When video collaboration makes sense in the cloud

Video conference via tablet

The T.H. Chan Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) educates and trains physicians all over the world. Consequently, the school is set up for distance learning. It has conference rooms, classrooms and even a dedicated teaching studio decked out with high-end Cisco telepresence gear.

But when Winter Storm Juno hit Boston in January, HSPH's faculty and staff were snowed in along with the rest of the city's residents, and all of that videoconferencing technology was out of reach. Rather than cancel their virtual classes, some of HSPH's professors conducted them from their homes. Using a cloud-based videoconferencing service from Blue Jeans and their laptops or PCs, they were able to teach their classes despite the weather.

"We're moving away from high-end room systems to the desktop," says Deane Eastwood, the deputy chief information officer at HSPH. The school is by no means junking all its Cisco gear, but that dedicated videoconferencing equipment is becoming just another option. There's a growing menu of browser plug-ins and mobile apps that HSPH faculty, students and staff can use to connect to Blue Jeans' cloud conferencing network, Eastwood says. "We're hoping that over time, [videoconferencing] will become much easier to use."

Why video services are catching on

HSPH is part of a bigger overall trend in videoconferencing, in which companies trade expensive on-premises collaboration systems for virtualized platforms like Fuze, Zoom, StarLeaf and Blue Jeans that run in the cloud.

There is certainly flexibility and potential cost savings to such an approach. A company can buy off-the-shelf cameras, monitors and speakerphones. It can run its video network off of its employees' PCs and mobile devices instead of buying one dedicated to videoconferencing. Or it can continue using dedicated videoconferencing gear if it's already made that investment.

Instead of investing in multipoint control units (MCUs) to bridge those endpoints, companies buy access to a cloud-based bridge. As their conferencing needs grow, they can then buy more capacity from their cloud provider, sometimes on a meeting-by-meeting basis.

But for many companies, the biggest benefit to adopting a cloud videoconferencing system is the reason Eastwood emphasized: Ease of use. Videoconferencing systems can be complex, costly and intimidating, often requiring dedicated networks, IT support and technical compatibility among all the parties participating. At HSPH, Eastwood says, that problem was readily apparent in the school's classes, where teachers often would use Skype on a PC or tablet to conference in remote users, ignoring the more sophisticated telepresence setups already available in their classrooms.

What's more, when setting up a videoconference becomes as easy as sending a link via email or IM, then videoconferencing starts becoming a more ad-hoc collaboration tool, instead of something that's specialized and reserved primarily for pre-arranged meetings. Companies using cloud videoconferencing report that it's started replacing the audio conference and even the standard phone call in many day-to-day intra-and inter-company communications.

Cloud services also have become a means for smaller companies and startups that normally wouldn't invest in any kind of dedicated conferencing system to add video collaboration to their toolkits.

Filling the gap between consumer chat and on-premises gear

While you might think cloud videoconferencing's competition is its traditional on-premises video counterpart, instead it may very well be consumer video chat applications like Google+ Hangouts, Apple FaceTime and Skype.

Global software development company ThoughtWorks never adopted a traditional videoconferencing platform. For official company meetings and customer presentations, ThoughtWorks used Citrix's GoToMeeting software, but it didn't see the need to invest in any larger videoconferencing infrastructure, according to ThoughtWorks IT business partner Andy Yates (who works full-time in ThoughtWorks' IT group). But that didn't stop the company's 3,500 employees from digging up their own videoconferencing tools, Yates said.

voip user American Fidelity Assurance

Laptop and iPad users at American Fidelity Assurance now make VoIP and video calls via Microsoft Lync and an Aruba 802.11ac WLAN at the new corporate headquarters. Here, Lee Ann DeArm takes a video call on her docked Windows laptop.

ThoughtWorks' workforce started using Skype, FaceTime and Google+ Hangouts to communicate among its 32 global offices spread across 13 counties. In particular, they gravitated toward Hangouts since the company was already using Google For Work's core enterprise collaboration apps. Yates says that ThoughtWorks never discouraged its employees from using these shadow IT services -- it's hard to tell a company full of developers and designers what software they can and can't use -- but it recognized there were some inherent flaws with this kind of wild-west approach to video.

Services like Hangouts are ideal for one-on-one video chat sessions, but they don't handle group conferences so cleanly. Also, Yates found that while conferences were easy to set up in these consumer apps, most sessions were preceded by email and chat exchanges to make sure all participants had the right software, hardware and permissions to use a particular app -- or employees were simply trying to decide which video app to use. "There was always this negotiation ahead of every video call," Yates explains.

In 2012, ThoughtWorks decided to adopt a unified video collaboration tool that married the ease of those consumer apps with enterprise-grade features and IT support. It wound up choosing Fuze, a cloud-based meeting and collaboration service that uses Vidyo's core videoconferencing technology. With Fuze's mobile apps and browser plug-ins, ThoughtWorks was able to turn every smartphone, tablet and computer into a videoconferencing node.

"Google Hangouts is definitely the path of least resistance, but it feels like it's not quite there yet," Yates says. "We started to push toward Fuze because it could handle most general video situations. It handles group calls well. It handles one-on-one calls well."

ThoughtWorks never prohibited workers from using other services, but the shift to Fuze was remarkable, Yates says. The company now boasts 100,000 videoconferencing minutes a month, two-thirds of which are on Fuze. Use of GoToMeeting has dwindled, and ThoughtWorks has seen video calling replace traditional voice calling in much of its internal communications.

ThoughtWorks decided to take videoconferencing out of the cloud and into its meeting spaces, using Fuze's Room software running on Mac Minis and off-the-shelf monitors, cameras and speakerphones. ThoughtWorks set up endpoints and servers in 90 rooms and public spaces, effectively wiring all of its offices for large-scale videoconferencing.

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