As the digital age unfolds, it’s clear that the ability to communicate effectively anytime and from anywhere is essential. In recent years, a growing number of individuals and organizations have turned to video conferencing to better support communication and collaboration.
“Video conferencing is fundamentally changing the way people interact and the way work gets done,” observes Tamir Hardof, director of product marketing and enterprise systems for Juniper Networks.
But all the opportunity also serves up a few challenges. Despite marked improvements in both consumer-based video conferencing services and enterprise-class systems, delivering optimal results requires a robust network infrastructure and attention to Quality of Service (QoS), bandwidth and other issues.
No less crucial: a video conferencing or telepresence system must integrate with existing systems, including unified communications. “There are a number of key factors that go into building a collaboration environment,” Hardof points out.
One thing is certain: it’s critical to develop a strategy that supports video conferencing or telepresence and delivers high performance and high availability. As entities strive to equip knowledge workers with the tools they need to function smarter and better, video conferencing has the ability to squeeze out greater efficiency and productivity while trimming travel costs and reducing travel time associated with in-person meetings.
For years, organizations have trumpeted video conferencing as a viable way to ratchet up communication and produce a more effective environment. A decade ago, many video conferencing and telepresence systems required add-on cards inside PCs and separate cameras and integrated services digital network (ISDN) lines to function effectively.
Unfortunately, many of these systems delivered wildly varying levels of video and audio quality. Problems such as jitter, latency and packet loss were all too common and dramatically impacted performance.
It turns out that many of these early systems simply didn’t have enough available bandwidth or processing power to provide an acceptable experience, says Bill Coe, business development manager for video solutions at CDW. But networks also weren’t built to support and prioritize video conferencing packets.
ISDN, for instance, provided only 128k of dual-channel bandwidth compared to today’s multigigabyte connections. As a result, video conferencing was mostly used in specialized situations or by organizations that could spend tens of thousands of dollars for high-end systems.
The last few years have brought remarkable changes. Not only has bandwidth swelled, systems have grown smarter and far more powerful. Consumer applications such as Skype, FaceTime and GoogleTalk have attracted growing throngs of consumers, who use these tools for communication with friends and family.
Many of these same individuals are now communicating with colleagues and business associates in an ad hoc way. “The consumerization of IT has driven the technology further into the organization,” Coe explains.
It’s no small matter. “Video conferencing, when used effectively, can be a transformative tool,” states Umesh Bhavsar, a senior analyst in the marketing solutions group at Polycom. “It provides a level of communication and interaction that isn’t possible using a phone, instant messaging, e-mail and other communication tools. It brings people together in a more personal way.”
As organizations look to deploy video conferencing in a more systematic way, many are investing in dedicated systems that plug into a unified communications and web collaboration framework. Among other things, this provides a platform for managing virtual work and compressing development cycles.
These systems deliver video, audio, chat, social media and application or document sharing across computing devices. This includes tablets and smartphones, thereby helping to supplement the mobile revolution.
Today, Cisco, LifeSize, Polycom and a number of other vendors offer sophisticated multipoint systems that deliver high-definition video and audio while simplifying network controls. As organizations place greater demands on networks — both wired and wireless — flexibility, performance, interoperability and security emerge as core concerns.
“Most major vendors now offer systems that operate more intelligently in the background,” Coe says. “They constantly monitor what devices are in use and under what network conditions — such as Wi-Fi or cellular — and adjust dynamically.”
The most sophisticated video conferencing systems support multiple physical switches within a single logical unit and provide failover within microseconds. “If a device goes down, another device in the cluster can pick up the transmission without any noticeable change in performance,” he explains.
In fact, some technologies, such as Juniper’s Virtual Chassis, provide switching at access points in order to send data the shortest distance across the network and maintain a connection at almost all times. This greatly reduces jitter and latency.
Another key feature is QoS. It’s crucial to deploy video conferencing technology that provides policy controls across the organization. This way, IT administrators can define who uses the system, how they use it and what level of performance they will have.
For example, an administrator or key sales or support representative that interacts with customers may require a much higher level of performance than others in the organization. It’s also possible to prioritize departments and specific office locations using QoS.
In fact, because ISDN is still used in many countries and at some branch or satellite locations within the U.S., the ability to configure and manage QoS over the entire organization is crucial. Likewise, mobile workers may find limitations with cellular networks, including 3G and 4G technology.
“There’s a growing demand for high-level video conferencing on iPads, iPhones and other portable devices,” Hardof explains. In the end, “The network must be optimized for an array of situations and devices.” It must also accommodate a multipoint control unit (MCU) so that multiple participants can connect simultaneously.
Video collaboration promises to redefine the organization in the months and years ahead. According to consulting firm Forrester Research, nearly half of all information workers will have some type of personal video solution in 2016, up from approximately 15 percent today.
Meanwhile, personal video use is growing by up to 150 percent annually, according to the tech analyst firm Gartner. As a result, it’s essential to deploy network technology and video conferencing solutions that are a solid match.
For example, Polycom’s RealPresence Platform supports up to 25,000 sessions and 75,000 devices within a single video event — all while delivering high performance at lower bandwidth levels. Polycom also supports products from Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, HP, Juniper, Avaya and Siemens.
LifeSize also offers a variety of solutions and equipment to fit various entity requirements. Its Unity Series combines advanced HD video, audio and presentation capabilities in an integrated solution and a variety of display formats.
However, state-of-the-art systems don’t necessarily guarantee outstanding results, Coe points out. An IT environment and network must be optimized for video conferencing, telepresence and UC.
As a general rule, packet loss shouldn’t exceed 2 percent on conventional video conferencing systems and 0.1 percent on telepresence systems. Latency shouldn’t exceed 300 milliseconds round-trip between endpoints, and jitter is best kept to less than 20 milliseconds for high-definition video traveling across a network.
Juniper’s Virtual Chassis Technology, available on the company’s EX Series Ethernet switches, is designed to accommodate video conferencing, telepresence and UC systems from Microsoft, Polycom, ShoreTel and others. The switches support ultra-low latency and jitter across multiple switches managed by a single logical unit.
Make no mistake, video conferencing has rapidly become a core organization requirement and mission-critical activity. Concludes Coe: “Organizations are beginning to fully recognize the value of video conferencing and unified communications solutions — and how they can enable a new level of productivity and cost savings.”