Avoiding costly mistakes when investing in video collaboration equipment and services by Chris DelGuidice
At this point most people know about the advantages of implementing videoconferencing throughout an organization which primarily include reduced travel costs and increased collaboration. So I thought I’d discuss some words of wisdom to help avoid costly mistakes when investing in video collaboration equipment and services. As a Sales Engineer at Veraview, my job is to help clients determine what an optimal system for their particular needs is at an acceptable price point. This isn’t always an easy thing to do because of the complexity of many factors that inevitably impact the final product.
Communication, and specifically video communications, is undergoing an extremely exciting transformation. Unified communications (UC) is changing the way we work and collaborate at ever increasing speed. This evolving set of technologies integrates real-time communications with data-sharing, presence, calendaring, video collaboration and mobility into a common user context. The ability to use High Definition (HD) video communications at lower bandwidth than previously required coupled with the ever increasing mobile worker and the desire to share content is driving communications to new heights.
Video is growing. The video percentage of data traffic on the web is increasing rapidly. I’ve seen numerous studies by reputable source that video will be up to 90% of all data traffic on the web by as early as 2015. So don’t be fooled that you will not have to deal with this at some point in the near future. Couple this with the ever increasing out of office users and the desire to for users to bring their own device (BYOD) and it is highly advised to start planning now for the inevitable. Medium to large organizations specifically will need to be ready to address these issues with video communications very shortly if they are not doing so already.
Prior to seeking out qualified assistance, it will be extremely helpful to determine some basic requirements that will be important to your conferencing needs. I suggest making a list of basic information such as how many locations you need, approximate number of users, assumed meeting frequency, quality level expectations, accompanying multimedia features that may be required, potential mobile app integration, security concerns, current available bandwidth and an approximate project budget.
Of course every organization is different and their needs will vary. It will be important to know what your end-users will want from their “experience.” Remember that casual conferencing and executive level meetings will have much different criteria. Also remember that the accompanying AV equipment required will also vary drastically depending upon the situation as well. Be aware that there are installation and service costs that will be associated with these types of projects and budget accordingly for them. Understand that users typically want to enter a room and have it be easy to use. They will most likely want to connect a PC to the system and interact naturally with the far-end participants. The focus of the meeting should be on the meeting, not on the technology behind it. Less than perfect products make communication suffer and frustrate users.
The single most important piece of information I can give to a client who is looking to either upgrade existing video equipment or to implement it for the first time is to plan accordingly. Preparation for a venture like this is paramount. And the age-old adage still holds true: those who fail to prepare should probably prepare to fail. Failure to prepare for a project like this will most likely result in sub-par results and many costly related issues to address at a later date. In the world of UC every component that you introduce into your ecosystem requires preparation and a well thought out plan to confirm compatibility. Making sure you have the room to grow and scale is crucial. Plan your purchases so that you have the ability to grow your video system as your business grows and demand increases. One of the most costly mistakes you can make is to undersize expensive infrastructure equipment without a clear upgrade path. This forces your hand to purchase complete replacements later on at a much higher cost as opposed to just adding smaller components to existing equipment (think expansion cards). The latter is both the proper and most cost effective way to do it hands down.
This leads directly into my next piece of advice; only make an investment in a sound standards-based solution. Although software can be written to correct some issues later on this would generally be a losing road to travel down. This is one of the main reasons that as a company we lead with Polycom products, they have a completely standards-based portfolio. Purchasing standards-based components is the only way to ensure that what you have will interoperate with any currently installed units and to make sure you will be compatible with upcoming products.
Making sure that your network can handle the required traffic will be an extremely important consideration. Network administrators will need to determine if their current infrastructure can accommodate the strain of additional applications in the current state or if additional provisions will need to be made. The new generation of video communication products provides dramatically better resolution at bandwidths less than previously required (1MBps, even down to 384Kbps). I would presume that most businesses would have sufficient bandwidth to accommodate these requirements. However I would still strongly suggest that any organization should work with a qualified network service provider or vendor to provision their network infrastructure properly and to obtain service levels adequate to handle their applications. Making sure that both your internal and carriers networks are adequate to support your video traffic will ensure quality conferencing for the end-users. I would also advise that Quality of Service (QoS) measures are enacted to give your vital applications real-time network priority.
Cutting corners and grabbing the lowest price system is something I would strongly caution clients about as well. We, as integrators, know that every company has a budget that they have to work with for projects and we will do our best to help them obtain a quality system within their financial means if it is possible. We routinely compete with the free/low-cost services that are available on the web and although these may work fine for certain applications, they fall well short for conducting most business meetings. They typically cannot provide true large-scale collaboration with multiple locations on the same call. You will also need to know that they generally suffer from bandwidth and reliability issues because you are routed through their busy servers, which puts you completely at the mercy of their equipment. Purchasing dedicated video infrastructure to work with your video endpoints is the best path to take.
The truth is that for a medium to large organizations, or for anyone that requires reliable video conferencing, there is no free service out there that will do this properly. Remember that free services cannot offer the reliability, scalability, manageability and security that integrated solutions are able to offer. They also generally do not include any dedicated live support if there are technical issues. Now don’t get me wrong Skype is a wonderful product that I even use routinely to communicate with family and friends. The distinction I would like to make is that it is not a best practice to rely upon services like Skype for critical business meetings. Consider your budget and buy the best that you can. Never skimp on something without knowing the entire picture, chances are that you will have to re-invest later at a higher total cost than if you had done it correctly the first time. Buy quality, as that will inevitably be how your users judge the video experience and whether or not they use it again.
The security of implementing video conferencing may be possibly the most important concern when selecting equipment and software. Too often this is overlooked. This is especially true when organizations are subject to federal regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) and the numerous Securities and Investment Acts. Apart from those regulations it is also paramount to keep legal and financial corporate information secure. I highly suggest that if security is paramount to your organization that you invest in a product with strong encryption and additional security measures. It will also be important that it is installed and configured correctly for compliance. A common misconception is that programs like Skype are encrypted; well they are encrypted, but don’t be fooled into thinking that they are compliant to many of the federal regulations listed above. Investing in a secure enterprise architecture compliments your secure endpoints by enforcing high-level encryption and session management abilities.
The selection process of your vendor is a very important decision that should not be taken lightly. I would suggest interviewing several vendors that you are considering and to obtain formal quotes from them. Be clear with them about your organizational needs so that they can help you determine the solution that best addresses your situation. A qualified vendor should conduct a detailed consultation process to determine the criteria for each opportunity. They should discuss the difference between needs and wants to develop a customized solution that hopefully fits within your budget. In the back of your mind remember that this is their specialty and that you came to them for assistance to make proper choices the first time and avoid common mistakes. Chances are that they have been through this process hundreds of times in the past and their experience will be an asset to you. Developing a good rapport should become essential with any potential vendor. If you don’t feel like they can be trusted then look elsewhere. It should feel like a team effort between both sides. We try to act like a trusted advisor to all of our clients and we think this makes a big stride for continued customer relationships.
I would suggest that you request a complete demo of the proposed solution that a vendor is offering. If they can’t provide some sort of demo then how can you trust them to implement a system on your premises or to help you support it? I would also inquire about their direct relationship with the equipment manufacturer. Ask if they have dedicated staff on-hand who understand the complexities of these systems and UC integration that can assist you should problems arise. Integration is not always as easy as it may appear, don’t underestimate this. Drill into the vendor to make sure they are a reputable company that will be there with you through the thick and thin – and not just the sales process.
For many organizations video is no longer a luxury but a vital component of their day-to-day business activities. They rely upon remote collaboration over reliable quality systems to communicate effectively. Generally you will find that higher priced more feature filled systems are worth the additional investment. Up-front costs eventually payout with a return on investment (ROI) within the first year alone. But remember that traditional ROI is not the only thing you should consider. Additional aspects of video collaboration include involving additional participants at no additional cost, shorter more productive meetings, the ability to react quicker/address issues faster and to increase overall organizational productivity. Hopefully some of this information will arm you with information to ask important questions and avoid selecting the wrong solution from the wrong vendor.
Finally, don’t make the mistake that even the best video collaboration solutions out there can fully replace the personalization of an in-person meeting. While it helps with travel budgets and increases productivity there is still tremendous value in making a visit in person, and at times this should be a priority. That is a reason that even we still practice this method as much as possible.
Christopher A. DelGuidice, CTS