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Rich's Media: Using Universities as an Enterprise Model: Back to School

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Most enterprise networks use Active Directory or Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) to authenticate users. Simply log in and you have access to a plethora of productivity resources based on your individual or group assignment. Whether your computer is directly connected to the corporate LAN or connected remotely via VPN, your identity automatically gives you access to the same resources.

Modern enterprise video portals use Active Directory or LDAP too. This capability is not found in public-internet-facing services such as YouTube that seek to serve the consumer where you log in with your own user-assigned identity.

While every commercial enterprise has to make regular changes to its user account database as employees come and go, these changes pale in comparison to the task that universities face every year: adding thousands of new users every fall (and sadly, removing many every winter). Still, universities manage to keep their authorized user lists current. It would be virtually impossible to manage a video portal with a separate user database. LDAP provides the "conditional access" to live and on-demand media across the enterprise and allows employees to access content based on their network credentials. If you are in the student group, you can access student content; if you are in the staff group, you can access the staff content, etc. This level of automatic, granular, conditional access is conventional for file servers, SharePoint systems, and the like, but it may be new for those deploying video portals. LDAP is also the basis for generating viewer and granular usage statistics for an enterprise video portal.

Given LDAP integration, commercial enterprises that deploy streaming may have an easier task than universities. Most commercial companies have a standard for desktop computing, commonly a Windows PC. That PC is outfitted with a software image that IT has tested and approved, and the user often does not have administrative privileges to add new software or plug-ins. If there is a need to install a new desktop streaming technology, say Silverlight or Flash, then everyone gets it at the same time in a form that is tested by the IT department. This is often true for certain administrative functions in the university too, but the majority of users are students who bring along a hodge-podge of Windows, Mac, and "other" computers. In the commercial enterprise, it is possible to select one desktop platform as the standard. In a university, the platform selection must commonly be "all." A commercial enterprise can say, "We don’t support Macs." If you say this in a university, you may have a repeat of the protests of the ’60s!

Historically, you would need a separate player for Windows and Mac; the portal would detect the requesting computer and offer a plug-in that would enable MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, and multicast capabilities. Some portals install a binary image in a browser to decode a limited video type. Some portals allow for virtually any video type, and plug-ins are offered only if needed. For example, if all of the videos are in MPEG-4 or H.264 format, then the portal may be configured to use QuickTime player for both Windows and Mac; if all the videos are Windows Media, then Windows Media Player is used for Windows PC and a private player is used for Mac (because players such as Flip4Mac do not support multicast).

As I discussed last month in this column, multicast is vital to enterprise streaming; this need limits the player technology one can deploy. If no plug-in is allowed, your choice is only Windows Media Player for Windows Media or QuickTime player for MPEG-4 and H.264 (assuming these are already installed).

A "helper" may be a downloadable plug-in, ActiveX, or software that is imaged on the enterprise PC. Since many enterprises have desktops locked down, enterprises must either decide on how to image the desktops or select a technology that is compatible with what is already on the desktops. (Flash and Silverlight support H.264 file download; for live or on-demand streaming, both invoke a proprietary protocol. Silverlight supports Windows Media multicast via an open source ActiveX, while Flash has no multicast support at all.)

So where does that leave the enterprise? There is no preinstalled player that will support Windows Media unicast and multicast on both Windows and Mac, and there is no preinstalled player that will support unicast and multicast MPEG-1 or MPEG-2. The closest players users have to a unified player are QuickTime, which supports MPEG-4 and H.264 unicast/multicast on both Windows and Mac, and Silverlight, which supports unicast Windows Media and supports multicast via an additional component. Silverlight might be a good choice for the enterprise since the desktops have to be imaged anyway; you might as well install Silverlight and the multicast component at the same time. But since you are going to image the enterprise desktops, you might as well do it once and install the MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, and H.264 components at the same time. You might as well install Flash while you’re at it. Now the enterprise is ready for just about any video stream you care to deploy.

A few enterprise examples come to mind: the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Touro College. West Point distributes entertainment "cable TV" and other content to cadets in their dormitories using MPEG-2 multicast, and students download a player or use a webpage plug-in to enable Windows computers to view the live TV. In this case, no conditional access is required, and the multicast never leaves the campus.

Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York is more complex. Touro has a portal system that is fully integrated into its LDAP, and students and faculty can access videos based on their login credentials. They use Windows Media encoding appliances and both Windows Media Player and Silverlight in their commercially sourced portal. In addition to offering both live and on-demand video-only, the portal schedules recordings of classroom lectures with full desktop VGA capture and camera video, allowing students to fully view the full classroom experience. Classroom viewing is via a unified Silverlight interface that delivers full-screen/full-motion desktop capture synchronized with the classroom camera video. Students who access the system from home via the public internet have the same experience as those who access the system locally via the LAN.

Chris Janssen, the assistant IT director at Touro College, can’t image what it would be like without LDAP integration. "It is a madhouse when school begins," Janssen says. "Students and faculty depend on our video system, and it would be nearly impossible to manage the video system without LDAP, and our students love being able to replay the lectures with desktop capture, and other live and on-demand video resources."

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