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When Worlds Collide: Virtualization Impacts Video Conferencing Infrastructure

Virtualization is a major planetary body in the enterprise IT universe, impacting servers, storage, desktops and more. On the same trajectory is video conferencing infrastructure, and they'r ready to collide.

Virtualization is a major planetary body in the enterprise IT universe, impacting servers, storage, desktops and more. Among other product categories on its trajectory is video conferencing infrastructure. Virtualization and video conferencing infrastructure are set to collide.

Virtualization has a good deal of weight in enterprise IT, and for good reason. The goals of centralizing administration, load balancing and scalability are driven by modern IT managers' desire to provide superior service without stick-handling the underlying hardware components for every new user, add, move, or change. Done right, virtualization should help shift focus from components to improving IT/business alignment.

The business video conferencing industry is a major, heavyweight body too. Depending on whose estimate you accept, it is a $2.8 billion/year industry today, forecasted to reach $3.8 billion by 2015 (worldwide figures, Ovum Rearch, Infonetics predicts almost $5 billion by 2015). According to Wainhouse Research, a specialist in this industry, the infrastructure components alone -- such as video routers, multichannel units (MCUs) and desktop gateway servers -- are over $1 billion in this timeframe.

Video Conferencing Infrastructure -- Increasing Demands Meet Reality
Video conferencing is being driven by the growing ubiquity of HD video in consumer markets, video-savvy employees joining the workforce and traditional budget pressures on business travel. While internal, room-to-room conferencing is increasing, particularly in the large enterprise, the industry is struggling to meet demand from budget conscious small to medium-sized enterprise markets (SMB/SME).

Generally speaking, the video conferencing industry is comprised of two product categories: video conferencing endpoints (video capture devices) and infrastructure. Infrastructure components are required for mixing multiple video streams, routing desktop connections and adding collaboration components. In recent times, many endpoints have incorporated built-in MCUs, blurring the category distinction a bit, but built-in MCUs generally top out around 4 to 6 ports, and do not address the other aforementioned infrastructure capabilities.

Connecting two endpoints across a company VPN is easy, but as multipoint video, security, desktop reach and inter-company requirements are added, video conferencing infrastructure comes into play, bringing with it additional cost and complexity. This hurdle is keeping video conferencing penned-up in internal, room-to-room applications.

Video conferencing infrastructure has not changed much since the 1990s. Each hardware unit requires some bandwidth assessment, network installation, router, proxy and firewall updates, along with configuration settings for a fixed list of users or sites. Any updates or changes require manual effort. There are no provisions for fail-over or scalability when the limited number of ports are off-line or all in use.

New Technology Enablers Put Virtualization on Collision Course
While room-based video conferencing has been around for decades, several new technologies are expanding the scope of video applications. In particular, multi-core processors bring far more CPU power to video conferencing than ever before -- today a multipoint HD video conference on a typical desktop is well within the capability of a dual, quad, or eight-core processor. Another technology enabler is the HD-capable webcam. The current generation maxes out at HD 720p picture quality, reaching the transfer limits of USB 2.0. Later this year, USB 3.0 video peripherals will offer HD 1080p at full frame rates. Now processing power and picture quality are ample.

It's also worth mentioning increased bandwidth availability and the advent of variable bitrate encoding (also called scalable video coding). Variable bitrate encoding can provide the best picture quality possible, over variable bandwidth connections for each individual participant in a multipoint conference. This is markedly different from prior generations of video encoding that required matching "feeds and speeds." One can still choose to provide dedicated bandwidth for guaranteed HD delivery to a specific desktop or room, but it is no longer required. This enables desktop and inter-company applications where bandwidth fluctuates.

With these technology enablers in place, video conferencing is no longer limited to pre-installed, room-to-room applications or dedicated bandwidth routes. Today, video conferencing can reach any computer-equipped desktop or room with Internet access.

The Many Forms of Virtualization
Another enabling technology is, of course, virtualization. Ultimately all video routing, mixing and gateway services are implemented in software, whether executed from flash memory on an infrastructure hardware component, or an executable file on a general purpose server. Conceptually, it's very straightforward to migrate video mixing to a general purpose server, then "virtualize" the server.

As Virtualization Review readers well know, virtualization can take many forms. The "virtualized" servers described in the paragraph above can be implemented in a centralized data center (not ideal for a bandwidth-heavy application), a distributed cloud-based online service, or an on-premise, private cloud.

Virtualization Catches Up to Video Conferencing Infrastructure
Indeed, today's technology enablers have started to virtualize video conferencing infrastructure already. In particular, cloud computing is a becoming more mainstream, effectively virtualizing and managing video conferencing infrastructure on behalf of the customer. There are several cloud-based offerings on the market, with new entrants almost every month so far this year.

The Benefits of Virtualizing Video Conferencing
There are several benefits to virtualizing video conferencing infrastructure. A good video conferencing cloud should leverage distributed resources across multiple regions, delivering the benefits of automated load balancing, fail-over and scalability. These are the new standards demanded by service-oriented IT shops, whether the application is implemented internally or via third-party providers.

A good implementation should also connect end-points at desktops and rooms, not just rooms alone. Vendors should also provide interactive collaboration tools, which are often required during a video conference, moving another capability under the virtualized management fold.

Another benefit is speed. A state-of-the-art implementation virtualizes video conferencing as close as possible to users, thereby reducing roundtrip latency and further improving video performance.

Setting aside private clouds, the greatest benefits offered by cloud-based video conferencing infrastructure are lower financial risk (lower cost and no long-term commitment) and ease of expansion.

When Worlds Collide, More Choices & Virtualization Benefits for IT
There is no question the 'virtualization' and 'video conferencing infrastructure' worlds will collide. It is happening already. In particular, cloud-based video conferencing tackles infrastructure complexity and is quickly becoming a mainstream approach. It handles desktops and rooms, integrated collaboration tools and multipoint HD video, while offering the virtualization benefits of automated load balancing, fail-over and scalability. It is less expensive and easier to expand.

When worlds collide, or in this case, when a major IT trend tackles an established product category, there are a few more pieces and parts to consider. In this case, the new virtualized server and cloud-based offerings are worth a look. The best offerings give network users expanded desktop reach and collaboration tools, while letting IT managers virtualize another product category, enabling easier administration and future expansion.

About the Author

Tom Toperczer is vice president of marketing at Nefsis.

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