IT leaders need to stay out in front of Internet video technology in order to anticipate corporate needs and what it will require to fulfill those needs in terms of money, time, expertise and infrastructure improvements.
Businesses can benefit in several ways from the technology, from multicasting corporate announcements to videoconferencing to content on Web sites that can help explain products and services to customers.
Technology can be as high end as room-based videoconferencing systems with spatial audio or as simple as Webcams attached to PCs for peer-to-peer sessions. Vendors that offer at least some components are as diverse as Tandberg, Polycom, Cisco, Microsoft, Mitel, Avaya and Nortel.
Either way, video on the Internet is at a stage of development similar to where VoIP was just a few years ago, as technology changes rapidly and as businesses and regulators grapple with how to deal with it.
Here are 10 points you need to know about video on the Internet:
1. Recognize the different uses of video.
Networks have different needs if they are going to support video on the Internet for educational purposes or for videoconferencing, as compared with streaming presentations presented as part of Web pages. Videoconferencing can eat up 220Kbps to 1Mbps per session, depending on the quality of the video. Streaming video can eat up 50Kbps to 2Mbps, depending on quality.
"How high end do you want to go?" says Bruce Wiatrak, product marketing manager for media servers at Audiocodes. "Do you want to be just a Webcam and a PC, or are you talking a full room system for videoconferencing with HDTV-type quality?"
2. Make sure network infrastructure is up to the task.
This means an evaluation is in order, because the needs of videoconferencing are different from users accessing streaming video, for instance.
The quality of connections should be checked for delay, packet loss and jitter even if the company has successfully implemented a VoIP deployment. VoIP, for instance, has a higher tolerance for lost packets than video has.
The best way to evaluate a network is to simulate the exact traffic that will be on the network and see how it performs, says Kaynam Hedayat, vice president of engineering and CTO at Brix Networks, which makes gear for such evaluations.
3. Look at the big picture if network upgrades are indicated.
If more bandwidth is required for video as well as other new applications, it may make sense to go for a full network upgrade that supports Gigabit Ethernet to the desktop. "The best case is you don't need anything; the worst case is you need to rearchitect," says Hedayat.
Build on existing IP and collaboration platform investments is the advice of Forrester Research. "For example, Microsoft users would look for vendors that integrate with [Live Communication Server]," Forrester says.
4. Put the technology on trial -- inexpensively, if possible -- to discover its possibilities and limitations.
Testing uses for video can be relatively inexpensive, says IP communications entrepreneur Jeff Pulver, chairman of pulver.com. High-quality video cameras for in-house production cost less than US$2,000, and there are Web sites that host video for free. "It's hard to compete with free," he says.
But free hosting is probably appropriate only for seeing how corporate video appears on the Internet, but not for live sites, he says. "There's a long list of companies that will host your content for free," Pulver says. "The big gotcha is viewers may have to sit through some advertising."
Editing suites for video available from Adobe are used to edit major motion pictures and daily TV shows, he says, but training may be an issue. "The need for the skill set to produce quality work still persists," he says. "People need to figure out the type of image they want to present of themselves and whether they want to host the content themselves or go to third parties."
5. Experiment with different video coder-decoders.
They are responsible for translating video into IP, and they compress video at varying rates to use up more or less bandwidth. Over time, vendors have developed codecs that provide better quality at lower bandwidth, but the best way to know what to buy is to view samples using different codecs. The goal is to strike a balance between acceptable quality and the cost of providing more bandwidth. The rule of thumb, Hedayat says, is to shoot for the newest technology that saves the most bandwidth without sacrificing quality.
This may require extra effort. "Expect some issues that you might have to work with the vendor on," he says.
6. Make sure other network traffic doesn't eat away at video bandwidth and lessen quality.
Once video is running, it is important to monitor network performance so quality remains high even as more applications are added to the network and traffic patterns change. If bandwidth-hog applications come onto the network and contend with video, it is better to know quickly and figure out what to do about it. This may call for bandwidth-management gear, separate VLANs or boosting backbone speeds. "Networks are not static," Hedayat says.
7. Remember the user.
"Many will not adopt or change their current mode of working without clear guidelines on how to gain the most value out of the features," says Elizabeth Herrell, an analyst with Forrester Research in a report on unified communications, so training is key.
Also, executives should be encouraged to experiment with video themselves so they can better understand the potential business benefits of using the technology, Pulver says.
8. Non-Internet video may be necessary for certain applications.
This is more expensive than running video over the Internet, but it may be deemed worthwhile depending on the content and its importance to business goals. For critical site-to-site IP video within corporate networks -- not over the Internet -- it is important to seek service-level agreements that guarantee bandwidth that supports traffic without degrading video quality. Best are dedicated circuits or MPLS connections that can support, for example, IP multicasting with video-caliber guarantees.
9. Consider bringing video production in-house.
The cost of producing video via a consultant can far outstrip the cost of doing so with company-owned resources and expertise. "On most of the budgets that I've seen, the second time you outsource, you'll pay for the full-time salary of one employee," Pulver says. But the scale of the video deployment also plays a role, Wiatrak says. "I think what typically happens is very large enterprises will end up hosting things themselves for cost purposes and smaller enterprises may go externally," he says. "I don't know what the exact breaking point is."
Smaller businesses just cannot afford to hire the experts they need full time, so must go to external sources, he says.
10. Keep an eye on regulations pertaining to IP video.
While there is no explicit regulation of video on the Internet, such regulations could arise as a problem, according to Pulver.
Just as regulators came to equate VoIP with traditional plain old telephone service (POTS), so, too, could video fall under scrutiny of the Federal Communications Commission, he says. "So the new POTS will be plain old television service," he says. "As the consumer can't tell the difference between video content delivered over the Internet and video content delivered over the air waves, I think we have an issue at hand." He says he hopes this time dialog with regulators and an understanding of the core technology will at least slow down regulations. "It's probably inevitable that something will happen," he says. "It's just a matter of when."