The days of relentless travelling for meetings in different cities are on the way out. A combination of economic hard times, environmental awareness, improvements in internet infrastructure and the growth of cloud services means videoconferencing is becoming the leading cure for jet lag.
So much so that despite downturns in many business areas, enterprise videoconferencing is a strong growth sector, according to IDC, the technology information consultancy.
In its report, EMEA Videoconferencing Equipment Forecast 2011-2016, IDC notes that videoconferencing revenues in Europe, the Middle East and Africa grew 20.5 per cent last year to $809.5m.
But videoconferencing is not just a matter of installing Skype and getting on with it: deciding to implement videoconferencing in a business of any size is a challenge not only for information technology (IT) departments but also for chief financial officers (CFOs).
The latter have to make decisions about the cost benefits of high-definition telepresence versus lower-end equipment, and about whether to fund the capital cost of setting up in-house infrastructure or going with a cloud provider. They also have to consider the cost implications for existing IT infrastructure.
Chief information officers in turn, working within constraints laid down by CFOs, have to consider how to deploy videoconferencing into their existing set-ups. A business already using the unified communications platforms provided by big vendors such as Cisco or Microsoft to manage telephony, email and document sharing might consider adding that vendor’s videoconferencing module.
In some cases, points out Daanish Khan, head of marketing and strategy at Formicary Collaboration Group, the cross-sector software company, it is just a matter of extending existing licensing terms. “You might already have [Microsoft’s] Exchange and SharePoint, and thus a licensing regime that is already in place, but you are not using features you have paid for.”
A key decision is whether to go for an immersive telepresence solution that aims to replicate the experience of having everyone in the same room. That means big, high-definition screens where all participants can see one another and a seamless experience with no buffering or drop-out of audio.
But this is expensive. Setting up just one room can cost between $150,000 and $250,000, IDC says, with managed services, such as providing the infrastructure links between the participants, adding $20,000 a month to the spend.
Whatever choice you make about hardware, making all that stuff work together is the next challenge. Although the vendor market is consolidating, there are myriad software and hardware options, all of which not only have to work with your internal set-up but also with the set-ups of external partners.
A hosted provider takes some of the headaches away, says Jeff Cayer, group manager of visual communications at Verizon, the US telecommunications group. “If you have a hosted vendor, you let them deal with that stuff,” he says.
One issue is video codecs: different hardware and software use different codecs, some open-source, others proprietary. If your hardware and software won’t work with the people you are holding the conference with, your conference won’t even start.
“We will do that work for customers,” adds Mr Cayer. “If you are Cisco and she is Polycom, you don’t have to worry about that. We do those translations.”
Security is a primary concern, too. As Mr Cayer says, it might be fine to have an endpoint-to-endpoint set-up between your London and New York offices that runs via virtual private network (VPN), but if you want to bring in an external participant, “do you really want to expose your VPN to an outside party? Your IT admin will have heart failure.”
That scenario might drive a business to look to cloud providers for videoconferencing, but security comes into play here too. The nature of your business will play a part in that decision.
“A couple of years ago we would have said no finance company would ever contract to the cloud, but that is not the case now,” says Michael Vorisek, senior research analyst at IDC.
“Vendors now place a lot of emphasis on security and they can add value there. It is a marketing opportunity for vendors.”
One thing is certain amid all the choices that have to be made: you will be spending a lot less time on aircraft and a lot more holed up in conference rooms talking to a two-dimensional version of those people in distant cities.