The video conferencing world is in a time of enormous change. The technology has become streamlined enough that it's easy to use for average users, and the costs have fallen dramatically, as new business models have taken off.
There are two basic business models for buying video conferencing tools. One model is for organizations to buy and own everything; the other is to deploy a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model and use a third-party service provider for the video conferencing infrastructure.
Until recently, the SaaS model was immature, but a combination of low-cost bandwidth, storage and compute has now empowered this model to be the fastest-growing sector of the market. Here, we will compare cloud vs. on-premises video models.
The components of cloud vs. on-premises video conferencing tools
Much like weighing the pros and cons of buying or leasing a car, cloud and on-premises video conferencing need to be evaluated on their strengths and weaknesses. Whether on-premises or cloud-based, many of the primary applications covered in video conferencing technology have the same key components:
- Multipoint conferencing. Multipoint conferencing, also known as bridging, enables multiple sites to be on a single call simultaneously. The number of seats varies by vendor, but a typical on-premises service can scale from 12 to 120 simultaneous users. This may be broken down into multiple smaller conferences or one large one.
Cloud offerings are typically 25 to 50 simultaneous users, and there is no limit on total calls. For example, 25 users could all be in 20 different calls with numerous guests outside of the organization.
- Streaming and recording. The ability to record or stream a video conference call is an increasingly available feature. On-premises services enable organizations to keep sensitive material inside their network, whereas cloud services, by their nature, store this material on cloud-based servers. Service-level agreements (SLAs) should be studied carefully to see what data is stored and where.
From a user's perspective, recording is simply a matter of pressing the record button. But for an administrator, the network traffic of multicast video streams and large amounts of data storage need to be factored into the total cost of ownership (TCO).
- Network management. Video conferencing tools need management just like any other service. The ability to push software updates, perform diagnostics, keep a central address book and integrate capabilities, such as calendars, becomes more important as the number of sites and users increases.
Centralized management is one of the real benefits of a cloud-based approach. Software is usually updated automatically, address books are kept up to date and network issues are proactively managed.
- Firewalls. On-premises video conferencing requires configuring firewalls to make calls outside the organization's network. The exact details of how to configure a firewall and which type of firewall is highly dependent on a range of factors, including network setup, outbound calls, and firewall and security risk profiles.
Cloud-based services, on the other hand, typically work in the vast majority of locations. If the internet can be accessed, then it is likely video conferencing can be used.
When on-premises makes the most sense
For the last 20 years of video conferencing deployments, the vast majority have been on premises. This was partly because the type of organizations deploying them was primarily large organizations with very significant security fears -- and because cloud services were not available.
Today, the main customers of on-premises services are extremely risk-averse organizations, such as the military, government and very large financial organizations.
Large, sophisticated, on-premises video conferencing tools take a level of knowledge and resources not easily available to most businesses. It is unwise for an organization to simply install a video conferencing service and assume its existing IT team will have the time or expertise to keep it running efficiently.
When the cloud makes most sense
The cloud is revolutionizing the video conferencing space. It offers the opportunity for mass deployment, simple and cost-effective TCO, and empowers users to work outside of their own firewall environment.
Most cloud service providers offer either monthly or annual contracts. Many offer a freemuim model as a way to test the technology or to enable guests to participate without having to pay.
The cloud scales from very small to very large quickly and easily, and IT support staff require little knowledge of the service. If your organization doesn't like a particular service, it can be easily switched off.
The cloud world is developing so quickly that short contracts with a low barrier to entry and a well-written SLA are recommended. It is often hard to predict the success of video conferencing within a business; and with so many players in the market, it would help to remain flexible.
Other factors to consider when evaluating cloud vs. on premises video conferencing
On-premises video platforms
Video conferencing infrastructure has always been high-value, proprietary technology. It is not the sort of technology most IT professionals will be familiar with, and finding the right expertise in this space can be difficult and expensive. The cost of the technology has traditionally hampered both initial implementation and mass deployment. But prices have dropped dramatically in the on-premises arena in the last two years, as suppliers are increasingly using VMware and Hyper-V platforms for infrastructure. It should be noted that video processing is extremely compute-intensive, with the consequence that a great deal of processing power must be thrown at the problem to gain large-scale results.
WebRTC is a technology built into many of the latest generations of web browsers and enables video conference calls to be made without needing a plug-in. WebRTC has huge potential for occasional or one-time users, guests into a call, or in verticals like a retail environment. Most regular video conferencing users will prefer to download a dedicated application to their smartphones, tablets or desktops. The quality of the dedicated applications is higher, and useful features, such as address books, are available.
Cloud video conferencing security
Some organizations have concerns that others might be watching their conference calls, which is a legitimate concern. However, the vast majority of cloud video conferencing tools today encrypt the calls at 128-bit Advanced Encryption Standard. In theory, this is unbreakable.
Although cloud providers cannot view the video streams, it is possible for them to observe the metadata, which shows who is making calls and the duration of calls. Some companies might find this an intolerable situation, and if security is of that great a concern, they should consider an on-premises service.
Cloud vs. on-premises: How to buy and from whom
Video conferencing providers work with organizations in a number of ways. Many providers will sell directly to larger organizations. This is particularly true of Cisco and Polycom. Both companies have large, experienced direct sales and presales teams, and specialize in the very largest deployments. The midmarket and small businesses are usually handled by dedicated video conferencing resellers, which typically only sell video conferencing from a small number of vendors.
On-premises video conferencing continues to be highly specialized, and organizations are strongly encouraged to work with experts in the field. Suppliers in the general AV and IT realms rarely have the skills required for successful implementations. A track record of happy existing customers should be a top priority when considering video conferencing partners. Organizations that want to buy video conferencing should also look closely at the financial positions of providers and resellers.
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