Bouncing back to broadband

Four years ago, ABM Industries, a US$1.8 billion building services company, decided to switch from a solid, dependable, managed frame relay network to DSL connections from a variety of service providers. The goal was to lower the cost of linking branch offices to corporate headquarters.

"A lot of vendors and service providers who are no longer in existence wanted to get rid of our frame relay network. They said that using a VPN with DSL would be a great way to go," says Barry Wilson, manager of video, voice and e-learning for the San Francisco company.

But from the start, there were latency and other service problems. "Before long, we had angry branch managers. There was almost a revolution," he says. The final straw came in late 2001 when service from one DSL provider disappeared for good. "They folded one night and left us with 20 offices with no service," Wilson says.

The IT staff scrambled and provided dial-up connections to the affected branch offices. Shortly thereafter, ABM switched all its branch offices back to a managed service from one vendor - AT&T's enhanced DSL service, which provides a DSL connection to AT&T's frame relay network.

Like ABM, many companies burned by the well-publicized bankruptcies of service providers and metropolitan Ethernet players became leery about deploying new broadband services. But after spending a year trying to do videoconferencing internally and not being happy with the results, ABM bit the bullet and successfully contracted with an application service provider.

Today, ABM uses Covad symmetric DSL connections to Wire One Technologies' Glowpoint network for group videoconferencing. Wilson says that most of the time the video and audio quality is like watching TV, although there is occasional audio delay when connecting multiple sites.

And ABM isn't the only company that has overcome its concerns about broadband. Alyeska Pipeline, which runs the Alaska Pipeline, plans to spend about US$3 million this summer to upgrade nearly 1,500 desktops to support multimedia. The upgrade will include speakers, Windows XP, the current version of Microsoft Media Player, processor speeds of at least 1.4GHz and minimum memory of 512M bytes. The company also is upgrading its 20 multimedia rooms with state-of-the-art videoconferencing systems and IP/TV, Cisco Systems' streaming solution that uses multicast to efficiently distribute video traffic on the network.

Because Alyeska operates several remote pump stations in an isolated, weather-challenged environment, travel for meetings, training or even healthcare is difficult. Therefore, the company uses its private ATM network for distance learning, tele-medicine and meetings.

The upgrades will let Alyeska simultaneously stream live training sessions to the multimedia rooms, so employees won't spend so much time in cars and on airplanes. Ultimately, Alyeska is looking to bring IP/TV to the desktop.

Alyeska's available bandwidth of eight DS-3s is far greater than the three DS-3s currently used, "but new capabilities will absorb that bandwidth," says Erv Barnes, CIO of Alyeska. "People can never get enough of any infrastructure that will let them communicate."

If you're thinking about rolling out a new broadband service, here's an analysis of the various options.

What's happening now

Many companies have deployed group or conference room videoconferencing over ISDN and some now are rolling out videoconferencing over IP. Many also use streaming for executive speeches, training videos, watching videoconferences without participating and reviewing videoconferences after they end.

Several are embracing Web conferencing for online meetings. The service lets multiple users view and annotate documents and whiteboards simultaneously while sharing applications. "Web conferencing was a bigger business than videoconferencing at the service provider level last year," says Andrew Davis, an analyst at Wainhouse Research.

The primary options for deploying broadband applications over IP are building a converged network or using a service provider to deliver videoconferencing over a dedicated IP network. ABN Amro, a multinational banking firm, uses Wire One's IP network rather than its own data network for video traffic.

"To move video traffic onto the (converged) IP environment, we'd have to have a compelling reason. We would need to have guaranteed quality of service," says Ed Horan, telecommunications manager for ABN Amro. "I would be putting my traffic, which I have to have 100 percent reliability, onto a network that I don't have the guarantees for."

On the other hand, Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS) is using a converged IP network as its primary transport for video. Internally, BMS has "overengineered" its network to create excess capacity. This lets the network team provision 3.5M bit/sec for videoconferencing, while most room videoconferencing systems only run at 384K bit/sec.

However, many BMS employees telecommute, and this has created some quality problems because home firewalls strain network resources and reduce the quality of videoconferences. Also, DSL services are mostly asymmetric, meaning the upstream bandwidth is far lower than the downstream. This is fine for data, but it causes problems for real-time video, says Mark Lamon, director of informatics at BMS.

Dow Chemical uses streaming, videoconferencing and Web conferencing extensively over a converged mostly IP network. Employees throughout the world can communicate and collaborate via nearly 400 interactive conference rooms called iRooms, and Dow constantly is expanding the number of rooms and capabilities.

While IP videoconferencing in conference rooms is beginning to take hold in corporations, few large companies are deploying personal systems. And despite strides some companies are making in deploying converged IP networks, videoconferencing generally is still part of the telecom world.

"Deployment of IP networks for IP videoconferencing has stalled because videoconferencing systems in the field today are used, by and large, a low number of hours per month," Davis says. "If you have a system you are not using much, it's hard to justify an IP network. ISDN is cheap to have, but it's more expensive to use."

What's on the radar screen

With all the video of product rollouts and executive speeches sitting on dusty shelves, many companies are looking to repurpose video, audio and image assets. Digital asset management products therefore are gaining traction. Many of these products let users search key words that return results corresponding to high-resolution digitized multimedia assets.

By year-end, Dow will offer the last 18 months of videos in a searchable format on its intranet. "We are changing the way we archive and access video to improve global access to video resources and create cost savings," says Christopher Duncan, Dow's global leader of e-communication technology. "One benefit we hope to achieve is if a communication person in Horgen, Switzerland, needs an external video of a plant . . . rather than hiring a crew, they will be able to just search out the type of plant they are looking for." For now, Dow will maintain a physical library and the digital video can be viewed in low-resolution on the intranet.

Against the backdrop of a hostile world, the increasing use of broadband services has put security on the front burner. "You need real-time security," says Gerry Kaufhold, an analyst at In-Stat/MDR. "Maybe your company is in merger talks with another company and you don't want people listening in (to videoconference audio)." To beef up security, network planners increasingly are looking at putting authentication and authorization capabilities in middleware between many broadband applications and the network.

"You're not going to get the number and variety of applications until you get a scalable security infrastructure," says Ken Klingenstein, who directs middleware initiative for Internet 2, a consortium of universities, government agencies and corporations developing applications that exploit broad bandwidth. Both corporations and service providers might implement middleware features that protect broadband services. "It's real natural for the last-mile provider to have a set of servers physically proximate to enterprises where these kinds of services could be used," Klingenstein says.

Another area of interest is application integration, which will let users access video, audio, images and text within many applications. "Application integration lets you use information in the context of how you do business, but it places tremendous demands on bandwidth," Alyeska's Barnes says.

Companies expect to increasingly use real-time and stored video as add-ons to Web conferences, presentation software, calendar software, spreadsheets and other applications. "Applications will work the way people want to work . . . in an ad hoc fashion," Wainhouse Research's Davis says.

The ability to locate collaborators and launch an unscheduled video interaction with them from any business application is often called presence. "Eighteen months from now, I don't think we'll be talking as much about audio and videoconferencing and collaboration. We will be focused more on the presence question," says Todd Needham, manager of research programs at Microsoft.

Some corporate communication directors are pushing network planners to take streaming video to the next level: 24-hour streamed enterprise news channels. As large corporations upgrade existing networks, periodic streamed events will evolve into constant streaming of enterprise newscasts.

What's out there

Some broadband services currently in test beds will remain in the research community for the next few years.

One such service is HDTV over IP, a project of the University of Washington and Internet2. HDTV over IP will ultimately affect enterprise video applications. "It's in the three- to five-year range for the Fortune 1000," says Jim DeRoest, University of Washington's assistant director of computing and communications. "Because of the resolution available, it opens up a whole area of opportunity in (business-to-business) efforts for architectural firms designing airplanes or manufacturing or anybody who is collaborating in the video space where resolution is important."

Studio-quality HDTV, which the University of Washington has streamed uncompressed at 270M bit/sec, would absorb 25 percent of an OC-48 pipe. However, broadcast quality compressed HDTV streams run at less than 20M bit/sec and are ultimately more practical.

Other broadband services in test beds include tele-immersion and access grid. Tele-immersion takes videoconferencing and virtual reality several steps forward. The idea is that people in one location can feel as though they are in the same office or cubicle with one or more collaborators in other locations. Tele-immersion uses large screens, cameras, advanced scanners and sensors to create the "tele-cubicle" or the "office of the future."

A tele-cubicle appears to become one quadrant of a shared virtual office space. This space virtually combines furniture in two or more tele-cubicles to produce one larger cubicle or office that several collaborators in different physical locations share. Software intelligently retains or discards furniture and other attributes of each tele-cubicle.

Access Grid, developed by Argonne National Laboratory, is more practical than tele-immersion. The project uses room-oriented semi-immersive visualization systems that require multiple projectors and cameras in each location. Access Grid allows video and audio interactions and collaborative capabilities. The Boeing, Ford Motor, Johnson & Johnson, Microsoft and Motorola have nodes on the Access Grid network used primarily by university and government laboratories globally. Access Grid uses Internet2's Abilene backbone, currently being upgraded from 2.5G to 10G bit/sec. The backbone is multicast and IPv6-enabled end to end.

While it will take years for most large corporations to use these futuristic applications, other companies are dipping their toes back into broadband services. Says Scott Boyer, vice president at Yipes Communications, "We're noticing now there's not so much intense scrutiny about, 'Are you going to be around tomorrow or next month?'".

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