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Video conferencing strategy: Endpoints and network requirements

When enterprises develop a video conferencing strategy, use cases should drive video conferencing endpoint selection, and endpoints should determine video conferencing network requirements.

Building an enterprise video conferencing strategy is a multifaceted challenge for most enterprises. It begins with identifying use cases, then deploying the right video conferencing endpoints in the right locations to serve them. But it doesn't end there. Enterprises also need to understand how those endpoints will affect video conferencing network requirements and build supporting services to ensure the technology is easy to use and has a consistent quality of experience that meets user expectations.

The Michigan Department of Corrections has a broad and expanding array of use cases, according to video conferencing coordinator Lynette J. Holloway. As video conferencing has become more popular, Holloway has had to transform and expand her video conferencing endpoint selection, transition to a new network and provide supporting services to users.


"We use video conferencing in lots of different ways," Holloway said. "We have telemedicine in each of our correctional facilities, and we just started using telepsychiatry. In addition, we do all of our parole board hearings over video. We did 22,000 video parole board interviews last year. It's pretty much become a core function within our department."

The parole board hearings alone were a critical use case for the Department of Corrections. Traditionally, board members traveled to each correctional facility for hearings, sometimes driving up to 580 miles from their office. Board members often spent almost two days of a week just driving.

"Now, parole cases that used to take two or three weeks to decide take just a week," Holloway said.

Video conferencing endpoints determined by use cases

New use cases are emerging for the department as it looks to use video conferencing to connect with external organizations, allowing prisoners to attend court hearings without leaving their correctional facility. In a new prisoner re-entry program, a month or more before prisoners are set to re-enter society, they communicate with a local community specialist who helps them prepare to find housing, employment, healthcare and other services in the towns where they're going.

Understanding potential video conferencing use cases is essential to selecting the right video conferencing endpoints, according to Robert Mason, principal analyst with Gartner Inc., who recently published his Building a Global Videoconferencing Strategy report. The endpoints an enterprise chooses also drive the other infrastructure decisions it makes for supporting video within the organization.

"The types of meetings [you] are going to conduct determine what types of endpoints you use," Mason said. "Often, if you have video conferencing focused in regional hubs and headquarters, you have many-to-many calls rather than one-to-one, so that will drive customers toward high-end, room-based endpoints. It may be telepresence or a high-definition appliance in a designed room setting."

Holloway said her department has 180 endpoints across Michigan, with two high-definition room-based systems in each of its 45 correctional facilities, mostly Polycom HDX 8000s. All of the endpoints in her department are Polycom. At her headquarters in Lansing, where the 15 members of the state's parole board are located, she has 15 HDX 4000 desktop video conferencing systems and four additional room-based video conferencing systems. Some Polycom CMA Desktop applications are also spread throughout the organization.

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Use cases and endpoints determine video conferencing network requirements

"We started out using ISDN primarily," Holloway said. "We've been doing video since 1996, and back in those days it was mostly limited to ISDN. In the last four or five years, we've been migrating from ISDN and running our video over the state of Michigan's [wide area network]."

Holloway said her video conferencing network requirements have grown as the department expanded its use and upgraded from legacy standard-definition VTEL equipment to Polycom's high-definition gear. ISDN was too expensive for the newer bandwidth-intensive video conferencing users were adopting.

"We did some network evaluations and tried to determine what the baseline [bandwidth consumption] was pre-video conferencing, and for those locations where the network was pretty much saturated, we added another T1 line," she said. "We still came out ahead because we were paying less for that second T1 than we were for our old VPN ISDN network."

Enterprises must consider the types of endpoints and use cases they will have when determining their video conferencing network requirements, Mason said. Today, ISDN is mostly used in legacy environments or by organizations whose partner companies have mandated that their partners use ISDN for video communications.

Organizations that have the technical expertise and enough capacity will converge their video conferencing systems onto their wide area networks, just like the Michigan Department of Corrections did. Those that require high quality or use a large number of high-end video conferencing endpoints -- particularly telepresence -- will go with an overlay network.

"The downside of an overlay network, over time, is that you are effectively putting an extension cord into the service provider," Mason said. "It's an effective way to connect up room-based systems, but as you do more and more desktop video, all that desktop video at some point has to egress over the overlay network, and that makes backhaul somewhat prohibitive."

Video conferencing strategy must also include bridging capabilities

Holloway said most of the video conferencing done by her organization is point-to-point, particularly the telemedicine sessions and parole hearings. She increasingly supports multipoint video sessions with participants from outside the organization, however. A video court hearing, for instance, might connect a prisoner in a correctional facility with a judge at a courthouse and witnesses at other locations.

For multipoint calls, Holloway has a low-end Polycom MGC bridge. "The bridge is typically used for reservations and for multipoint calls and calls between disparate networks," she said. The bridge also gives her more visibility into how the call is performing. In point-to-point calls, she and her staff can only see into the endpoints. When calls go over the bridge, she's able to gain more of a network-wide view into the individual video conferencing sessions.

"With any call initiated from the bridge, I can get right down into it and find out what audio algorithm they are using and what type of video encoding," Holloway said. "I can look at the compatibility of the call. Any call that's initiated from a desktop out to a correctional facility, that's harder. I can only see packet loss and frames per second. My ability to find out what's happening once that traffic hits the Internet is limited."

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

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