Videoconferencing: Step Up From Skype

Telepresence tools can make a video chat feel almost like being there.

In business computing, some revolutions occur faster than others. After years of promise, videoconferencing has finally become useful for small businesses, offering long-distance collaboration without the need to travel.

Many people get their first taste of videoconferencing through Skype or one of many video-enabled instant messaging systems, and for internal or informal purposes such services may be all a company needs.

For those organizations that want to use videoconferencing to communicate with critical customers or partners, or to replace business travel with immersive long-distance conferences, something more sophisticated is required.

Getting Started

All videoconferencing products include a Web-standard video camera, a microphone, a system to deliver audio and video, and software to tie everything together. A more-immersive setup can include video screens coupled to full-duplex audio with whiteboard and document sharing, as well as high-def video on a desktop monitor and simultaneous document collaboration across computers.

All of that can dramatically raise the quality of your business's teleconferences, but such arrangements entail a much greater purchase price, added complexity in setup and management, and heightened demand on the network.

Your options range from the basic Webcam-and-headphone combination--connected through a free service like Skype or Google Talk--to the dedicated point-to-point hardware and software systems sold by companies such as Cisco, LifeSize, and Polycom. Deciding on a system will generally boil down to how many users need to be on a conference at once, how good the quality must be, and how much money is in your budget for videoconferencing and the network infrastructure to support it.

Three Paths

For small businesses, teleconferencing choices fall into three broad categories. The first consists of consumer-level videoconferencing products used for business. The second includes those setups that have a serious video component as part of their toolbox. In the last group are special hardware systems, including videophones and conference units that make use of high-definition monitors. Most small businesses will find one of these options too limiting, another too specialized, and one at least useful in its applications, if not just right.

Many professionals use consumer video-calling services, such as those of Skype and other free IM systems. For simple chats, they can be effective; in business environments, however, they present problems, such as a lack of company control over how employees use them. This issue can become a major headache if your company is subject to government or industry regulations on how information is shared with customers and partners.

For that reason alone, many companies choose to block all consumer-level video-chat services at the firewall. Add to that the choppy streaming performance and grainy video, and you have an option that isn't ready for a professional role in a company.

You can find several commercial services and a limited number of free tools that work well for a small company, however. Such services can be acceptable for sharing video with a group--some even add desktop views, slideshows, and whiteboard sharing--but they do not provide HD-quality video. For high-quality videoconferencing, small businesses must look at systems that have elements hosted within the company.

Videoconferencing Servers

A growing number of vendors are offering business videoconferencing as part of a larger suite under the unified communications umbrella. Because the technologies involve moving audio, video, and other media across a connection through network infrastructure components that are generally not optimized for such material, assorted protocols, standards, and technologies come into play. The richer the collaboration tools and user experience, the more protocols are added to an already-busy set of network connections.

Most small businesses that want to develop an internal videoconference capability should make use of one of a handful of unified communication servers from major hardware and software vendors, including Avaya, Cisco, Microsoft, and 8x8. All are, from a technical standpoint, unified communication platforms with video as only one component in a suite of options. The great advantage these platforms offer is that they combine a number of functions into a single server that company staff or a system integrator can configure and administer.

A Dive Into Protocols

In a perfect world, you would never need to think about the protocols in a videoconferencing product. Unfortunately, you still have to do so in a few cases, such as when you're trying to connect to someone who has an older system. Knowing which protocol a system uses (or which protocols it can translate) can be critical. However, protocol information tends to be available in a table in a user-manual appendix rather than on the product box--not easy to stumble across, but worthwhile to look for.

Self-hosted small-business videoconferencing systems--whether offered as a stand-alone appliance, software running on a server, or a service provided across the Internet--will generally be based on one of two technologies: SIMPLE (Session Initiation Protocol for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions) or XMPP (Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol), the protocol that underlies Jabber. SIMPLE and XMPP are both open protocols, though each approaches the challenges of videoconferencing from a different direction.

SIMPLE grew out of SIP (Session Initiation Protocol), an audio protocol employed in many Voice-over IP systems. Its two major benefits are its use of XML for presence information--letting a caller know whether the receiving party is available--and its support for various messaging protocols for collaboration.

XMPP also uses XML to define its data structures for features including presence, VoIP, and rich messaging types (such as audio and video). It grew out of an instant messaging protocol developed as an open alternative to AOL Instant Messenger, and its standards are still being finalized. Neither SIMPLE nor XMPP is intrinsically better.

Large enterprise videoconferencing and telepresence systems--which provide audio and video of such high quality that the effect is almost like being in the same room--make use of a component called an MCU (Multipoint Control Unit) that plays traffic cop and bandwidth manager. In these systems, the MCU initiates the connections to multiple sites, opening connections with the various ports and protocols required.

An MCU also serves as a universal translator, allowing videoconference clients using different compression techniques and protocols to communicate. In unified communications systems, the server contains the MCU function, simplifying both configuration and administration. Stand-alone MCUs tend to support more users and provide higher quality, while those provided as software in a server tend to be less expensive.

Relative processing requirements and quality come into play with another layer of protocols seen in specifications for videoconferencing system software. The H.261 and H.263 video compression standards that have been used in videoconferencing for many years are being supplanted by another pair of standards: H.264/AVC and MPEG-4 AVC. Like the higher-level SIMPLE and XMPP, these standards are two approaches to the same set of problems from two separate organizations.

It's often not obvious from the packaging or marketing material which standard a particular system uses; look in the technical specifications of any device to find out which standard is inside.

A Case for Dedicated Hardware?

The availability of dedicated processing power and silicon-based (rather than software-based) compression and decompression are the primary advantages of stand-alone, hardware-based videoconferencing systems, which offer quality up to telepresence levels.

Enterprise-class systems base multipoint videoconferencing systems on hardware MCUs and gateways that handle connection and presence tasks. For most small organizations, on the other hand, a software-based system based on SIMPLE or XMPP is more affordable.

In particular, the capability to provide Quality of Service (QoS) for network traffic of specific types or from particular network addresses is necessary to ensure that video and audio remain smooth and high-quality while normal business tasks take place across the network.

Videoconferencing is a high-bandwidth, demanding application for end-point clients, servers, and networks. Although the Star Trek holodeck isn't yet possible on a small-business budget, technology has evolved to a point at which you can have a professional-quality videoconferencing presence without busting your IT budget.

This story, "Videoconferencing: Step Up From Skype" was originally published by PCWorld .

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