This is a very good question, and one that many business and IT executives ask every day. Video conferencing lets the participants see each others’ body language, reactions, facial expressions, etc, and, as a result, communicate more effectively than in typical audio conferences. It helps reduce travel and related expenses for meetings. More businesses want to use it. Technology is bringing it within their reach.
Like all good tools, each approach to implementing online video conferencing has its merits. The decision to implement a video conferencing solution should include the evaluation of several variables which are mostly concerned with network utilization and throughput, and maintenance and support.
Consider these factors to choose the most appropriate video conferencing deployment for your organization:
Network Characteristics for Video Conferencing
Does your corporate Wide Area Network (WAN) feature private MPLS data links or Internet-based site-to-site VPN connections? Do you have a corporate campus with dark fiber linking all building networks, or do you have single building networks in multiple cities? What make and model firewalls protect your network from the Internet?
Private MPLS link traffic priority can be configured by your network department, which you probably have if you’re considering self-hosting your web conferencing solution. Many smaller to mid-sized companies may not have a resource with this specialized skill set. If you can implement Quality of Service, remember that it does not “kick in” until the link experiences congestion. Private MPLS networks usually allow multiple corporate sites to connect to video conferencing servers without traversing corporate firewalls, which can be “bottlenecks.”
Internet-based connections do not carry the Class of Service bit, so no prioritization can be carried through the Internet. You can prioritize traffic that enters the VPN tunnel, but the Internet is a “best effort” network. It will do its best to deliver your traffic, but can experience congestion due to large denial-of-service attacks, and other events out of the control of your company or vendor.
Larger companies with campus networks anticipating using video conferencing to connect users within the campus may lean towards self-hosted solutions. Companies with single networks in multiple locations may understandably lean towards a cloud-based video conferencing solution.
Network firewalls require attention in this decision also. Can they prioritize video conferencing network protocols? Do they have enough memory and fast enough processors to accommodate high traffic volumes? Internet traffic tends to be “bursty.” Users navigate to a URL, and the desired web page is downloaded in a burst, and “consumed” or read much more slowly. Video conferencing traffic tends to be more consistent bi-directionally. A firewall’s ability to process video conferencing traffic can be a factor.
What technology is your Internet circuit?
Cable modem services often provide Internet connectivity for branch offices. Cable modem Internet uplink and downlink speeds are asymmetrical. In the current standard, DOCSIS 3.0, upstream (from your building to the Internet) is limited to 108Mbps for download speeds of 152Mbps, 304Mbps, or 608Mbps depending on your service. The cable modem standards evolved as they did due to available channels in the Cable TV system as noted in this Wikipedia article.
Check the technology of your Internet circuits across your enterprise in consideration of how many endpoints you expect to join most web conferences from a single location. Your firewall and the throughput of an Internet circuit may limit the number of simultaneous video conferencing sessions from one location.
How Many Users per Video Conference?
The number of video conference endpoints, whether in conference rooms or user networks, can have an impact on network performance. Will most users connect via laptops with integral cameras and microphones, or are you equipping a limited number of conference rooms with video conferencing cameras and equipment?
Many “local” users or video conference participants can take advantage of LAN bandwidth speed and high-throughput network infrastructure if you host a server-based videoconferencing solution.
Several users in one location contending for the Internet bandwidth to connect to a cloud-based service can consume a lot of available capacity quickly. Also, several remote users simultaneously connecting to a self-hosted solution can consume a lot of capacity quickly at the corporate network edge. Self-hosted video conferencing solutions may require Internet bandwidth upgrades if there will usually be several remote attendees.
Conference room systems, or endpoints, vary in cost depending on the features and functionality they offer, and whether the manufacturer optimized the design for many attendees sitting around a long table in a large room, or for a small conference room or “huddle space.”
Also, greater video resolution, or video quality, potentially increases the bandwidth required per endpoint in a conference, which can also have an impact on network performance.
Video Quality in a Web Conference
Real-time applications like video conferencing require more network throughput than is required for typical browsing, even for viewing videos on demand.
Video conferences suffer video and audio degradation if network congestion becomes an issue. And consider this: Everyone on a video conference will have a “bad” experience if one person, such as the traveling executive who called the meeting, is connected through his or her laptop on a busy hotel WiFi network halfway around the world and can’t maintain a good connection. When rolling out your video conferencing solution to users, remember to educate all users and set expectations for mobile connectivity from public WiFi networks.
Also, ensure laptop integral cameras, microphones, and speakers are certified to operate with your solution. Software drivers may interfere with conferencing applications. This is why, for example, Skype for Business, formerly known as Microsoft Lync, certifies peripherals and PCs. Check to see if the solutions under consideration require specific peripherals, because you may have to include the costs for USB video conferencing cameras and headsets for all users in your deployment.
There is a direct correlation between audio/video encoded format and required the required bandwidth or bitrate. Higher quality video formats such as HD video conferencing or Ultra HD video conferencing (4K) increase the amount of transmitted data per HD endpoint.
This article about encoding videos for YouTube summarizes bit rates and video quality well.
For a fixed number of video conferencing endpoints, higher resolution video implies more bandwidth is required per endpoint.
Self-Hosted Video Conferencing Solutions
Self-hosted solutions for large enterprises fall under the Unified Communications label. Multiple server deployments, configurations, and support are resource intensive. Either your IT department will incorporate this into their workload and program, or professional services companies can be hired to perform the configuration and deployment. Obviously, many IT disciplines will have to participate to ensure a successful implementation.
To implement one of the Enterprise video conferencing solutions from the largest providers, Sever Infrastructure teams will have to provision virtual servers on Virtual Machines connected to primary data center networks and DMZ networks. Network administrators will have to configure VLANs and subnets for routing, configure firewalls to create DMZ networks, and monitor and analyze bandwidth to ensure no other critical applications are adversely affected.
Active Directory authentication and integration with corporate email and scheduling applications requires additional disciplines.
The following diagram of a Microsoft self-hosted Skype for Business implementation conveys the complexity of a robust implementation:
Here’s a full sized image of this video conferencing server solution.
There is also the projected adoption of video conferencing to consider. If your company will spend a lot of money to implement a complete Skype for Business video conferencing infrastructure, will there be an executive directive to use video conferencing from the desktop all the time? In other words, will the usage model change to get the maximum benefit from the investment?
Plans like this require participation and preparation by the network engineers and administrators. There is a stark difference between enabling a few users to connect to video conferences over corporate networks, and enabling many people to maintain conference connections while walking down long hallways carrying laptops or tablets/phones, for example. A new usage model can drive the need for network upgrades, which are usually expensive.
Of course, mid-sized companies can install an open source video conferencing server. If your IT department can install and maintain it, software costs will be minimized. There are several options for conferencing software systems based on open source code that come with support, and some companies provide support under professional services contracts.
Online Conferencing and Information Security Concerns
IT Security, or Information Security will probably need to approve changes in firewall rules required for your video conferencing solution, whichever way you go.
Video conferencing systems can often record a web conference for later viewing by a wider audience as a streamed video-on-demand. Video conference recordings may contain confidential information. Where those recordings are stored and how access to them is controlled would be a matter of concern for IT Security. Obviously, there are more concerns with web-hosted storage.
Video Conferencing Speed to Implementation
Cloud Based Web Conferencing
Hands down, the quickest path to web collaboration is via a cloud-based service. You can use laptop or desktop cameras, microphones, and speakers or headsets, or you can buy smaller video conference endpoints that have all the components in one compact unit: connections for your choice of flat screen monitor, built-in speakers, microphones, camera, network interface and all the processing required.
Establishing company and user accounts and agreeing to terms can get you started. As usage increases, the network can adapt through added bandwidth or upgraded firewalls. It may be a challenge to keep bandwidth capacity on pace with adoption and usage requirements.
Self-hosted Video Conferencing Solution
Self-hosted video conferencing systems from the largest vendors will be expensive and take much longer to implement, but can offer corporate executives excellent video quality through “immersive video conferencing systems” in purpose-built rooms. Through excellent technology and many cameras and a video wall, a remote conference room can look like the other side of a conference room table. It’s the closest thing to meeting in person as you can get. Look at this image of Polycom’s immersive room.
As you can imagine such a system needs a lot of bandwidth. The “Immersive Studio” recommends 12Mbps, with a maximum of 18Mbps connectivity to the other side of the conference. So your WAN will have to have that extra capacity already provisioned.
As explored briefly earlier, you can also explore the options of Open Source video servers for your self-hosted solution. With less complexity the speed-to-implement should fall in between the extremes of a Skype-for-Business or Cisco Unified Communications solution.
There are many variables and stakeholders’ perspectives to consider in choosing whether to use web-based online video conferencing or self-hosted video conferencing systems for your business. This is not an exhaustive list or complete discussion, but hopefully thorough enough to help navigate the decision process.
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