Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Evolution of the Collaboration Room Experience


I must admit I neglected the Video Networker blog over the past 3 years. I started a new job in 2013 and the scope was and still is much broader than video. I had many interesting topics to write about but they did not fit the Video Networker label, so I did not post. Over time I assumed that Video Network had faded away, so imagine my surprise when I checked the blog activity earlier today and realized that a lot of people still go to Video Networker for information. Most visitors come from Germany, Austria, and Saudi Arabia.

I thought about it again and expanding the scope of the blog would actually be very natural. Over the past 3 years video was absorbed in all sorts of collaboration tools while Unified Communications gradually became part of the broader Digital Workplace.  

The virtual meeting experience has improved a lot. Most meetings today require some kind of content sharing, and web conferencing has become the default way for starting a meeting. Today, I rarely get a meeting invitation without a link to a virtual meeting room.

Conferencing rooms however have not kept up. Many have only a speaker phone in the middle of the table; selected few have video conferencing systems. Bridging between video conferencing and web conferencing is still not easy. Vendors that have both types of solutions are gradually converging web conferencing rooms with video conferencing rooms but there is still work to be done on the user interface and the affordability of such solutions.  

Web conferencing vendors have tried addressing collaboration rooms by offering endpoints or rather kits to build endpoints that seamlessly connect to the web conferencing solution. But we all know that a room is very different from a screen of a desktop or a mobile device. It has multiple walls, and there are usually multiple people involved. Acoustics and view angles play a major role in a great collaboration room experience. In addition, while web conferencing and video conferencing do a good job sharing content (screens or applications), they have not been successful in enabling true collaborative work on documents, images, video clips, etc.

The industry is therefore working on alternative next-generation collaboration solutions. True collaboration in a room requires a lot of space (surface) and new ways to manipulate content. Larger monitors at affordable prices deliver the additional space (surface), and content and live video can be distributed over multiple monitors hanging on different walls, thus fully leveraging the room. Touch technology allows interacting with large screens in the same way we interact with mobile devices. So the key remaining problem is how to bring the ocean of data that we have today into the collaboration room. It is not about PowerPoint presentations and spreadsheets anymore but rather about live web pages, video feeds, and real-time analytics. Once the data is available in the room, new collaboration room technology allows for creation of new assets, white boarding, brainstorming, and for storing the results from the collaboration session, so that the next meetings can continue from where the previous meeting ended.

In the meantime, the virtual meeting camp has moved one step further and targets now continuous collaboration in and between meetings. A new generation of team collaboration tools allows for persistent collaboration via group chat and document collaboration that can start long before the first meeting and continue uninterrupted between meetings.    

And then, there are considerations about cost and investment protection. Making virtual meetings available to let’s say 100,000 enterprise users means getting 100k subscriptions from the vendor / service provider. As the technology evolves, the service changes but the cost for the enterprise remains predictable. By contrast, upgrading several thousands of conference rooms in a large enterprise is a big capital expense. There is also uncertainly about the lifespan of new technologies.

There are good reasons to think hard before making a decision on collaboration room investments, and I will continue tracking this topic.   

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

EC13 Part 4: Redefining The Conference Room Experience

The new conference room experience is still a work in progress, and the focus is shifting from video to content sharing and annotation.

This is the last in a four-part series covering some of the major trends I saw at Enterprise Connect Orlando. Friday I covered Virtualization, Monday was Cloud Services, and yesterday Mobility

Redefining the conference room experience

Video conferencing vendors have been trying to extend the video conference room experience to desktop and mobile devices for a while, and competed in this realm on video quality. Now Microsoft is taking the opposite approach: extending the desktop/mobile Lync experience to conference room. The user experience in the room is driven by the capabilities of desktop and mobile video, not the other way around.

The new approach changes the implementation priorities: ease of use is the king (the main goal is to eliminate the 5-10-minute delay of the typical video meeting due to technical issues); content sharing and whiteboarding/annotation are the most important parts of the meeting, while video quality is far lower on the requirement list. For the first time, Microsoft does not depend on third-parties for providing multipoint video: Lync 2013 supports H.264 SVC, and the Microsoft AVMCU enables multipoint video calls.

By releasing its Lync Room specification to 4 partners--Crestron, LifeSize, Polycom, and SMART--Microsoft is essentially doing a trial of its Lync Room concept. The specification is not publically available but the key requirements can be recognized in the first demos--by SMART and Crestron--at Enterprise Connect.  Addressing the trends towards smaller conference rooms, wide angle cameras are required to capture people sitting close to screen/whiteboard. Based on the notion that mechanical noises distract meeting participants, Lync Rooms use digital (not mechanical) Pan/Tilt/Zoom (PTZ) cameras. Audio elements--speakers, microphones, and stereo/mono modes--are also defined, and so is the user interface for starting a meeting. The logical split of the control functions is that meeting controls are on a small control tablet while whiteboarding/annotation actions are on the large touch screen.

From the pack, SMART came to EC best prepared with its own 109-degree camera design, multiple models--small for 6 people, medium for 12, and large for 16--and support of one or two screens. SMART leveraged its experience with whiteboarding technology to differentiate. Although the video quality was not impressive (network issues, as usual), the collaboration capabilities were superb.

Crestron opted for using an off-the-shelf Logitech camera and focused on the room control experience to differentiate its Lync Room solution--a logical approach based on Crestron's background in room control. One touch of the Crestron control unit lets users switch seamlessly between "Room Control" mode and "Lync Room Collaboration" mode.

Polycom has invested a lot in interoperability with Microsoft, including support of the Microsoft RTV video codec that enables best possible quality between older Lync clients and video endpoints. Polycom also licensed its H.264 SVC implementation to Microsoft and all other UCIF members willing to use it, a move designed to create a critical mass behind one SVC flavor. But while having the best video quality between your portfolio and Lync is a tangible competitive advantage, the concern is about the overall lower importance of video in the Lync world, where content is truly the king.

While the Lync room designs are pragmatic and will improve the conferencing room experience, the cost for building rooms is still an issue, and many small companies are looking for solutions that are a little less perfect for a lot less money. Start-up Tely Labs is trying to make video collaboration more affordable and demonstrated telyHD Business Edition, which works with Tely's own simple infrastructure supporting up to 6-way video. Their telyHD Enterprise Edition was built in partnership with BlueJeans Network, and therefore allows connecting the majority of video endpoints out there. Trying to find a market segment between free clients and $10-20K rooms, Tely has very attractive price point of $550 for the enterprise or business edition; this include camera and audio but not the cost of the video monitor.

Revolabs has developed a new generation of wideband wearable and on-table wireless microphones that improve the audio capture in conference rooms. The importance for audio in collaboration cannot be overstated, and Revolabs provides an excellent alternative to wired microphones.

Conclusion

The new conference room experience is still a work in progress, and the focus is shifting from video to content sharing and annotation. The cost of equipping conference room with video is also going down. Combined with cloud services, this will democratize video.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

EC13 Report Part 3: Mobility

Mobility for UC comes in many shapes. A soft client on iOS and Android is the entry ticket, but the sky is the limit after that.

This is the third in a four-part series covering some of the major trends I saw at Enterprise Connect Orlando. Friday I covered Virtualization, and yesterday Cloud Services; tomorrow's topic will be the Conference Room Experience.

Mobility

UC clients on mobile devices have quickly become the entry ticket to mobility. Every vendor I talked to--voice, video, or other--has soft client(s). iOS and Android are the preferred OS for smart phones and tablets, followed by Windows for laptops and a mention or two of BlackBerry. However, a good mobility story rarely stops at just mobility.

Extensions to the call processing software allow switching (or shifting) sessions across any number of devices associated with a user. Alcatel-Lucent's "rapid session shift" switches between mobile phone, wired phone, soft client, or a video endpoint from partner LifeSize. There is no auto detection, and the changeover is initiated by a push of a key or tap on a screen.

Thrupoint takes session management to an entirely different level. Their Session Broker--which originates from Ubiquity--allows applications to execute during session setup, and for example, to check permissions, apply policies, and re-route sessions to another location/device. Thrupoint therefore provides a scalable platform for mobility applications.

I came across several mobility servers that allow additional automation of the call handoff process and focus on the Wi-Fi/3G/4G/GSM roaming scenario. The idea is that when the user leaves Wi-Fi coverage, the call automatically switches to VoIP over 3G/4G. If the 3G/4G service deteriorates, the call automatically switches to basic TDM GSM voice.

Aastra demonstrated the Aastra Mobility Controller (AMC) from the acquisition of Munich-based Comdasys. The mobility server is offered with the Aastra's MX-1 system (acquired from Ericsson) or as as standalone product with third-party systems.

ShoreTel has fully integrated the mobility server from the Agito acquisition, and offers it with ShoreTel IP Phone System or as a standalone product in third-party environments.

Conclusion

Mobility comes in many shapes. A soft client on iOS and Android is the entry ticket, but the sky is the limit after that. Advanced mobility functions such as session shifting and session/call handoff may become important differentiators for vendors. Reliability is still an issue, since mobility touches on several networks, and network timers do not always work exactly as expected.

Monday, April 8, 2013

EC13 Report Part 2: Cloud Services


EC13 Report: Cloud ServicesVendors are rushing into creating cloud services to reach new customers--but there are concerns to address.
Vendors are rushing into creating cloud services to reach new customers--but there are concerns to address.

This is the second in a four-part series covering some of the major trends I saw at Enterprise Connect Orlando. On Friday I covered Virtualization; tomorrow's topic will be Mobility, and Wednesday's will be the Conference Room Experience.

Cloud Services

Cloud services are popping up everywhere, reflecting the lower barrier to entry for those who want to become a service provider. There are currently several hundred Managed Service Providers (MSPs) that provide voice and video conferencing services. The market is very fragmented and the barrier to entry is relatively low, so players are trying to differentiate themselves by supporting multiple vendors, solving interoperability issues, and gaining critical mass, In addition to AVI-SPL, I met with AGT, which differentiates itself through offering software-based MCU in the cloud and offering management of video endpoints.

More and more vendors across the industry are trying to make it even easier to become an MSP--by building infrastructure for running their applications in the cloud, and by encouraging their distributors to become MSPs and resell the service. As bonus, the vendors provide management tools so that the freshly baked MSPs can measure usage and charge end users for services month by month.

The cloud allows some traditional on-premise vendors to address very small customers that cannot really afford an on-premise solution. Interactive Intelligence announced its Communications as a Service (CaaS) offering called Small Center, targeting 10-50 agents--and promising unrestricted growth up to 5,000 agents without platform change. This is adding fresh competition to Five 9, a pure-play cloud call center offering.

On the video side, Magor is repositioning itself away from telepresence and towards being a visual communication infrastructure vendor. Its new Aerus cloud service leverages sophisticated routing algorithms to enable new collaboration models, away from the traditional "endpoints calling into the bridge" model.

Since these offerings rely on Internet best effort service, some industry analysts warn against it, while others embrace the Internet quality. Unified Office is taking a different approach, focusing on engineered quality for customers (small businesses with 5-75 employees) that need more than best-effort. Unified Office installs a TCN (Total Connect Now service) box on customer premise to measure QOS and analyze IP networking problems; then works with IP networking service providers to resolve issues. Unified Office also uses an open source SBC based on Asterisk that connects to multiple SIP trunking providers and routes calls based on network quality. This reminds me of the Least Cost Routing function in PBXs; however, Unified Office does not look at cost, just network quality.

The big question is "Why do vendors roll out their own cloud services?" One school of thought is that vendors waited for service providers to develop scalable services and since this did not happen, decided to try it themselves (although it is clear that running a service is very different from making products). Another school of thought is that it is just everyone in the industry looking for room for growth by experimenting with new business models, even risking competition with SP customers.

Finally, the term "hybrid cloud" was often used in conversations at Enterprise Connect, always with different meaning. Some picture "hybrid" as a media server on premise with application server in the cloud. Other imagine some services implemented in private cloud (essentially a hosted outsourced data center) while other come from the public cloud. BroadSoft's definition, for example, is having BroadWorks system in the SP data center while getting UC services from the BroadCloud.

Conclusion

Vendors are rushing into creating cloud services to reach new customers. Small enterprise companies will benefit the most, as cloud services would allow them to use platforms they cannot afford to install on premise. One concern is the best effort quality of the Internet that most cloud services rely on. The second concern is how well vendors will perform as service providers. The third concern is about vendors competing with their service provider customers.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

EC13 Report Part 1: Virtualization


Most of the core call control vendors are virtualizing at least someof their systems; now virtualization is spreading to video elements, contact centers, SBCs and more.

I have been attending Enterprise Connect and its predecessors since 1998, and my focus gradually shifted from PBXs to IP-PBXs to call centers to video conferencing and most recently to cloud services. Enterprise Connect 2013 was a unique opportunity to meet with vendors from across these communications industry segments and search for commonalities and trends.

The sheer number of vendors participating in EC requires discipline and excellent planning before the event. To get a comprehensive view of the industry developments, I met with 28 vendors in back-to-back briefings, visited the exhibits, and attended a few targeted conference sessions. The most powerful trends I discovered during the event are virtualization, cloud services, mobility, and redefining of the conference room experience. I have written a post on each of these topics, and these will run on No Jitter over the next 4 days, beginning with virtualization.

Virtualization

Virtualization--once the exclusive domain of non-real-time applications--is now becoming a cornerstone for scalable and redundant deployments in voice and video communications. Here are some of the vendors' strategies:

* Trailblazer Mitel developed a strategic relationship with VMware early on, and systematically virtualized its entire portfolio. For them, virtualization is not a feature but rather a strategy for developing new channels and reaching new customers.

* Avaya has virtualized its Avaya Communications Manager and Contact Center application as well as several other elements of the Aura architecture.

* ShoreTel has virtualized its IP Phone System and Contact Center application, but their approach to virtualization is less radical: virtual machines are positioned as a solution for larger offices, while appliances continue to be the preferred option for branch offices.

* Alcatel-Lucent OpenTouch has been virtualized and is used by partners to offer cloud services. Its release included a new licensing model and a new tool to monitor licenses.

* Siemens Enterprise Communications is in the process of certifying its OpenScape portfolio with VMware. * NEC has already virtualized UNIVERGE 3C, its Windows-based UC system from the Sphere acquisition.

So virtualization is becoming a part of most vendors' strategies for pure-IP systems. When it comes to hybrid TDM/IP, Avaya, Alcatel-Lucent, Siemens, and NEC have such hybrid systems in their portfolio but are not rushing into virtualizing them.

Virtualizing hybrid systems is not easy, and even if part of the system is virtualized, there must be a TDM/IP gateway somewhere in the network to support TDM extensions and trunks, which negates some of the virtualization benefits. Aastra MX-ONE has been virtualized, although the virtual edition is only offered on the European market for now. Aastra's mobility server (Aastra Mobility Controller = AMC) is also virtualized.

In the video conferencing world, Polycom is preparing its RMX (now RealPresence Collaboration Server) platform for deployment in virtual environments. Since server virtualization is based on x86 CPU architecture, Polycom's first step is moving from Digital Signaling Processor (DSP) to x86 CPU hardware; the result is Polycom RealPresence Collaboration Server 800s, Virtual Edition, a physical server that runs the conferencing application on x86 CPU. The resulting scalability decrease (20 transcoded HD video ports, as compared to 80 in the DSP version) is compensated by offering 60 Scalable Video Coding HD ports that require no transcoding.  While the commercial success of such a solution may be limited, it is a necessary step towards running the Polycom media processing engine on generic hypervisor. Eventually, this is the architecture required to power Polycom's Cloud Axis service.

Radvision (now part of Avaya) took a different approach with Scopia Elite 6000. While the conferencing application in the appliance runs on x86 CPU, an accelerator board handles some of the video processing. That allows the scalability to be kept up to 80 transcoded HD calls and is a small step towards the cloud future. Other solution elements such as Scopia Desktop are fully virtualized.

AVI-SPL deploys Cisco video infrastructure in virtualized environments, including applications such as VCS. It would be interesting to track if Cisco will take the Polycom or Radvision approach in getting its Codian MCUs from purpose-built DSP hardware to virtual environments.

Looking across the contact center industry to test the hypothesis that virtualization is an universal trend, I came across Five9, a cloud call center provider that uses virtualization in its network of leased data centers, and Calabrio, whose Calabrio ONE suite of contact center workforce optimization software includes call recording, quality assurance, workforce management, speech analytics, and performance-based management. For Calabrio, the only real technology challenge is virtualizing the call recording part, which requires consistent high performance and dedicated HW resources.  This was a consistent theme in all conversations around virtualization: functions/applications that require dedicated resources are hard to virtualize.

In the voice networking segment, Session Border Controller (SBC) vendors are beginning to think about virtualization, with Sonus having specific plans to virtualize its SBC products before the end of 2013. They recognize the virtualization trend but want to avoid performance limitations, especially with transcoding in SBCs.

I was not sure I would find virtualization in Adtran's portfolio but it turns out Adtran Wireless Access Controller is fully virtualized on VMware. Replacing controller hardware every time the Wi-Fi standard gets updated (remember 802.11 a, b, g, n) is not efficient and the company moved to a software-only controller that they later virtualized.

Virtualization also found its way in Extreme Networks' management application, which now runs on VMware. Extreme's policy management engine retrieves user information from the enterprise directory (Active Directory) and applies policies to each user, no matter where and how the user is connected to the network. With virtualization, Extreme has carried this concept over to virtual machines: the management application retrieves information about VMs from the VMware hypervisor and allows the administrator to create profiles per VM. As the VM moves from one server to another or from one data center to another (using the vMotion feature, for example), Extreme tracks the VM and keeps applying the same policy to it no matter the location.

Conclusion

Virtualization is not a religion, and vendors have to pick and choose which elements to virtualize in their portfolios. Media processing functions are the most challenging, since they require dedicated resources--going against the fundamentals of virtualization.