards-based software on standard compute platforms delivers significant savings - and price points should continue to improve. Play and record video capabilities are already in the mix, and the new DSP-less, standards-based hardware-software combination is ready to meet enterprise multimedia conference and collaboration demands.
• Today's wireless and broadband networks can handle real-time multimedia streams, and are on the verge of being made available both inside and outside the enterprise environment.
Gigabit Ethernet network gear and services, such as SIP trunking, are making progress at a steady pace and are advancing end-to-end SIP solutions and meeting multimedia demands. 3G (or 3GSM -- 3rd Generation Standard for Mobility) wireless networks, while not IP-based, deliver the bandwidth and protocols to support mobile multimedia applications. Consistent with current technology adoption trends, consumer applications should emerge first, and migrate into the enterprise as they mature and prove themselves as worthwhile business tools.
• Convergence, standards, IP media, and IP signaling simplifies distributed architectures and shared resources.
From where we stand right now, the future of enterprise communications looks to be a collection of application servers, general-purpose media servers, and where it is necessary to interconnect with legacy networks, media gateways. Add a multimedia conference/collaboration application server, and the apps server should be able to draw on the media resources of a standards-based media server via standard remote APIs and languages such as MSML (Media Sessions Markup Language), MOML (Media Objects Markup Language), and VxML (Voice Extensible Markup Language). The same server could also provide the media resource needs of an IVVR (interactive voice and video response system), multimedia contact center, or multimedia messaging application. For scalability, rack and stack is a strategy that can meet the density requirements of a service-oriented architecture for multimedia communications applications, just as it serves the needs of traditional non-real-time, data-oriented applications.
Admittedly, all this is a fairly optimistic assessment, but one that is rapidly becoming technically achievable. Will the industry drivers and leaders agree on standards; in particular will they work to eliminate the SIP interoperability issue that slows progress today? Given the number of interoperability programs that have emerged in the past two years, the issue is recognized and the prognosis looks promising. Meanwhile, translation vehicles, such as media gateways, can pave the way for SIP application deployments in current enterprise voice networks while progress is being made on other pieces needed for software-based, multimedia application delivery platforms. The future that the CT industry envisioned has never been so close to full realization. And once the transition is realized, a new round of innovation on multimedia server platforms will be open to us.
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