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Streaming Meets Unified Communications: Convergence Is on the Way
Social media, online video platforms, and knowledge management systems are coming together to create the future of enterprise communications.
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For its part, while Microsoft has yet to make hardware with the “Skype for Business” moniker, it is actively working to certify unified communications hardware. One example is its move to certify IP phones beyond just basic connectivity. Through the Skype for Business Certification Program, Microsoft notes that the certification “reflects an evolution from the previous basic interop compatibility (‘Compatible with Lync’) to a higher quality bar, including metrics targeting higher reliability.”

Third-Party Enhancements

Finding software and platforms to enhance UC is also important. “The core idea here,” says Vonder Haar, “is that the streaming platforms are more than just streaming platforms: They are engines powering video for a wide range of enterprise communications options.”

A look at the myriad options for certified Skype for Business accessories and room systems can be confusing, especially when one is looking for software enhancements. But digging a bit deeper can be rewarding. In between a number of laptops, audioconferencing phones, and USB-compatible telephony headsets, there are a few gems of interest to the streaming community: analytics and network traffic-shaping tools.

For instance, Meru Networks offers an SDN solution that helps identify potential issues on an enterprise network—or even in a venue outside the traditional corporate network—and offer “prescriptive resolution options and prioritize traffic across multi-vendor networks” so that voice- and video-over-IP calls and streams are delivered predictably. The company calls this “end-to-end flow control across the unified network,” meaning networks that have both wired and wireless portions.

Another software tool that’s designed to help marry UC and streaming together comes from Silver Peak. This tool, the Silver Peak VX, optimizes virtual wide-area network (WAN) connections via software—as part of a more traditional SDN approach—specifically to enhance unified communications and streaming media delivery over sections of the enterprise network that include WAN traversals.

Room-Level UC Solutions

Moving beyond the road warrior, who typically carries a mobile phone and a laptop, our next level of unified communications integration often occurs at the room level. Think traditional videoconferencing, the kind of thing that Compression Labs and PictureTel Corp. pioneered years ago, followed by Polycom and Lifesize. While most of the creative class would consider room systems an antiquated hardware approach, for enterprise the ability to have full conference rooms of employees and vendors interact remotely with other conference rooms filled with the same types of groups is essential.

Several companies have stepped up to offer these room-sized configurations. A company called Unified Conferencing Technologies offers its Unyfy software solutions that, when coupled with appropriate hardware—which UCS sells in four configurations—are compatible with GoToMeeting, WebEx, Skype or Microsoft Lync (2010/2013) collaboration, and video streaming service offerings.

“The four systems come in different configurations,” the company states. “Unyfy’s video conferencing software ...supports third-party integrations and is compatible with Skype for Business as well as Microsoft Lync.”

Traditional videoconferencing and audiovisual control companies have also gotten into the UC game along the Skype for Business route: Companies offering Skype for Business certified room systems include Crestron, Polycom, and SMART, the latter of which also offers integrated “smart” whiteboards. Microsoft also makes a Surface Hub 84, an 84" flat panel that can be drawn or written on with an included stylus.

Interactivity via Real-Time Video Streaming

Beyond just the hardware needed to integrate UC and streaming together, there’s a feeling that streams need to be at a very low latency in order to enable meaningful bidirectional dialogues.

According to Chris Knowlton, vice president and streaming media evangelist at Wowza Media Systems, there are certain tools that might help with a unified communications/streaming media pairing.

“Adding real-time viewer-feedback capabilities to a live stream, such as text chat or two-way video, can add valuable interactivity for scenarios such as distributed learning,” says Knowlton. “One option is to use a web conferencing service, such as Skype for Business or GoToMeeting.”

Shawn Michels, director of media product management at Akamai, adds to the reasons pointed out by both Knowlton and Vonder Haar, but gives a unique perspective as part of the industry’s largest content delivery network (CDN). “One use case we see is customers who want to deploy solutions similar to Periscope or Facebook Live,” says Michels. “We often refer to this as personal broadcast.”

According to Michels, these customers are looking for latency at 3 seconds or less. “We refer to this as ultra-low latency,” says Michels. “In this case, viewers and the person or organization doing the live stream need as little delay as possible to allow for live chat, reactions, or questions and answers.”

Knowlton brings up one of the biggest limiters for real-time communications, including streaming. “Assuming that you’d prefer to go with ex tending your enterprise streaming workflow to include real-time interaction with your audience,” he says, “it’s important to understand the effects of latency. For real-time audio and video communications, latency should typically be below 250 milliseconds in each direction to avoid long pauses or people talking over each other.”

Traditionally, the most common way to achieve this type of ultra-low latency has been to use Flash applications and RTMP low-latency streaming. Many of the software-based video conferencing platforms on the market were built on Flash, along with some of the early forerunners of WebRTC, and they allowed real-time communications (including real-time webcam and audio capture) using a browser plug-in.

“As phones and browser technologies have moved away from Flash, however,” says Knowlton, “WebRTC has begun to take its place, working with most HTML5-compatible browsers and devices.”

In addition to latency, the question of scaling also comes into play. HTTP adaptive bit rate streaming scales well across tiered servers and distributed networks to massive audiences, but real-time communications are a different beast altogether, one that can’t afford the 5–10 second delays inherent to “classic” HLS.

“Real-time audio and video conversations with more than a few participants are typically hosted on a single server,” says Knowlton, “limiting the size of your audience to the capacity of that server and the network links connecting to it. This is one of the reasons that some web conferencing services cap audience sizes at 50 to 250 participants.”

For media server companies like Wowza, the best approach is to offer both types of capabilities: real time for a select group of audience members that need to participate in the interactive discussions, with Flash, HLS, or even WebRTC one-to-many broadcasts with longer latencies for those who are only watching but not participating in the webcast.

“We also provide reduced-latency settings that can reduce real-world audio and video latency to about 2 seconds,” says Knowlton, referencing a capability in the Wowza Streaming Engine, which also has built-in WebSocket and HTTP Provider capabilities that allow polling and text chat to be hosted on the streaming server.

Conclusion

Now that we can see our unified communications desert wanderer a bit more clearly, it’s pretty obvious that streaming has a role in the future of UC. Wainhouse’s Vonder Haar sums up the reasoning: Video may be captured at traditional enterprise or consumer endpoints, but truly unified communications requires a knowledge management solution.

“Whether it’s a video conferencing or web collaboration service, they both act as front ends for capturing content that can be distributed to a larger audience over time,” says Vonder Haar. “There are platforms working behind the scenes to make those videos work on a one-to-many basis. Those platforms do more than just store the content; they [handle] encoding and transcoding content, managing the video assets, and properly distributing that content.”

If that all sounds like a traditional OVP or enterprise video platform, then you understand what 2017 holds for the future of UC.

Along the way toward this oasis of video, be sure to pay attention to smaller details, like the ability to integrate SharePoint or Skype for Business, as these Microsoft tools are critical to the UC strategy of many enterprises. Some vendors offer third-party SharePoint integration, while others build all the features directly into their enterprise video platform. Still other vendors that we’ve mentioned are best utilized to optimize the networks on which this video is created and consumed.

Check back throughout the year for our updates on enterprise video, including the upcoming 2017 Streaming Media Sourcebook with its State of Enterprise Video feature.

[This article appears in the January/February 2017 issue of Streaming Media Magazine as "Streaming Meets Unified Communications."]

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