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Integrating video conferencing with unified communications

Integrating video conferencing with unified communications enables users to initiate video connections through presence, much like they do with instant messaging. This tip explains how to integrate video with unified communications with examples based on Microsoft Office Communications Server. Learn about the implications of making signaling work with OCS, account management work with Active Directory and scheduling work with Exchange, as well as considerations for approaching a video/unified communications integration project.

Unified communications (UC) promises to bring the convenience of a single communications interface into the enterprise and to integrate communications within the context of our workflow. This powerful productivity tool already incorporates presence, instant messaging, data sharing and voice communications. Video conferencing is the next logical communications medium to integrate into this environment.

Once we get video conferencing on the desktop, we can think about video as just another mode of communication. There may be times when a simple IM is sufficient, but there are other times when a more comprehensive dialog is needed and video conferencing may be the preferred communications medium. The ability to communicate via body language adds depth to the interactions and helps participants establish a closer, more personal relationship beyond just voice or text.

In the past, video conferencing deployments have been a separate set of equipment and infrastructure that are self contained, much the way the voice environment was ten years ago. This separate technology required scheduling, required learning a interface and was often complex. Integrating video conferencing into UC immediately overcomes these issues by allowing video connections to be done the same way that voice or IM connections are done, through presence. Getting substantial user uptake of video communications depends on achieving this level of simplicity. If you have used video conferencing via Skype you already know how simple this interface can be.

Behind the scenes, to make all those interactions easy for users, there is some complexity. Let's look at the issues to be resolved if you want to integrate video conferencing into the UC environment.

If you don't already have a video conferencing solution, begin by defining your video conferencing requirements and wish list. There are several types of video conferencing solutions, and not all of them will equally meet your needs. In terms of integrating with unified communications, the simplest choice is to use the UC vendor's video solution, if they have one. This means a desktop video client with a webcam and limited functionality. But the UC vendor will have integrated video use nicely into the UC interface so it behaves just like a voice call, only with video. Just like Skype!

But the video conferencing vendors (e.g., Avistar, LifeSize, Polycom, RadVision, Cisco/Tandberg, Vidyo, etc.) have better compression ratios, higher quality images, more multipoint (large conference) capabilities, ability to work both inside and outside the enterprise network boundary and provide integration with room and TelePresence systems. So many customers are asking for this higher level of functionality, but with that nice UC interface. This is where integration comes in.

Integrating video conferencing with Microsoft OCS

What needs to be integrated? Let's take a look at integrating with Microsoft Office Communications Server (OCS) as an example, since this choice represents a significant portion of the market. Integration means making signaling work with OCS, account management work with Active Directory and scheduling work with Exchange.

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Signaling here means the call setup signaling that establishes a connection between endpoints. In a Microsoft solution this is OCS. The 'presence' information on the user's desktop shows the user's buddies and their availability. When the user double-clicks a contact and asks for a video connection, the client communicates with OCS, and OCS signals the destination client to establish the call. The video conferencing clients, both desktop and room-based, must know how to integrate with OCS, use the SIP signaling protocol and register as a video endpoint with OCS.

Account management means understanding who is the user, what are his/her preferences and permissions, and presenting a familiar interface. On the desktop this is managed by the OCS client, but in a room-based video system we need to bring the user's connection into that room in some way. One way is to ask the user to sign-in to the room-based system. Another approach is to push an invitation from the calendaring system to the room as its own entity, and just let the users push a button to connect to the scheduled conference. In either case the room-based system needs to interact with the corporate Active Directory (LDAP) to obtain appropriate permissions before being allowed to communicate. Take a look at how close the vendor's implementation of a room system interface matches the desktop experience.

Scheduling means being able to create future meetings, reserve resources and notify participants. We know how to do this for individual meetings through Exchange and Outlook. Again complexity arises for room-based systems because the room itself must be reserved, as well as resources on a multipoint bridge if needed. Once the resources are scheduled, the information needs to be pushed out to participants and to the rooms so the room system is aware of its schedule and helps the user either through automatic connection at meeting time or by presenting a simple interface showing the conferences scheduled for that room.

Video conferencing integration considerations

So in this Microsoft example the video conferencing vendor's equipment or infrastructure must be integrated with OCS, Exchange and Active Directory. Ask your vendor about this integration, their experience with different enterprises in setting this up and details on the model of how each interaction with the system works. How does a user schedule a meeting? What information is presented in the conference room for the users to connect to the right meeting? What security features are available if needed? What restrictions does the vendor impose for the integration? For example, how dependent is their solution on having a simple Active Directory format?

Lastly, take a close look at functionality. Video conferencing has been around for a long time and has developed a complex set of functionality, including data sharing, far end camera control, best path routing, firewall traversal solutions, etc. Many of these features depend on extensions to the signaling protocols that may not be available in the UC environment. This means that while the user interface is simplified, not all video conferencing functionality will be available in a UC deployment. Enterprises that have been using video conferencing should carefully check their favorite functions against what is possible in the UC integrated environment to avoid disappointment.

The same kinds of integration are needed for other UC vendors (e.g., Cisco, IBM and Avaya) as described above for Microsoft. Look to see how close a relationship exists between your proposed UC vendor and your proposed video conferencing vendor, as this may predict your success in the integration. Both UC and video vendors are rapidly innovating. Ensure your solution is able to take advantage of future capabilities from both vendors and will continue to interoperate smoothly.

Consider getting professional services help from your UC or video conferencing vendor to make this integration go well. Your team may not have the time to work their way up a substantial learning curve, nor will they have the partnership connections available to the vendors to solve unexpected problems. A strong professional services team can be worth their price if they bring the project in on time, get it right the time and provide your users with an excellent initial experience of video conferencing.

About the author:
John R. Bartlett is a principal consultant at NetForecast, where he focuses on network support for voice and video conferencing. NetForecast provides consulting to enterprises and networking equipment vendors on application performance issues and convergence of voice and video conferencing on the IP network. John has 32 years of experience in the semiconductor, computer and telecommunications, and has been consulting since 1996. John can be reached at [email protected].

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