Making Connections

Making Connections

To control the information travelling over the network and negotiate better prices, a CIO should find one data conferencing vendor and decide between using a subscription-based hosted service or deploying conferencing software on company servers.

When you share information or applications over the public Internet, private networks or an internal intranet (for example, two engineers in different offices working on the same computer-aided design file), you're involved in a data conference. While relatively new to the market, such conferences can be ideal if the parties involved know each other well and have a set meeting agenda. Most data conferencing services have the same features, including whiteboard tools that allow users to see and work in the same file, and application sharing so that the different parties can, for example, work on the same Excel spreadsheet.

To control the information travelling over the network and negotiate better prices, a CIO should find one data conferencing vendor and decide between using a subscription-based hosted service or deploying conferencing software on company servers. There are several factors that will help you decide if you want to subscribe or buy, including usage (which controls cost), bandwidth, firewall constraints and security.

It just doesn't make sense to buy and manage software if your employees aren't going to use it. Mark Levitt, research director for IDC (US), says about three-quarters of all data conferencing is hosted by vendors but points out that this is changing as usage grows. Since hosted services usually charge by the minute, the financial crossover point between the two is usually about a couple thousand users over a year's time.

Mary Odson, CIO of Los Angeles law firm Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, brought conferencing in-house because of security and control concerns. Prior to the last quarter of 1999, the firm's attorneys would use whatever conferencing tools they saw fit, mostly hosted Web-conferencing tools, but sometimes such absurd nonbusiness tools as file-sharing services Napster and Scour. These sessions, especially the hosted services, had occasional security problems. "We had instances with Webex and Placeware when we had someone stay on those sessions," says Odson. "Someone piggybacked onto our session, hacked in and then used our account to do a series of online chats lasting four days." Odson didn't find out about the breaches until she received the bill.

While security gaps like those experienced by Odson have since been fixed by the vendors, the problems convinced her to find an application that she could run on her own servers - especially important for her law firm because it handles confidential data. Odson bought a conferencing package from Latitude towards the end of 2000 and has it deployed on two servers, one for internal use only and one for use with clients. Odson says that in the long run this set-up is less expensive than renting time from a host provider. While the initial cost of the hardware is high, she believes that her company will recoup the outlay within 18 months. The package she has purchased also provides security benefits and allows Odson to closely monitor usage.

It may be the next best thing to getting on a plane and going somewhere - you can read someone's body language or tell who is speaking no matter how big the crowd - but the logistics of videoconferencing are almost as complicated and sometimes nearly as expensive as flying.

Videoconferencing started as a Jetsons-like novelty in the 70s. In the 80s it evolved into a toy for Fortune 100 executives, who would communicate between offices over dedicated network connections. In the 90s, things got easier and less expensive but far from cheap. A good videoconferencing system still cost around $100,000 - mostly for hardware - and all communications were sent over expensive ISDN lines leased from telecom providers. Today, the hardware costs between $10-17,000 and video quality has improved significantly. According to Texas-based market research company Frost & Sullivan, 85 per cent of videoconferences still happen over ISDN; the rest use video over IP. But IP's cost savings are rapidly changing the balance, and the two should reach equilibrium by 2004.

Besides the hefty price tag, the biggest knocks on videoconferencing have been complicated interfaces and inconsistent connections. During the past couple of years, vendors responding to the complaints have made interfaces less complicated. But a Frost and Sullivan study found that 13 per cent to 15 per cent of videoconferences over ISDN still expire partway through. And it's not unusual, says Odson, for it to take 15 minutes to re-establish the connection - a real problem when you have a room full of lawyers each charging $500 an hour.

Video over IP eliminates the need for bridging and decreases the cost, but there are other issues. "We have tried it over IP, but you have to have a lot of bandwidth," says Odson. The typical video stream is 384Kbps, and to be safe, each two-party videoconference probably needs a megabit of bandwidth. Over a standard 10Mbps LAN it doesn't take long for the stream to start looking like a poorly dubbed kung-fu movie, with the audio several seconds behind the picture.

Video over IP, however, says Dow's Duncan, does allow you to control the amount of bandwidth that you use. "With ISDN you are limited to the number of lines that you have," he says. "With IP you can be flexible with your bandwidth and controlling the amount you deploy for data." Roopam Jain, a Frost and Sullivan analyst, agrees that the quality of service is better over IP, meaning a better picture and greater stability. IP video users can still communicate with ISDN video users, but that requires a gateway - something the IP user usually must provide.

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