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Video conferencing software and hardware: Hybrid approach needed

Gina Narcisi

Enterprise employees increasingly demand the ability to make video calls anytime, from their remote office, tablet or even smartphone -- not just from the confines of a room equipped with cameras and screens. While traditional desktop video conferencing options give users flexibility, maintaining the hardware for each employee can be expensive and complicated for IT.

The enterprise video market is shifting from traditional, hardware-based technology to software. Making this transition seamlessly, while still making use of legacy investments, will be difficult.

Video conferencing software options on the rise for business customers

Industry leaders -- like Cisco and Polycom -- have been expanding their business to include

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video conferencing software options for their customers.

"I think all of the hardware-based vendors are realizing that video conferencing software is the future," said Andrew Davis, senior partner and analyst at Duxbury, Mass.-based Wainhouse Research.

But while video conferencing software is intrinsically agile, interoperability between legacy hardware and new software will be crucial for business users, said Stephen Epstein, chief marketing officer for Avistar, a San Mateo, Calif.-based voice and video conferencing provider.

"[Enterprises] need a video conferencing model that allows video … applications to be installed on any user client -- like a laptop, tablet or smartphone -- that can run on servers and networks that the business already has deployed," Epstein said.

Avistar recently announced its ConnectWare Conferencing platform -- a cloud-based technology designed for Avistar partners -- like IBM and Citrix -- to bolster their video conferencing capabilities with software-based components.

Smaller, pure-play video conferencing service providers-- like Blue Jeans Networks and Vidtel Inc. -- are also emerging with software- and cloud-based video conferencing services that are interoperable with legacy hardware, said Rich Costello, senior research analyst for unified communications and enterprise communications infrastructure at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC.

"Interoperability is a hot-button issue for users right now," he said. "Depending on a business' existing video conferencing infrastructure, they may be looking to add a video conferencing service component -- especially for branch offices that may not have existing equipment."

"Today's software technology has to be able to compliment and leverage existing investments," Avistar's Epstein said. "Any vendor that doesn't have that interoperability will be at a serious disadvantage."

How should enterprises prepare for the software shift?

The transition from hardware to software video conferencing is not going to happen overnight, and it could potentially be more challenging for large enterprises faced with the dilemma of existing room-based systems and other desktop video conferencing hardware that isn't ready for the recycling bin yet.

Most customers today -- whether for ease of use or performance-related concerns, would still prefer a hardware appliance or dedicated machine, Wainhouse's Davis said. Despite enterprise hesitation, the number of remote and mobile users, and new branch office locations is spurring a need for hybrid video conferencing deployments.

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"These businesses now could have thousands of mobile workers that can't take advantage of the existing hardware," Davis said.

Enterprises will need an infrastructure that can scale cost effectively. Software-based options to support many more users more cheaply than hardware could, and it is the only option for businesses looking to accommodate video conferencing on mobile devices.

Enterprises are starting to have more options for hybrid deployments too, as more traditional, hardware-centric vendors start to offer software- and cloud-based video conferencing options. "Enterprises can now deploy vendor offerings, like Polycom's RealPresence software on servers or on a hardware appliance. Polycom will also be offering its CloudAxis Suite in 2013," IDC's Costello said. "Enterprises don't have to build the same hardware infrastructure they used to in the past."

Enterprise video conferencing environments can be hybrid deployments too, with software and new cloud services interoperating with legacy equipment, he said.

"Right now, any software solution that comes to the market has to be able to talk to these older technologies and protocols," Avistar's Epstein said. "Hardware and software offerings will have to peacefully co-exist for the next few years."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Gina Narcisi, news writer, and follow @GeeNarcisi on Twitter.


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