Straight to video

Video services have traditionally appealed to niche verticals but vendors are pushing lower price, higher quality solutions they say will drive adoption in the general enterprise.

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By  Simon Duddy Published  May 23, 2005

|~|Naidu_Nitesh2_m.jpg|~|“Video has been a niche application and there has been negative comment on the cost. But Sony is trying to counter this with lower prices.” - Nitesh Naidu, product manager of professional products for Sony Broadcast.|~|Video services from conferencing to streaming and surveillance are slowing creeping into the enterprise as a result of decreasing costs and the increasing ubiquity of Internet Protocol (IP) capable systems. This is certainly the message that video hardware manufacturers are keen to emphasise. All stress that falling prices, and improving video codecs are making video a more attractive option for the enterprise. “Uptake is increasing on average 30% every year and organisations are using video for different applications such as distance learning,” says KS Parag, regional director, First Video Communications (FVC), which distributes Polycom products in the Middle East. Video has traditionally allowed high level management across different locations to work together as ‘virtual teams’ but there are now signs that the improving lot of video could see its benefits appear at lower levels in the corporation. Web-based software packages offering easy and intuitive access and much improved compression software means that high quality pictures can be delivered with much less latency and cost than before. Also the synchronisation of audio and video, which was once a serious problem with all videoconferencing systems, has been much improved. “We have new platforms which bring high quality video on a lighter software based codec, which only needs a good quality camera,” says Parag. “This means it should trickle down, allowing the administration and technical departments and even home users to bring good quality video to the desktop,” he adds. The video hardware market is also heating up, with Sony putting additional pressure on the two companies – Tandberg and Polycom – that dominate the Middle East’s video hardware market. Citing dropping prices the vendor believes it has the ammunition to take business from the more established players. “Video has been a niche application and there has been negative comment on the cost,” says Nitesh Naidu, product manager of professional products for Sony Broadcast. “But Sony is trying to counter this with lower prices, and also emphasising return on investment. We want to show how videoconferencing can complement business travel and can help to save money,” he adds. Sony also sees the increasing importance of IP as an opportunity. With many firms converging the network in order to switch to IP telephony, the infrastructure will be in place to handle video to the desktop, if it is needed. Vendors are generally outlining the benefits in rather soft terms, such as speeding up decision making processes, improving communication and facilitating collaboration but that does not mean these will not pay off for the enterprise. “In general, video communication is more meaningful than an audio call or a series of chain e-mails. Why? Because you can spontaneously set up a video meeting any time, anywhere, see body language and react to a situation instantly,” says Lars Ronning, area manager for Tandberg Middle East & Africa. Tandberg says enterprises benefit in different ways from using video, with manufacturing enterprises reducing their time to market, finance organisations being able to react to stock changes in real time and oil & gas companies using video for remote diagnostics on rigs. Indeed, Bilal Hibash, senior network & telecom engineer at National Drilling Company (NDC) deployed a PolyCom videoconferencing solution so that managers don’t have to visit the rigs as frequently, which saves money for the company. FVC’s Parag interestingly sums up the value of video services as a time management tool rather than an IT tool. That said, video services have primarily seen uptake in specialised verticals, with Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal hospital a prime example. It uses a Polycom videoconferencing system to provide live sessions including surgeries, lectures and presentations to audiences in classrooms and auditoriums around the world. “We use the system to transmit live surgeries from multiple operating rooms simultaneously to various classrooms and auditoriums,” says Dr Abdel Rahman Salim, consultant general and laproscopic surgeon at King Faisal Specialist Hospital & Research Centre. “The videoconferencing sessions provide two way communication enabling surgeons to educate the audience as they perform the surgery and also allows the audience to ask questions,” he adds. In very niche applications such as this, video, though expensive, can be cost effective given that alternatives require extensive travel. For example, Al Faisal is able to conduct remote consultations and advanced training that were not possible due to cost considerations in the past. While this kind of deployment is encouraging, it clearly shows that video is still largely a niche technology. This is backed up further by the assertions of analyst firms in the region. IDC carried out a survey of wide area network (WAN) managers in Saudi Arabia in Q104 and found that most respondents had no plans to introduce videoconferencing or were still considering it. That said, 18% of companies surveyed that had a managed IP VPN infrastructure over the WAN, were using videoconferencing. “We’ve seen videoconferencing in Saudi Arabia in the education and healthcare sectors with, for example, Saudi universities using it to allow male professors to give lessons to female students,” says Mohsen Malaki, IDC MEA programme and consulting manager for communications at IDC. “We haven’t seen the typical enterprise adopting it. If a company needs it they’ll take it, but the drawbacks of management on the network and especially the costs will ensure that it remains a niche application,” he explains. Although video hardware costs are falling, and FVC estimates that prices have fallen by 80% in ten years, this has a limited impact on the cost equation. This is because the real cost to the enterprise comes from increased network traffic. Most local area networks (LANs) can handle video these days, as many advanced enterprises have progressed to Gigabit capable networks. However, in stark contrast to the LAN, WAN links in the region are relatively slow and often very expensive. These expensive links make it all but impossible for most companies to deploy video on a wide scale. “Saudi Arabia is virtually encased within itself, it is not possible to go outside [using WAN links] unless it’s through managed services and these are very expensive,” says Naidu. “It’s very early days in infrastructure development but it’s the right time to enter the market as things will get better. As ADSL rolls out, we will be able to take video products to the SOHO and home markets as well as the enterprise,” he adds. Although some years off, the triple play idea being considered by service providers in the region at the moment could be adapted to take video to smaller businesses. “To date, most of the operators that have talked about triple play are trying to address the residential segment as opposed to the business segment. So far, however, no one in the region has offered triple play on a medium or large scale,” says Khaled Rifai, director of business development, at Lucent Technologies, MEA. The strain that video places on the wide area network and the resultant costs have led the enterprise to look at methods of optimising WAN bandwidth, with a number of companies such as Peribit (recently bought by Juniper), Packeteer and Expand Networks offering products. The key requirement here is to eliminate redundant information before it gets sent from the enterprise to the WAN. The devices sit typically between that local area network (LAN) and the router and use algorithms to analyse IP packets traversing the network. In recognition of the importance of this approach, FVC has added Packeteer to its list of distribution partners in the region. The smart enterprise can use further novel methods to minimise the cost of deployment. Hatem Al Sibai, chief information officer (CIO) of the UAE-based Al Ghurair Group has added video to the services it deploys across its network and managed to cut implementation costs by using open source software and self-built hardware using off-the-shelf components. The video project was undertaken in response to end user desire to view information in live video feeds. Al Ghurair Group comprises seven operating units with five in manufacturing and its managers need up to date information on market purchases and commodities. Al Sibai observed staff installing TVs and satellite dishes in offices and decided it would be more efficient to stream the service over the network to PCs where users could view data on a screen within the PC monitor. “We experimented with open source software encoders and found XVID, which gave us acceptable quality at an acceptable bandwidth,” says Al Sibai. “We started off with a bit rate of 500Kbits/s, which we thought would be too difficult to send across WAN links, so we tweaked it and got it down to 150Kbits/s,” he adds. As the same information is broadcast to each user, Al Ghurair opted to use multicast technology. This means that the stream has to be sent out only once, saving on bandwidth and again cutting costs. However, making the network multicast-aware brought its own issues. “To make use of multicast, the enterprise needs to have awareness on the servers and also on points of the network,” says Al Sibai. “Multicast uses a subscription model, so routers have to track the number and locations of subscribers to the media stream and must have the intelligence to understand this. We were pleased to know that most routers can support multicast, although people usually don’t switch it on,” he explains. Initially the video service performed well on the local area network (LAN) but not on the wide area network (WAN), where Al Ghurair uses frame relay to link its Jebel Ali-based manufacturing facilities and leased line to connect its Dubai-based offices. Al Sibai found that jitter was having a powerful detrimental effect on video traffic. To solve the problem Al Ghurair placed video at the top of the network traffic priority stack using the quality of service (QoS) feature on its Cisco routers. “You cannot have delays in video and audio packets, so video traffic needed higher priority. Configuring QoS on Cisco routers was sufficient to solve the problems we faced with video and audio through latency and jitter. We process video traffic first, with ERP applications also getting high priority, while other traffic like e-mail gets low priority,” says Al Sibai. Rick Hammersla, satellite operations manager at very small aperture terminal (VSAT) vendor Newsat does not see technical issues are the main inhibitor of video uptake, but rather highlights ignorance of how to deploy video correctly. He sees the most important factor as tailoring the service to what the customer needs. “As a vendor, we need to work with the customers to correctly assess need,” says Hammersla. “We need to marry video quality with bit rate. Some companies may tolerate 64Kbits/s bit rate, while motion jpeg, which has a very low bit rate can work adequately for surveillance. But other companies with more movement sensitive applications may require higher quality and therefore greater bit rate,” he explains. The enterprise must fit a solution to its needs exactly. If this is not achieved, a company could find itself paying a fortune in bandwidth costs for high video quality that is not appreciated or necessary. A further issue that cannot be ignored by the enterprise is set up, both in terms of the integration of video technology into the network and training staff to cope with the systems. After all, not every company is as self sufficient in technology terms as the Al Ghurair Group. This means that the enterprise should sensibly budget a few months to install a sizeable video services project. “Video is typically not difficult to integrate,” says Parag. “But you have to have quality of service (QoS) and you have to make sure the WAN link can handle video traffic,” he explains. Video must be prioritised as a time sensitive application and this can mean considerable tinkering with the network. The company should also make sure that all components are designed with video in mind and have the correct drivers installed. FVC and other systems integrators will carry out network design and pre-consultation in a bid to understand the WAN, firewall issues and the number of video sessions the enterprise needs to be able to cope with. Firewalls in particular can be difficult for video traffic to navigate, as the whole point of firewalls is to slow traffic for inspection, which video cannot tolerate. Therefore to use video effectively, the enterprise must use VPN tunnels or deploy a video solution that bypasses the firewall. FVC offers two tiers of training, one for end users, plus technical training for maintenance engineers. The end user training focuses on setting up buddy lists, scheduling conferences and so on, while the one week maintenance training concentrates on technical troubleshooting. For all the cost issues and technical difficulties, video remains an application that easily catches the imagination in the enterprise. This imagination is slowly becoming a reality in the wider business world, especially as vendors find ever more astute ways to deliver video at high quality levels without pushing bandwidth utilisation through the roof. ||**||

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