Videoconferencing: Opportunities, Challenges and Solutions

4 Aug 2010

According to the Telecommunications Industry Association, use of business class videoconferencing has grown at an average of 6.5 % for the last 3 years, but recent developments now place adoption on the verge of explosion. Some important stimulants to growth include:

  • The global recession that began in 2007 forced many organizations to 'work smarter' by reducing travel while increasing use of audio, video and web conferencing. Companies that effectively employed these technologies saw employee productivity rise and travel expenses fall, and typically experienced paybacks of less than twelve months. These companies became more efficient and flexible organizations, attributes which are highly valued in these lean economic times (see figure 1). Consequently, many businesses view these as permanent, not temporary, changes in individual and organizational behavior.
  • Concerns about pandemics, political unrest and terrorist incidents dampen the incidence of travel and heighten interest in videoconferencing. For example, in 2009, protests in London effectively closed the financial district for more than a day, even to people who work there.
  • Natural disasters, like earthquakes or floods, can disrupt business on a local or regional basis. But some environmental incidents have far wider impact. For instance, volcanic eruptions in Iceland in April 2010 made it impossible to fly into or out of Northern Europe for more than five days; some companies elected not to re-schedule their trips but used web and video conferencing instead.
  • Over the last several years, videoconferencing technology has seen dramatic price and performance improvements. Compared to technology commonly used even five years ago, the quality of high definition room and desktop-based systems is rapidly improving. At the same time, these systems are becoming more affordable, consume substantially less bandwidth, and are much easier to use. The quality of well-designed immersive telepresence systems, which already garner 15% of the industry's revenue, parallels the quality of an in-person meeting.

As a result, use of videoconferencing technology is expanding well beyond meetings. Such applications are typically vertically-focused, and today are found in industries like manufacturing, legal/judicial, education, healthcare and public/environmental safety. Some companies are beginning to deploy the technology in contact centers to support live video chats, which can improve customer satisfaction and boost profitability. Consumer use of streaming video and videoconferencing applications is also soaring. Given the convergence of all these factors, it's no surprise that videoconferencing traffic is now expected to grow by over 3.5X between 2010 and 2014 (see figure 2).

Figure 1:

Critical Business Challenges Slide

Figure 2: Growth of Videoconferencing, 2010-2014

Projected Growth Slide

Despite the substantial improvements made in videoconferencing technology, business customers still find it's not as straightforward as deploying and using IP Telephony or VoIP. It's true that VoIP and videoconferencing share a number of similarities; for instance, both use RTP-based media and typically use SIP or H.323 for signaling. Since both applications are often considered business critical, maintaining consistently high performance is essential. But compared to voice conferences, videoconferences provide additional challenges because they often:

  • are of longer duration
  • consume substantially greater bandwidth per endpoint
  • involve complex media flows (voice, video and frequently, data sharing)
  • employ a number of additional control protocols for add-on functions (such as near and far-end camera and floor controls).

Despite the progress videoconferencing technology has made and the bottom line benefits it can provide, it clearly still requires that companies engage in a substantial amount of planning and preparation. Many companies find they are unprepared for the challenges that can arise when they try to engage in a multipoint videoconference, when tying in remote users, or when interconnecting with external companies who use different WAN providers or videoconferencing equipment. Some of the technology issues businesses should assess in advance of acquiring videoconferencing systems include:

  • Interworking and interoperability. It's important to verify endpoint call control interoperability (H.323:H.323, SIP-SIP, SIP: H323, etc.) because many vendors have implemented quasi-proprietary solutions. Some vendors' call control signaling is entirely proprietary and will always require a gateway to interwork with other systems (e.g., scalable video coding). Different vendors' conference control protocols may not fully interwork. Any of these issues can impair or even impede a successful virtual meeting.
  • Integration with UC and data sharing applications. To various extents, different vendors have integrated with Microsoft OCS for presence, scheduling, directory, calendaring, data sharing, etc. The same is true for IBM and Cisco solutions. Videoconferencing vendors have also implemented different data sharing functionality-some are adjuncts to the videoconferencing meeting, some are more fully integrated. These issues affect both live conferences and storage/retrieval.
  • Assuring consistent quality and reliability. Since different vendors' technologies can treat video, audio and data streams differently, it's important that companies assure each has adequate bandwidth and QoS/QoE on an endpoint-endpoint basis. Other considerations include the level of availability they want to achieve during normal circumstances, and when affected by outages.
  • Resolving security challenges. A few issues to consider involve security policies and procedures to support ad-hoc videoconferences for all of the applications being used (audio, video, UC, etc.) in all use settings (on the primary WAN, when connecting with remote users over VPNs, and when connecting with other companies). Different types of videoconferencing standards employ different addressing schemes - the E.164 dialing plan (traditional telephony dialing plan); IP-based addresses (IPv4 uses 32-bit numbers, IPv6 uses 128-bit numbers), other complexities include private (vs. public) IP addresses); or SIP URIs (email address format). To interwork, these have to be resolved, as does firewall traversal.

The types of challenges just discussed aren't insurmountable. On an increasingly frequent basis, companies employ session border controller technology (SBC) for these very reasons. Whether deployed as stand-alone systems or embedded into other devices, SBCs support a number of functions that today's generation of videoconferencing applications require, such as:

  • Assuring consistent quality and reliability. SBCs can enforce QoS-based routing for both video sessions and VOIP calls, perform session admission, traffic and bandwidth control; mark and map packets; and assure the quality of media flows (audio, video, data, UC). They can detect failures and in conjunction with a well-designed network, can re-establish videoconferencing sessions and re-route traffic.
  • Resolving interoperability, integration and interworking issues that are outside of MCU or gateway control, on both an endpoint and network-network basis. These include NAT traversal, session control and transport protocol interoperability.
  • Addressing important security challenges. These include DoS/DDoS prevention and protection, implementation and enforcement of access and registration control policies (dynamic vs. static addressing), topology hiding, signaling encryption, and preventing non-malicious attacks that sometimes occur as the result of hardware malfunctions, software or configuration errors.

Businesses that are in the process of assessing videoconferencing vendors and providers should inquire about SBC functionality to determine which (if any) functions are a standard part of the equipment they are considering, and which they'll need to acquire separately. Large enterprises will likely acquire stand-alone SBCs, because they support VOIP, UC and videoconferencing applications at scale. Midsized and smaller firms will seek out SBC functionality incorporated into other devices they use, such as IP PBXs, routers, firewalls, integrated access devices and multiservice gateways. One recent example is Avaya's Aura SBC, which integrates functionality from Acme Packet. Others include multi-service gateways from Adtran and Network Equipment Technologies (NET). By proactively addressing these types of challenges, companies can help assure they realize the full value of acquiring and using videoconferencing technology.


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