Telepresence: the Next VDI Frontier?

It's becoming a viable way to attend events, but needs tuning.

Microsoft held its annual Ignite conference this past September in Atlanta, Georgia, and I had the good fortune to attend. I did not fly to the event. There were no hotels. I simply logged into a telepresence unit from my computer in Edmonton, Alberta. Based on my experiences, I expect telepresence to become increasingly common, and I believe this has serious implications for IT teams.

The Good
My ability to attend the event was provided by Event Presence, which deployed Suitable Technologies Beam Pro units. Event Presence provides a concierge-like service, where multiple telepresence units and charging docks are installed.

Basic training is provided to newcomers, and if the attendee (i.e., the remote person controlling the unit) gets into trouble (or lost), they can simply chat with an Event Presence onsite staff member via Skype or Slack. Event Presence will then either remotely guide the telepresence unit back to its dock, or send someone out to fetch it.

In all, the experience was extremely satisfying. Everything worked as it should have. I was able to attend the event without focusing on my shattering exhaustion, physical disabilities or overwhelming pain. I simply went from booth to booth, asked questions, and got things done.

The Bad
In late August I also tried an Event Presence telepresence experience, this time at VMworld. It was a disaster. The difference between the two events was spectrum.

At VMworld, the Beam units ran off the VMware-provided WiFi. I think I got a little more than two minutes of extremely shaky connectivity before I ran the thing into a not-spot and was unable to reconnect. At Ignite, Event Presence used their own commercial radio spectrum, and the experience was absolutely bulletproof.

Therein lies the problem for systems administrators: these things are provably usable, useful, and for some of us actually a superior experience than physically attending. This raises a few issues.

The first of these issues is that these telepresence units require reasonable tech to make them go. This means that anywhere you might want to use them, you'll need on-premises infrastructure. The units use wireless network connectivity, which means ruthlessly hunting not-spots, testing for interference and fretting about security.

Security Concerns
With the rise of network virtualization and software-defined networking (SDN), network security is increasingly the problem of the virtualization administrator, who is probably going to have to provide virtual machines to keep the back-end infrastructure for the telepresence units working as well.

The telepresence units have to be access managed, as someone has to grant staff members access, set the timeframes in which they are allowed to inhabit a unit and so on. All of this traffic has to be segmented from the rest of the network, but inspected to ensure that only the right people connect. So on and so forth.

The second order effects are probably more important. With telepresence units finally being a realistically viable option for attending everything from a conference to meetings at the corporate HQ, patterns of work are likely to change. Organizations that have resisted teleworking may find themselves at a disadvantage compared to competitors, and less likely to attract top talent.

Letting the executives try out the telepresence units could result in pressure to pursue virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) initiatives, workplace wireless, layered network security or refreshes of on-premises IT at remote branch offices. It's worth thinking about how telepresence could impact your organization, because it's not going away, and it's good enough to provide a busy executive the ability to actually be in two places at once.

About the Author

Trevor Pott is a full-time nerd from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He splits his time between systems administration, technology writing, and consulting. As a consultant he helps Silicon Valley startups better understand systems administrators and how to sell to them.


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