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AV, IT system marriage proves powerful

Jan 05, 20047 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsVideoconferencingVoIP

More companies are merging their audio/video and IT systems over converged IP networks.

In December, Dow Chemical wrapped up a three-year, multimillion-dollar project that involved upgrading all of its videoconferencing systems worldwide and migrating the traffic from dedicated ISDN lines to a private IP network.

Led by a team of audio/visual and IT specialists, the project required installing new hardware and software in 560 conference rooms located in 43 countries. Dubbed iRoom, the effort involved standardizing conferencing room equipment and migrating audio and video traffic to the company’s converged backbone network.

The iRoom project’s goal is to improve information sharing across all levels of the company while reducing audio/video support costs and network infrastructure bills.

“If you look at the networking alone, we’re going to save money with iRoom,” says Chris Duncan, global leader for eCommunication Technology at Dow. “But the biggest value that’s much harder to quantify is the speed of decision making and the increase in information sharing.”

By going away from the ISDN-based videoconferencing system, Dow also hopes to cut back on business travel and conduct more meetings over its IP network. “We can improve work/life balance,” Duncan says. “If you use iRoom today, you can have dinner with your family tonight.”

Dow is not alone. More companies are merging their audio/video and IT systems over converged IP networks. This trend is evidenced in corporate boardrooms, conference rooms and classrooms in a range of industries.

Cosmetics giant Estee Lauder is installing leading-edge audio/video/IT systems in five classrooms in New York City, from which it will broadcast training programs about various products to 1,500 salons across the country via the Internet.

The District of Columbia government recently installed command centers for monitoring whether traffic lights are down and the pace of snow removal on city streets. The audio/video displays at both centers are fed information via an IP network.

Museums such as the Smithsonian are deploying converged audio/video/IT systems. Even the projectors in movie theaters and stadiums increasingly have content served up over an IP network.

“Virtually everything we do is involved with interconnecting with the Internet,” says Tom Peters, vice president of AVWashington, an integrator of audio/video/IT systems whose clients include the U.S. House of Representatives and AOL. “IP is rapidly becoming the method of choice instead of ISDN or [proprietary network technology].”

Nearly one-third of corporate audio/video systems are networked, according to a September 2003 survey of corporate audio/video managers in large companies that was conducted by the International Communications Industries Association (ICIA), a trade group for AV manufacturers, dealers and systems integrators.

Network ratings

According to the survey, 60% of the respondents deemed network connectivity important or the most important feature. Network connections were most commonly used for audio/video conferencing, remote monitoring and remote troubleshooting, the survey said.

For example, AOL has hooked up audio/video equipment at its Dulles, Va., campus to its IP infrastructure. Now the head of AOL’s audio/video department can monitor the status of projector lamplights from his office and change them before they fail.

Another common application is videoconferencing, which is increasingly running over Ethernet/IP networks rather than older ISDN lines. Often, companies need to expand the bandwidth of their backbone networks to support videoconferencing sessions and other video content, including CEO speeches and training courses.

“When you’re moving live [videoconferencing] traffic over the network, it does require more bandwidth than simple control systems or store-and-forward content transfer,” says Sidney Lissner, founder and CEO of AVWashington. “[Videoconferencing] over IP is definitely an issue where the IT department needs to be a party to the conversation.”

The audio/video and IT teams at Dow worked together on the iRoom architecture. Dow decided in 2000 to build a converged IP network for its voice, video and data. As part of the effort, Dow would eliminate a separate ISDN network that was used for videoconferencing and operated by its audio/video department, not its IT department. All Dow’s videoconferencing centers worldwide would be upgraded.

Dow assembled a team of audio/video and IT specialists to create the iRoom integrated videoconferencing room architecture. IRoom provides all the tools that Dow employees need to have in their meeting rooms, including audio conferencing, videoconferencing and whiteboarding. All of the new iRoom systems are connected via Ethernet to the company’s private IP network.

Deploying a standard iRoom architecture in all its conference rooms worldwide is part of a broader effort at Dow to unify IT platforms. Dow gives the same computer, office suite and e-mail package to every employee around the world. Now all the company’s conference rooms have the same equipment.

“In the past, no two conference rooms worked the same,” Duncan says. “Now you can go to Hong Kong or the Netherlands and use the same equipment.”

Each iRoom is equipped with a Polycom videoconferencing system, a DVD player, a VHS player, a data projector, an interactive whiteboard and a software-based control system that ties all the components together. Dow’s audio/video experts can monitor the status of iRoom equipment over the Internet.

One of Dow’s goals is that all its employees – not just executives – use iRoom. At the end of last year, 10,000 of the company’s 49,000 employees were trained to use the iRoom systems.

So far, Dow is pleased with iRoom, Duncan says. Network reliability is up. Video and audio quality are twice as good as with ISDN, and usage of iRoom equipment by end users is rising 10% per month.

Duncan says the biggest challenge in rolling out iRoom was cultural, not technical. It was hard to convince office managers in some locations to cede control over their conference rooms.

“People felt ownership of their conference rooms. We had to convince them that this is a Dow resource and not a personal resource,” Duncan says. “We’re trying to make sure that as a company we can operate consistently, we can move information and we can connect people on a global basis more easily.”

Audio/visual industry experts say Dow’s iRoom project is at the forefront of a trend they predict will accelerate this year.

“In terms of scale and scope, the Dow project is as big as you get,” says Jerry Connolly, a technical engineer with SPLIS, a Columbia, Md., audio/video service provider working on Dow’s iRoom effort. “We’ve seen several other large enterprises upgrading their systems and tying them into IP for video teleconferencing. But what makes this project unique is that it is a converged network, and not everyone is doing that yet.”

For network managers, the merger of audio/video and IT systems means that they increasingly will be involved in audio/video purchases and that they need to support more voice and visual content on their networks. It also means that audio/video specialists are more integrated into IT departments.

“The AV industry is a high-tech industry,” says Randy Lemke, executive director of ICIA. “We recruit more and more people with an IT background. It’s not so much that we have cultural differences, but we have different skills and knowledge . . . in such areas as acoustics and the distribution of audio and video.”

Dow’s Duncan says he spends three hours a day with the company’s IT staff.

“I have the end user components, and they provide me with the communication path,” Duncan says. “I’m very pleased with the way the relationship works out. But if you would have told me five or six years ago that this was going to work, I would have laughed. Both realized three years ago that we couldn’t make this converged network work without the other [department].”