Unified Communications

How to Overcome WebRTC's Scalability and Firewall Issues

By TMCnet Special Guest
Nathan P. King, Senior Solutions Director, Watchitoo
  |  March 15, 2013

This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of INTERNET TELEPHONY.

The demand for a simple and accessible mechanism to communicate via text and video has grown with the use of third-party videoconferencing technologies like Skype (News - Alert), Google and Watchitoo. Naturally, the buzz surrounding WebRTC, and its promise that users can now connect using video and audio directly through the browser, has been building to a fever pitch. And all the hype is for good reason.

WebRTC is one of the biggest advances in Web browser connectivity since AJAX. The technology, once standardized and adopted by most of the major browsers, will disrupt the communications world as we know it – allowing average users to communicate without having to download a client, using nothing more than a modern browser on a modern operating system.

What we see for the future is not just the proposed idea of one-to-one communication, but a more robust collaboration tool based only on browser technologies. Imagine discussing an online document or resource with its stakeholders in a video and audio meeting built into the browser and supported by a set of transparent backend services to make the interaction seamless. Implementing this vision will have several issues, but is certainly achievable.

The challenges, and how to surmount them

There are many challenges in the global adoption of WebRTC. One of the biggest hurdles is that currently, only Chrome version 21 and above support the WebRTC standard out of the box. This is likely to change rapidly as the popularity and focus on WebRTC standards continue to grow. In fact, most of the other major players in the market are developing the means to support the standard, but have not yet fully implemented the specification. The Firefox nightly builds currently support it, but will need some configuration changes. Opera has implemented the getUserMedia API. Microsoft’s (News - Alert) Internet Explorer has plans to adopt the spec, but has not yet released details on when that is likely to occur.

As with other standards in the past, Safari is lagging behind the others in developing a solution with little to nothing to say about the standard publicly.

Another issue is disparities in code. Standards on the Web are broad in definition and scope, leaving room for interpretation. Historically, this has led to a lot of confusion and coding to enable interoperability between browsers. CSS (News - Alert) rules come to mind as an example of differing behavior on different browsers. And while there are now stable libraries to address the issue, these potential differences in implementation still remain a consideration that every web developer has to keep in mind. The WebRTC standard will likely cause similar headaches for developers as they accommodate these subtle differences across platforms. For example, some will implement one video codec over the other, while others may use differing audio codecs. In fact, we’re already seeing some rumbling concerning the various API method names to be utilized in each browsers’ implementation.

Once these browsers fully support the standard and these subtle differences are settled and documented, simple video communication via any device will become a reality for the masses.

Beyond peer to peer

The focus of discussion around WebRTC has predominately been on simple peer-to-peer communication. The idea of scalable communication to the masses has been viewed as a distant goal that will likely be the future of WebRTC, but not necessarily the present. Although peer-to-peer architecture is central to its appeal, it presents significant limitations with regard to scalability, firewall and browser implementations.

The ease and accessibility to instantly video chat with another peer is ideal, but what happens when another colleague, friend or consultant needs to join the conversation? Currently, few options exist to simply videoconference without downloading a driver, client or application. The promise that WebRTC can deliver an accessible means of communication among many peers would revolutionize video conferencing.

As with any technological advance that removes barriers for entry, usage typically soars. The increased usage and demand will ultimately cause the development of more robust applications, which benefits everyone.

Breaking through the firewall

One of the main struggles with peer-to-multi-peer communications involves firewall restrictions. Central to the firewall concern is the need for a trusted single source for communication. For communications outside the firewall, exceptions need to be made by the organization. This creates a security concern that is critical to any enterprise application, and hinders the ability to connect to unknown sources. To resolve repeatedly creating exceptions, a single connection point or hub service could be used instead. This would enable anyone to connect through that service rather than with direct links to one another.

Signaling and routing

Once firewall concerns are addressed, signaling is the next important issue. Currently, signaling and coordination would still require the need for a third-party application. Users would need an application to receive notification for incoming and outgoing requests to communicate. Additionally, these services would accommodate users’ varying configurations and capabilities. If one person is connecting through Firefox and another is connecting through Chrome, for example, a third-party service would need to configure the appropriate settings and negotiate a common codec. If there is no common standard between the two, the middle solution could transcode the video to accommodate.

This need opens the space further for video conferencing technology platforms to develop solutions.

The future of simple communication is within reach

Though significant, the challenges surrounding WebRTC are not impossible to overcome. The ultimate vision of accessibility for collaborative experiences for anyone from anywhere makes it worth the investment in time and resources to successfully implement. The possibilities become endless both in business and in our personal lives. Enterprises will have the ability to readily connect with clients, staff or prospects from anywhere in the world. Friends and family will be able to have face-to-face experiences from the various locations across the globe, from offices to homes to coffee shops.

Although this functionality exists today with third-party services, an extra step to make the direct connection work is required and not yet adopted as a standard means of communications. We believe with the adaptation of WebRTC, this form of communication will become a natural instead of a pipe dream.

Nathan P. King is senior solutions director at Watchitoo.

Edited by Braden Becker