Video conferencing technologies have been advancing at a pace similar to that of data center and other Information Technologies. In a short time span, multi-party and multi-location conferences became the norm. The novelty of conducting a successful corporate video conference has evolved into an expectation of conferencing via any device from anywhere.
High quality, hi-def video and audio are expected, but carry their own unique implementation challenges.
Security concerns, firewall rules, network capacity and component throughput determine where systems are logically installed in a network. No two companies are the same, no two networks are the same, and no two video conferencing applications are the same. The features and decision points used to justify purchasing or implementing video conferencing in a particular fashion will vary as widely.
Hopefully this blog will help demystify the technology, sort out the acronym soup that accompanies most IT discussions about new or expanding applications, identify pitfalls, and help you determine the best path to implement your video conferencing solution so it performs exactly as you intended.
A Brief History of Video Conferencing and Related Technology
Originally video conferencing systems were only installed in board rooms. Original systems were also point-to-point systems, using expensive and dedicated telecommunications data circuits (remember ISDN?) to dial remote conference rooms. Experience led companies to install video conferencing capabilities in select conference rooms so more employees could take advantage of the efficiency of face-to-face meetings with remote colleagues.
Video Conference Bridges enabled more than two participants to join a meeting. Third parties accessed the bridge via ISDN as well. The entire list of components consisted of the video conferencing systems and ISDN lines and gear.
Rapid advancements led to the room systems, or video conferencing endpoints, becoming Internet Protocol (IP) enabled.
As bandwidth costs fell, users required higher speed videoconferencing connections to remote parties. Network-attached conferencing systems enjoyed higher speed and therefore, higher quality connections. TCP/IP standards grew around all different services including video conferencing, and manufacturers created standards-based systems to handle participant authentication, connection speed negotiation, supported features and transcoding for device types.
The advent of network attacks and risk posed by the Internet led to the creation of network firewalls. The finite supply of IPV4 addresses led to RFC 1918 and Network Address Translation (NAT). Both of these were developed prior to widespread use of IP video conferencing to address the issues mentioned, but introduced complexities when companies sought to connect remote video conference participants via the Internet. The issue lay in the h.323 telecommunications protocol standard developed for IP Telephony and video conferences and how firewalls performed NAT.
Network teams developed work-arounds for overcoming the NAT problem as firewall technologies improved. They began installing conference bridges on dedicated “DMZ” networks. DMZ networks are dedicated networks that are only accessible via firewall interfaces, existing between the outside, risk-filled Internet and the “secure” internal trusted network. Internal traffic from video conferencing systems had to traverse a firewall interface to get to the bridge, and traffic from the bridge destined for an address on the Internet had to traverse another firewall interface.
The aforementioned “advances” allowed video conferencing system IP addresses to use globally unique and routable addresses when installed in a DMZ. Information Security policies sometimes clashed with this functional requirement.
Video conferencing was known to experience quality issues when firewall processing capacities were exceeded. However, as all network-related equipment matured quickly, early stage NAT and throughput issues have been resolved by manufacturers and standards-setting organizations.
Cloud-based videoconferencing or web-based conferencing arose to fill the need for video conferencing without the huge capital outlay previously only within reach of large corporations. The bridging function and meeting access security reside within systems in the providers’ Internet-based and connected data centers.
Some providers cater to desktop endpoints, as software plugins are required to use the services. Some allow for private conferencing bridge connections to the cloud based systems for meetings.
A company’s use of video conferencing and its willingness to subscribe to higher Internet bandwidth rates factor heavily in decisions to implement infrastructure on premises or opt for cloud based conferencing solutions. Other factors come into play, and will be explored in detail in later posts.