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Polycom offering enables wide-scale video conferencing adoption

With its new Converged Management Application client-server technology, Polycom hopes to transform itself from a provider of video conferencing point solutions to a developer of enterprise-wide video communications technology.

With its new Converged Management Application technology, Polycom is trying to deliver high-end, enterprise-wide video conferencing technology that is scalable and easy to manage. In the process, it is offering an alternative vision for unified communications.

For years, both end users and IT organizations have shied away from broad adoption of video conferencing equipment. For end users, the technology was just too hard to use. For IT organizations, it was too difficult to manage.

"No one has ever been pleased with the quality of experience and the simplicity factor," said John Antanaitis, vice president of product marketing with Polycom, a leading manufacturer of video conferencing hardware. "And even when you could get line-of-business managers to buy into the value that video communications offer, the IT group would say this could lead to a whole host of problems that I don't want to get involved with."

Vendors have overcome one barrier to broad adoption by improving the quality of the video conferencing experience with high-definition media and immersive technology such as telepresence. But usability, scalability and management have remained a challenge. As a consequence, video deployments have tended to be limited in scale and conference-room oriented.

"[Video conferencing products] have never caught on like the telephone or the personal computer," Antanaitis said. "And we're to blame for that because they haven't been easy to deploy, manage and provision from an IT perspective, and they haven't been easy and consistent enough for end users."

"Polycom's strength has always been its audio and video performance," said Ira M. Weinstein, senior analyst and partner with Wainhouse Research. "They've had high-performance products and a good channel to get them out there. But they've always been considered a point product offering. You buy a speakerphone or you buy a video conferencing system from them, and that's it. So they're trying to position themselves as an end-to-end solutions provider."

Weinstein said Polycom is hoping to change all that by launching a new client-server technology that consolidates room-based video conferencing units, immersive telepresence installations, and desktop video clients into one enterprise-wide system that can be managed centrally by an IT organization.

The Converged Management Application (CMA) from Polycom includes a central management server and a new software-based client that can be deployed on hundreds of desktops as well as Polycom's conference room hardware.

"CMA is the crux of our first wave of achieving a transformation from the historical video conferencing "islands" to a new world of video communication that's based on converged IP networks and infrastructure," Antanaitis said.

The CMA server allows IT managers to provision users centrally, monitor video conference bandwidth consumption, set traffic and usage policies, and use least-cost routing. The server also features standards-based presence and easy video call dialing (no more entering IP addresses), and it enables scheduling integration with multiple calendaring applications.

"The idea is, the more I can simplify and minimize the management burden, the easier it is to scale," Weinstein said. "And that's a very important part if you want to go from the meeting room space where Polycom lives today into the desktop space where they hope to live tomorrow.

"One of the key roadblocks to widespread video conferencing adoption has been bandwidth availability, bandwidth management and network management," said Roopam Jain, principal analyst with market research firm Frost & Sullivan. "That's what Polycom is trying to address with the CMA server and the CMA desktop client. The key idea here is to offer a platform that can do end-to-end network and bandwidth management as well as central provisioning for widespread desktop video."

The CMA desktop client is Polycom's attempt to break into the desktop video market. Antanaitis said the client will be comfortable and familiar to users. It allows users to create buddy lists with presence capabilities, much like most popular instant messaging clients. However, clicking on a buddy icon launches a video conference instead of a chat. That video session can be with any number of desktop clients, room-based video conferencing systems or telepresence rooms.

Weinstein said Polycom's end-to-end CMA technology offers companies a new direction for unified communications (UC) strategy. Many of the leading vendors in UC, such as Cisco Systems, are telephony-based, while Polycom approaches things from the video side.

"They're both looking to get to the information worker's desktop, but it's more a matter of what is the right solution for a particular enterprise," he said. "There are going to be some situations where a company has a large Polycom deployment, and a solution like this will allow that deployment to expand cost effectively. There will be other situations where an organization will already have a telephony deployment, and adding video from that angle with Cisco will be less expensive."

Jain said Polycom will be competing with platforms like Cisco and Microsoft's Office Communications Server. But she said that many organizations will deploy both CMA and a telephony-based solution like Cisco's.

"There is some redundancy in terms of the desktop video clients and what OCS offers, but platforms like OCS are not ideal in terms of management capabilities," she said. "When video becomes really scalable, I think CMA has capabilities of expanding both hardware and software-based clients. It is supposedly a single-stop video network management solution."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor

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