September 27, 2012

The Cloud, Videoconferencing, and You

The Cloud, Videoconferencing, and You 

by David Maldow

The cloud has become an unstoppable force in the videoconferencing industry. Some of the hottest new startups have based their success on pioneering efforts in cloud videoconferencing, while traditional videoconferencing stalwarts are re-imagining their product-based portfolios as cloudempowered platforms. If you aren't currently facing choices regarding cloud related elements of your communications network, you will be soon.

The cloud and all it entails is turning the traditional videoconferencing network infrastructure paradigm on its head, inspiring a heated debate in the industry over the future of hardware infrastructure. Some claim the demise of hardware infrastructure is upon us, while others believe hardware will still have a place for years to come. Regardless of how that debate resolves, there can be no doubt that cloud based solutions will have some place at the table. At the very least, a significant portion of the expected future growth in videoconferencing will have cloud-based elements.

It's not easy to navigate the sea of marketing blurbs, press releases, demo videos and sales materials to understand the most recent offerings and how they relate to your environment.
The industry's habit of jumping on a trend and using all associated buzzwords in a somewhat loose fashion only increases the confusion. To make sense of the solutions offered in today's videoconferencing marketplace, you must first parse out some of these key terms and concepts.

Hosted Services

Hosted videoconferencing services purchase and maintain infrastructure appliances at the provider's location so that customers don't need to purchase or maintain it themselves. A common example is hosted bridging. Rather than purchase, maintain, patch, and upgrade an expensive videoconferencing MCU, customers can pay for a hosted bridging service. The service provider purchases and maintains MCUs at its data center (almost always a carrier-grade facility with redundant bandwidth, power and 24 x7 x365 remote hands and support), which are used to host multipoint calls for its clients. 

These hosted services are often called cloud services, because from the user's point of view the physical infrastructure is no longer in his office, and is now "in the cloud." In reality, this is a traditional hardware-based infrastructure, just moved off premise. The hardware may be owned, maintained, and operated by your service provider, rather than your internal IT team, but it is still the same essential platform.


Virtualization occurs when a software application is divorced from its hardware and can be installed on a standard server. For example, a company might sell a physical digital stopwatch, but also sell a virtualized version of that stopwatch's software that can run on a standard PC. In terms of videoconferencing, a virtualized MCU could be installed on a standard server in an enterprise ops center, eliminating the need for an MCU appliance.

Virtualized solutions hold a number of potential advantages:

Cost: Dedicated hardware can be expensive, while generic PCs, servers, and server blades are getting more powerful and cost effective every year.
Scalability: Increasing capacity on a $100,000 piece of hardware could potentially require purchasing another $100,000 piece of hardware. To increase capacity on a virtualized solution, one may be able to simply increase the number of licenses and server blades to match current demand.
Future Proofing: Virtualized solutions avoid issues and headaches commonly associated with upgrading and updating hardware appliances.
Flexibility: Enabling videoconferencing at a new location is more like turning on a service than building, maintaining, patching and constantly upgrading a hardware-based video network infrastructure. 

Cloud Computing

Cloud computing services, such as those offered by Amazon, VMware and Rackspace, offer raw computational processing and/or data storage online. Cloud computing services are, in essence, massive racks of standard servers at multiple geographically distributed server farms, configured for online access. Therefore, any program which could be installed on a standard server running in a company's datacenter can theoretically be installed up on a cloud service. The connection between virtualized software and the cloud computing services
is clear. The combination of the two can allow enterprises to support videoconferencing without hardware infrastructure or internal servers running virtualized solutions.

The table below provides a simplified view of today's infrastructure options.

There is no "best" methodology for videoconferencing deployments. Certainly, virtualization and the cloud have developed as trends, but all four infrastructure options are still being deployed in the enterprise.

In November 2011, Telepresence Options first reported on the pending release of Vidyo's virtualized VidyoRouter. Vidyo, a pioneer in H.264 Scalable Video Coding (SVC), was the first company to offer a virtualized version of a key piece of video network infrastructure. The company released a virtualized version of their VidyoRouter, an MCU-like capability that
routes video streams instead of recomposing them in an MCU, which runs on cloud computing services without the need for a hardware-based video network infrastructure. Vidyo is well known for pioneering the H.264 SVC protocol, which continuously monitors the performance of network quality and the capabilities of each endpoint device and adapts video streams in real time to provide error correction and optimize video communications. By offering the VidyoRouter in a virtualized form, Vidyo now enables customers and/or service providers to support a Vidyo visual collaboration deployment without purchasing physical infrastructure and providing significant scalability without a corresponding investment in MCUs, rack space, power and the other associated costs of current hardware-based infrastructure approaches.

Several videoconferencing providers have been making waves with new hosted services (often referred to as cloud services). LifeSize, Cisco, Polycom, Teliris, Vidtel, Blue Jeans Network, and others have been keeping tech journalists busy with service-related announcements. For the most part, these announcements have involved hosted bridging, not virtualized infrastructure. However, from the customer's point of view, these "cloud" solutions have freed them from the burden of hardware infrastructure, and are constantly offering new features, interoperability and functionality.

Solutions like Vidtel's cloud videoconferencing service let companies give employees their own videoconferencing meeting room without the need to invest in infrastructure. Companies sign up with a flat-rate or usage-based model and the service provides each registered employee his or her own virtual video meeting room. The service handles interoperability between standards-based videoconferencing codecs like Cisco, LifeSize, and Polycom as well as consumer and prosumer services like Skype and Google Talk. Blue Jeans Network offers a similar service.

LifeSize also released their UVC Platform earlier this year. Positioned as the industry's first integrated, virtualized software platform for video, it is significantly more than just another
virtualized app. The platform includes optional modules for streaming/recording, NAT/firewall traversal, and IP routing/call control. One clear advantage to this model is that LifeSize will easily be able to add future apps to the platform without requiring customers to purchase new hardware.

Telepresence solution provider Teliris now offers its Lentaris platform, described as the "world's first service provider, cloud-based, interoperability platform." Lentaris notably features TIP interoperability, allowing it to link highend immersive telepresence rooms to standard meeting room systems. Beyond its strong interop, the platform provides full call-management and distribution functionality, making it very well suited for service providers. In theory, the use of Lentaris could significantly reduce the costs associated with creating a new VNOC.

Today's conferencing managers have a number of options when designing a videoconferencing deployment. Eventually, the continued increases in the power and affordability of generic hardware will continue to push out dedicated appliances. But for now, many enterprises with strong internal IT departments are still choosing keep things "in-house" and use traditional hardware infrastructure, or virtualized infrastructure on internal servers. In order to determine the right solution for you, carefully consider a number of factors, including the expected use of the systems as well as overall costs. Remember, not every solution advertised as "cloud" is necessarily a fully scalable virtualized solution. Be sure to look past the marketing and to get a solution that matches the needs and expectations of your users. TPO

About the Author
David Maldow is a visual collaboration technologist and analyst with the Human Productivity Lab and an associate editor at Telepresence Options. David has extensive expertise in testing, evaluating, and explaining telepresence and other visual collaboration / rich media solutions. David is focused on providing third-party independent analysis and opinion of these technologies and helping end users better secure their telepresence, videoconferencing, and visual collaboration environments. You can follow David on Twitter and Google+.

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