Software follows hardware like day follows night. While some hardware is always necessary – cameras, monitors and microphones – the core functions of video conferencing are served up effectively on standard servers and VMs. The abilities of up to date PC’s to manage and deliver excellent quality graphics means we can break out of the old, and now unnecessary paradigm of the ‘transcoded image’.
Have we reached the tipping point? While the Market is still dominated by the ‘bigs’ like Cisco and Polycom there’s a whole new set of challengers with the ability to be far more innovative and agile. With the acquisition of Acano, Cisco is simultaneously taking out a threat by assimilating them, and acknowledging their need to change tack in the face of stiffening headwinds.
The tide has already turned.
Enter the SDC
Lean and innovative software companies are bringing many disciplines and features together into one cohesive, and ever evolving solution. Like a Perfect Storm the needed elements of Software Defined Networking, Hybrid Cloud Deployment, Virtualization, Gaming Engines, increasing Bandwidth, QoS Networks and others combine to make possible a sea change in how Video Conferencing (and Unified Communications for that matter) are deployed and delivered. What Bruce Lee brought to martial arts, these companies bring to video collaboration in the shape of Software Defined Collaboration (SDC).
It should be pointed out that this phenomenon is aided and abetted by other trends. The low cost and wide availability of displays, cameras and microphones makes it ridiculously easy to build out a quality experience in a room without conducting a total makeover. Faster and more powerful PCs (especially Macs) can drive these displays without resorting to external components. If the desktop becomes over-stressed the devices to alleviate that are readily available. (E.g. Optiport and Black Magic)
The Tao of SDC comes together::
- Deployment. Server software gets deployed in a shockingly short amount of time, where ever it is needed. We’re talking hours – actually we’re talking Pizza Delivery time. And choosing Public Cloud, Private Cloud becomes a matter of need, availability and best fit.
- Distributed Architecture. Meetings in all their forms (P2P, Round tables, Collaborations, enormous Conferences) are conducted over either private (QoS) networks or worst case the public Internet. When a new server is added it simply becomes available as part of the ‘fabric’.
- Distributed Connections. In a multi-server deployment the User connections are routed to the ‘best available’ server. Often this will be closest, but dependent upon server and network loads the Client may connect anywhere on the network. Ideally this includes the ability to ‘shift’ users to other servers, either manually or automatically.
- Dynamic Resource Allocation. A BIG advantage of software is the removal of physical limitations (Ports) to support connections. Given this the ability to connect anywhere on the SDC with the resource being assigned from an available pool has many advantages. These include: Built-in Follow the Sun, Increased User to Port Ratios, elimination of arbitrary limits based on licensing and others.
- Optimization. Various schemes are employed to ‘scale’ the video experience today. This is especially important a meeting sizes increase. At least some of these include reducing overall meeting quality to the least common denominator while creating the biggest strain (data size) on the weakest links (PC style endpoints and especially the uplink). Inverting this by adjusting the performance of each supported system according to its capability, bandwidth and bandwidth conditions results in a better experience for all.
- Near-zero Expansion Cost. This should seem obvious, but is so counter to the current market as to be counter-intuitive. Basically a SDC can make the cost of adding a new location minimal. All it takes is a no-cost license for the server software. What are left are the datacenter costs, which are dropping regularly and precipitously. The benefits are extensive;
- Deploy in ADVANCE of demand. Entering a new market today means either extensive provisioning costs and time (in advance of having any customers) or sub-optimal connections until the base reaches critical mass. With SDC a server is deployed (in hours) and available when the first connection comes in.
- No Over– Hardware deployments are bounded by physical ports. More customers = more ports required = increased hardware costs PLUS licensing and SUPPORT$. With SDC the limitations are on the server (system or VM) without artificially restricting use. With virtualization the SDC servers could be automatically ‘spun up’ to meet spikes in demand.
- Flex Your Network. Hybrid Cloud really does mean deploy anywhere. Exploit this by changing to new Cloud Providers in the event of new technical or financial advantages. Even more so this means the SDC can accommodate additional ‘outpost’ services. These could be Customers that want their own localized Server, downstream Partners that sell your services under their flag, etc.
- Fly Your Own Flag. Private Labeling is de rigueur today, or should be. With never easier graphics creation having your identity as part of the solution is a big part of staying ‘top of mind’ with customers, not to mention retaining them. After all, if your vendor can (and will) shift strategies and swoop your customers that’s not much of a relationship.
- New Engines for User Experience. Virtual Machines for advanced graphics gave us First Person Shooters and other cool experiences. These BEAT THE TAR out of the ‘traditional’ Video Conference experience. Integrating this to give customers the Best Seat In The House capabilities will bring the Videoconference up to the expectations of the new crop of users that know their i7 Quad Core or Mac Pro can deliver SO much more than a Hollywood Squares display.
- In With The Old. Earlier on there was mention of interoperability. This is a nicer way of saying ‘backwards compatibility’ and given everything else the focus is on backwards. Standards are great, except they are most often static and stand in the way of innovation. Nevertheless, people DO have investments in these systems, so naturally want to include them. Standards for this are H.323 and SIP and both should be accommodated via reasonable Gateways. That said, the owners of these systems have to face the reality that new and cool experiences are unlikely to be extended to them. They do, in fact, have their father’s Oldsmobile.
- AND In With The New.
- Mobile devices are the rage with gazillions deployed and more new devices being used all the time. So yes, support Android, support iOS. Today that means Apps in the respective stores. Two interesting technologies are HTML5 and WebRTC. Both have the potential to improve access and experience from mobile. Neither seem to be ‘quite there’ for VC on Mobile – yet. Mobile users should also be cognizant that their device, powerful as it is becoming, still doesn’t have the power of the PC. Experiences still lag, and are exacerbated by the limitations of the display, where size actually matters.
- WebRTC is all the rage. Rightfully so, having access to video without the need for an installed Client expands the reach and improves adoption exponentially. Note that most (if not all) WebRTC still use a form of transcoded (grid type) display when more than two attendees are present. This may be adequate, but it’s always prudent to pair the right technology with the right use case.
- Integrate That Platform. ‘Mash-ups’ extend in both directions. Expanding SDC capabilities with additional cool components is equally as attractive as incorporating video as part of a greater whole. A couple of easy examples:
- Unified Communications.Video is on this list, along with Presence, Chat, and Telephony. Building the SDC into bigger broader products makes the whole unit better.
- Portals, Platforms and Applications. Our distributed world and workforce cries out for re-establishing personal and genuine relationships. Among the most important aspects of communication is our ability to capture all the nuances in a conversation. THIS is the true value of video. Any application that has two to many people communicating in real time will benefit from video collaboration. The best SDC is accessible from and integrated with these programs.
- Affordable. Ah, here’s the rub, right? All these cool capabilities go for naught if you can’t afford them and leads to unused and untapped resources. A few factors;
- What Is The Unit? My argument is that the basic unit of measurement is the connection. In traditional VC products this is represented as a Port, a physical thing. In the SDC these are virtual, but still remain the accurate measurement of capacity.
- Economy of Scale. The trick is the ability to license ‘enough’ and balance that with the desired User:Port ratio. As discussed above, distributing ports across the SDC yields more connections and with a higher ratio comes greater profitability.
- Straw man. Bundling all the attributes together, with the deployment and operational characteristics described should cost in the range of the support price for a traditional Videoconference system.
On an increasing basis these attributes of Software Defined Collaboration will take center stage. Meeting customer expectations for cost, efficiency, speed and flexibility demand it.