Hardware for multipoint conferencing keeps getting better

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In a previous column I predicted that Microsoft's Exchange 2000 Conferencing Server software for mixing data, audio and video would meet the needs of occasional users, but would also fall short of expectations for those with large collaborative meetings or projects involving users outside the enterprise LAN. I suggested that to offer a full featured platform that interoperates with end points from other vendors (other than Microsoft's NetMeeting or those running Microsoft Windows2000), the IT manager would need to introduce one or more third party software extensions.

Another way to expand the multipoint conferencing services your enterprise or commercial network offers voice and video over IP application users is to introduce new hardware. In general, multipoint conference signaling and media management (mixing, switching and control of the virtual stage in real time) are computationally demanding processes. Hardware acceleration produces much sharper video, clearer audio and lowers the latency users experience. And, prior to conferencing over IP, hardware interfaces (T1/E1 or ISDN cards) were necessary for connection-oriented network terminations between the end points and the bridge.

In this earlier era (1994-1998) a few companies dominated the multipoint videoconferencing infrastructure market segment. VideoServer, now known as ezenia!, invented the category and introduced the first generation of MCUs (multipoint conferencing units). The company held its leadership position through another generation of functionality until, in 1997, others saw an opportunity. Lucent Technologies, for example, productized core video technologies from Bell Labs and began marketing them aggressively as the Lucent MCU. Compunetix is another player in this segment. Lucent gained market share (the product is now in the Avaya portfolio) but has since ceded competitive advantages to newcomers, such as Accord Networks which has aggressively targeted the service provider segment, and RADVision which has gone after the work group video meeting user base with its H.323 enterprise MCU.

Over the same period, CUseeMe's MCU, MeetingPoint, grew in acceptance in both service provider and enterprise networks. Although these products are more stable and easier to use than any of their predecessors, a graph on page 4 of an industry newsletter published by Wainhouse Research shows that the segment revenues have not significantly grown since second quarter 1999 (and maybe earlier).

Despite this lack of apparent revenue growth, investments continue. In the last 18 months, MCU product providers have all been designing new products to leap beyond the functionality of third generation multipoint infrastructure platforms and also cater to a new generation of users who want to conference using voice and video over IP with more than 2 end points. The fruits of these investments are coming to market.

In third quarter 2000, Accord Networks announced a new family of products designed for complex IP voice and video "networking opportunities" such as are emerging in video communications application service provider (ASP) and CLEC operations centers. The V2IPERA products leverage Accord's NEBS (Network Equipment Building Systems)-compliant core platform, including high throughput backplane, redundant components, hot-swappable cards, high port capacity and web-ready management interface called WebCommander. A graphic on Accord's Web site illustrates how conferencing settings and bandwidth of the user sessions influence the port capacity. In general, all of the Accord platform design criteria are important to service providers and the MGC product is used for multipoint conferencing in many commercial operations centers.

At the ISPCON 2000 event in San Jose on November 8, RADVision introduced its response to the MGC-100 products and the V2IPERA product family. Available in first quarter 2001, the viaIP product family's design goals closely match Accord's. It is a multi-service hardware platform for voice, video and data with gateway functionality available, but a couple of differences may make the platform less expensive and more manageable than its competitor.

The viaIP platform is based on Compact PCI architecture, and given the number of servers using this standard, RADVision will have lower design and manufacturing costs than proprietary architectures, while offering higher port capacity (up to 100 ports per card, up to a maximum of 3 MCU cards per chassis) than its enterprise gateway or MCU product lines.

Secondly, RADVision is putting its next generation gatekeeper technology on an NT card (the Enhanced Communications Server). The datasheet on this product promises that this application will offer a higher degree of service creation and management functionality than available on other products on the market. And, for those with the need for high speed, application sharing with more than 2 users, the data conferencing option (Data Collaboration Server) runs on a separate viaIP card.

The improvements available on the Accord and RADVision products may offer superior user experiences and service manageability, but the big question I have is "when will it matter?" These companies, other hardware MCU vendors such as Lucent, Compunetix, StarVision and GDC, as well as CUseeMe and Microsoft who are offering multipoint conferencing software, need to focus more energy on creating demand for their products.

Until there are larger marketing budgets and the participation of networking industry giants such as Nortel, Lucent and Cisco, network engineers will not build these into their operations centers and users will not have the opportunity to experience the improving platforms first hand. Between now and then, the details of these new multipoint conferencing hardware platforms will be a well-kept secret between you and I!

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