Videoconferencing hits the big time … for real

By Johna Till Johnson, Network World |  Networking, videoconferencing, voip

It feels like 1989 all over again. Wacky haircuts are back (I think I saw a mullet the other day). "Alternative rock" sounds a lot like what used to be called "new wave." Big shoulders are back. And we geeks are waxing rhapsodic about the wonders of videoconferencing.

Yes, that's right: Videoconferencing is the next new thing — for the third or fourth time since 1964.

[ Podcast: Videoconferencing in 2009: The perfect storm? ]

This time it's for real, though. Conferencing vendors say sales of their gear has skyrocketed — even over the past few months, when every other tech vendor was reporting gloom and doom. And 79% of the IT pros I work with say they're deploying videoconferencing to reduce travel. Forty-three percent say they have formal policies governing the use of videoconferencing.

What's changed? Plenty. First is that compression technology has gotten steadily better, to the point where high-definition (HD) video can be transmitted across roughly the same bandwidth that was once required for its poor-quality cousins. Second, vendors have finally wised up and applied Hollywood lighting, camera placement and set design techniques, so that telepresence really delivers the sensation of "just like being there."

But most importantly, now that we've spent a couple of decades internalizing the concept of virtual communications, we've gotten collectively more comfortable with remote interactions. We buy big-ticket items from e-Bay and Amazon (remember when they said nobody would ever spend more than a couple of dollars online?). We Facebook, Skype and instant message our friends. So talking to a face on the screen really doesn't seem that unusual.

From an IT perspective, though, the advent of video can be a challenge. First, there's the bandwidth consumption. Even with modestly sized screens, HD video can consume a couple of Mbps per user, easy. That may not sound like a lot, but the typical branch office is still often served by a T1 — which means a single video call could swamp the connection. So IT pros need to plan ahead, and make sure there's plenty of bandwidth available.

There's also the problem of ensuring quality of service (QoS). An MPLS network will get you what you need on the WAN — but only about half of the folks we work with are deploying MPLS's QoS capabilities, because it can be tricky to set up effectively. To ensure effective QoS in the WAN, you need to map applications to QoS types — then make sure you've got adequate congestion control and QoS in the LAN.

Finally, you need to think in terms of managing and monitoring the video traffic. Most organizations don't perform detailed analysis of WAN traffic at all, so managing video represents a bit of a sea shift in thinking.

None of these are insurmountable, of course — but there's a bit more to enabling videoconferencing than just plugging in the unit and turning on the monitor. And there's at least one risk that's overrated. They say video killed the radio star — but I rather suspect that'll be news to Howard Stern.

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