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Introduction to Session Border Controllers

High definition video conferencing is a standard right now. If it will change, it will only change to an ever higher definition such as Ultra HD (involving 4K and 8K). Virtual workplaces, telecommuting and working from home becomes more and more easy and so organisations go expanding, sometimes forgetting about network requirements ending up with new capacity limits or reduced quality of their video communication solution.

A Session Border Controller can help with many problems there might be, but it is not a remedy for every issue ever to occur on your video conferencing network. I wrote this article to give you some more insight into what a Session Border Controller is, what it does and how it can help your corporate communication.

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What is a Session Border Controller?

A Session Border Controller is a network component designed to safely link networks with a different security requirement and setup. They are mostly utilised for VoIP and video conferencing networks to establish secure connection sessions. The Session Border Controller therefore allows control of signaling and transfer of media data in a secure way.

What can I do with a Session Border Controller?

Session management allows service providers to control the session routing, establish interoperability across environments with differentiating standards, enforce bandwidth policies or create an interface to a third party application. To keep it short and simple: A Session Border Controller optimizes solution performance and overall service quality, it allows a rapid service deployment or growth and it protects infrastructure from malicious attacks.

Who develops Session Border Controllers?

Based on Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for Session Border Controllers from October 2012, Acme Packet (recently acquired by Oracle) excels in execution as well as vision scope, making them the leader of the magic quadrant (see graphic). Other competitors are Huawei, Sonus, Genband, Metaswitch Networks, Dialogic, ZTE and Technicolor.

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Magic Quadrant for Session Border Controllers by Gartner Research

Acme Packet is very interesting due to their focus on unified communications networks and even offering solutions especially designed for video conference networks of manufacturers such as Alcatel-Lucent, Avaya / Radvision, Cisco (including former Codian / Tandberg technologies), LifeSize, Polycom and Vidyo. Supporting and enabling interworking these technologies the Acme Packet solution avoids potential for vendor lock-in, protecting the investment made in video conferencing infrastructure and endpoints.

What are the technical functions of a Session Border Controller?

The functional scope of a Session Border Controller can vary, depending on what the individual device is designed to do. However to reflect a maximum of capability information, we would like to list the following functions that can be found in Session Border Controllers:

Connectivity

  • IPv4 / IPv6 interworking
  • SIP manipulation
  • NAT traversal
  • VPN connectivity
  • H.323 / SIP interworking

Quality of Service (QoS)

  • Traffic policies
  • Call admission control
  • ToS / DSCP bit setting
  • Resource allocation
  • Rate limiting

Security

  • Defense against DoS attacks
  • Can prevent toll fraud
  • No topology hiding possible
  • Malformed packet protection
  • Signaling protection via TLS and IPSec
  • Media protection via SRTP

Media processing

  • DTMF delay and interworking
  • Media transcoding
  • Tones and announcements
  • Data and Fax interworking
  • Support for Voice and Video calls

Regulatory

  • Call prioritization (e.g. for VIP usage or emergencies)
  • Auditing functions for internal audit or for law enforcing organisation
  • Business Intelligence, reporting, management information, source for billing information

Summary

Even though not a mandatory part for VoIP or video conferencing networks, Session Border Controllers have a great potential to add value to the communication services of organisations. The relevance increases for service providers companies as the functions described above can significantly increase the quality and performance of a serviced network.

If you have questions, remarks or other types of feedback please drop us a line in the comment section below. Thank you!

What is “the Cloud”? And what is it not?

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Clouds on summer sky (Photo: fastjel)

The Cloud – One of the hottest buzzwords and most abused in describing products or services recently. In this article I would like to mix facts with personal experiences I made, in order to assist everyone, who would like to find out what the cloud is and does and the things that is does not do (hence the title). Cloud has been buzzing around for a while now but when I witnessed both my parents talking about “the cloud” and how they use it in private I understood that this technology has arrived in mainstream and it is here for good.

Cloud??

So what is the cloud in few words? The cloud, or cloud computing is a technology design to enable users working with solutions independent from device, location and network. Of course there are specialisations with a larger or smaller focus on one or two subjects but in general this is it.

Origin of the Term

There are many theories on the origin of the term, yet there is no proven story. Feel free to check some good options on the Wikipedia article for cloud computing. My theory is that it developed from the use of cloud clip-arts and stencils in technical drawings or presentations, created to visualise a network setup. I am sure that even before the term became a buzzword, most of you have seen presentations with little black boxes, switches and routers in and around a large cloud to set a virtual border between realms.

Is the Cloud something new?

I am afraid it is not. The ideas and designs for such concepts have already been around since the 1950s but like with many breakthroughs in the user world, it required certain cultural and technological thresholds to be reached before the adoption could take place on wide-scale.

What is the Cloud?

  • Agility – The cloud is agile and therefore allows users to upscale or downscale their service based on business demand. Further the actual hardware, used to host a virtual machine, can be re-purposed if necessary. This is however not a cloud-only benefit, please read further down on infrastructure virtualisation.
  • Availability – Services have the technological possibility of being available independent from devices, network and location. This is of course relative to the design of each service along with its purpose but technically this is no limitation. For instance you can use cloud video conferencing services to join any enterprise-grade video conference call from your smartphone, notebook, office workstation, tablet or even from a private computer at your home or maybe somewhere else. Of course your conference partner needs to have their own environment set up to accept connections from outside in general. Cloud technology is not a wall-breaker and cannot bypass security of an organisation, if they don’t allow such connections by policy.
  • Business Continuity – Cloud services are set up with redundancy and failover automation in place. So that even if single devices would fail, users would not notice and can proceed using the service. Such reliability would traditionally cost a lot of money when investing in owned or dedicated infrastructure black-boxes.
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Asus product presentation event of cloud-enabled tablet device with Windows 8 (Photo: Tecdencias)

What is the Cloud NOT?

  • Cloud = VirtualisationVirtualisation of infrastructure is a great way of deploying new solutions and upgrading your environment. But if you do this within your WAN this does not automatically mean you are using the “cloud”. You are just virtualising your infrastructure. Fair and square.
  • “No more hardware” – Well that’s a lie. Using software solutions or virtual infrastructure there will still always be servers and databases that require a physical body. Only the deployment and usage is changed but there will always be hardware. You might not own the hardware and you will most likely never see or touch it but it’s there, somewhere in a physical data centre.
  • Grid computing – No, grid computing is not the same as cloud computing in my opinion. Even though, it might be its scientific opposite. Where grid computing allows many computing units to work on a common target (e.g. movie rendering in render farms or Bitcoin mining), cloud computing allows a single user to utilise just any infrastructure in the pool offered by the cloud service provider to achieve their objective.
  • “Private Cloud” needs to be on-premises – No that’s not correct even though it seems to be a common assumption. A cloud service can be deployed dedicated for your organisation without anyone else having access to it, but the location of the physical hardware is irrelevant in order to provide that. In most cases the service provider will utilise hardware that is physically near to the user base in order to avoid performance issues that could occur on long “open internet” routes.

Challenges of Cloud Technology

  • Security – Any cloud service can be set up in secure manner if the solution and the environment of the clients allow it.
  • Privacy – Yes, privacy is a hot topic nowadays. But actually, it always were even in pre-internet age. Privacy is nothing impossible even in the cloud, even in the internet if you choose the right service provider. And if you are looking for good providers but affordability is a concern, make sure that your selected partner has a few good reference clients to show-case to you.
  • Compliance – When you are in phase 2 of the provider selection, bring in the techies of your organisation to make sure all offered functions and features are compliant to any active IT security policies that you need to consider.
  • Vendor Strategy – Cloud providers equal single vendor lock-in? Yes, it can be the case but if you want to avoid that, talk about this particular subject with your provider candidates. A few providers out there have established alliances and offer support to avoid any lock-ins.
  • Online works, offline it doesn’t – Depending on what your solution looks like make sure that your workforce  can use the solution when they are online and when they are offline. For instance when changing a file being on a flight, the data should update and synchronise itself in the cloud again when they are online. However there are some services which this does not apply to such as real-time communication (e.g. WebRTC, video conferencing, VoIP telephony, instant messaging).

Examples of Public Cloud Solutions

Summary

I hope this cleared some confusion around cloud terminology and technology. Further I hope it helped you through your process of picking a good service provider for your organisation if that was your objective. Further I would like to thank Simon Dudley of LifeSize and Phil Karcher of Forrester Research for hosting the webinar, which sparked the inspiration to write this article. LifeSize is often arranging interesting webinars and announces them on their social media platforms. Maybe I will see you on their next event – until then.

Have anything to add or feel I got the wrong picture? You are welcome to comment below and join the discussion. We at Telepresence24.com love your feedback!

Software MCU Comparison – What does the market offer?

A Videoconference Multipoint Control Unit (MCU) is a crucial part of every serious Videoconference infrastructure. It’s a system used to connect multiple media streams into a single Videoconference, therefore very often the MCU is referred to as a “bridge”.

The traditional MCU is a DSP (digital signal processing) based hardware whose primary functionality is to decode all incoming media streams, compose a single stream for each far-end participant and finally re-encode that stream before sending it out, needless to say all this requires a huge amount of processing power. More over, hardware-based MCUs define scalability on a per-port basis, which means if we want to have more participants connected in a Videoconference at the same time, we need MCUs with more video ports i.e. more DSPs and DSP hardware does not come cheap.

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LifeSize UVC Multipoint used on a Tablet

That is why a lot of companies are turning their attention towards a new type of product when it comes to multipoint Videconferences – the so-called “software MCU” or soft-MCU. A soft-MCU serves the same purpose as the hardware-based, except that all the transcoding and signal processing is done in the software which introduces big advantages in terms of cost, scalability and flexibility.

The soft-MCU eliminates the need for DSP hardware and can run on virtualized servers on private or public clouds, therefore it is significantly cheaper to deploy than the expensive hardware MCU. In terms of scalability, customers can often just purchase the number of ports they require at the time and then scale up or down easily as the need changes. Software MCUs offer also more flexible deployment, updates and feature enhancements are easy and more frequent, which gives them advantage in today’s fast evolving demands in the Videoconferencing world. Manufacturers can offer the soft-MCU for on-premise deployment on company’s internal servers (usually preferred by enterprises) but the lower end of the group video conferencing market will also benefit from the hosted services (cloud services) offered by providers.

Current market of Software MCU solutions

Although still in relatively early phase in terms of adoption, the market is all but short in offering soft-MCUs solutions for multipoint Videoconferencing. Some of them offered as pure software to be installed on industry-standard servers, some of them require some sort of hardware usually from the same provider which makes them a kind of  “hybrid” solution. I will just go briefly through some of the most talked about products out there at the moment:

 Avistar

Avistar offers the Avistar C3 Conference, a software-based MCU that runs on standard off-the-shelf hardware and operating system software, and on virtualized servers. It is mainly designed for on-premise deployment in enterprise environments, but service providers offering managed Videoconferencing services could also take advantage from it.

Each conference server can support up to 12 ports of simultaneous conferencing, video standards supported are H.263 and H.264 up to 1024 kbps call rate per endpoint with 30 fps.

 Polycom

The Polycom RealPresence Collaboration Server 800s, Virtual Edition is a multi-protocol, integrated, software-based multipoint MCU running on x86 servers. Mainly designed for mid-sized enterprises or to expand an existing RealPresence Collaboration Server (RMX) environment, it provides open standards scalable video coding (SVC) support and interoperability with systems that use advanced video coding (AVC). It can support up to 40 H.263 or H.264 video ports with 720p and 30 fps.

 Vidyo

Vidyo solution consists of Vidyo Router at its center, offered also as a virtual edition (VE), which performs transcoding-free packet switching using their patented Adaptive Video Layering (AVL) technology which introduces low-latency video-streams for endpoints over any IP network. It can be deployed on industry standard servers and is “VMware Ready” certified. Interoperability with legacy systems requires the use of VidyoGateway. The VidyoRouter VE comes in two models – VE 100 and VE 25 offering 100 and 25 concurrent HD connections respectively, supporting native rate and resolution matching per endpoint, up to 1440p at 60fps. Vidyo technology is available through service providers such as Videoconference24.

 Pexip

Pexip is a new start-up that offers pure-software based MCU called Infinity, which will be available from September. It can be deployed on industry-standard servers in a VMware virtualized environment and port capacity can be easily scaled up by adding more servers. It will support H.263 and H.264, SVC, VP8 video codecs as well as interoperability with WebRTC and Lync. We are yet to see how this product will perform in the real-world but it definitely looks promising with of supporting wide range of software clients and endpoints.

Acano

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Acana Software MCU Example

Acano is also also a new player in the industry, offering software solution that unites “previously incompatible audio, video and web technologies” in “coSpaces” which are essentially cloud virtual meeting rooms. People can use whatever devices they have to call into a coSpace, including mobile phones, tablets, PCs, Microsoft Lync clients or video endpoints. Designed for the x86 architecture, it runs on their optimized hardware, standard servers, as well as in virtualized environments and can support thousands of users per server, with further scale and resilience provided by native clustering. Major video standards are supported including H.264 AVC, SVC, WebM / VP8, Microsoft RTVideo, and said to support H.265 as well.

 Vidtel

Vidtel is primarily a service provider; does not offer soft-MCU for on-premise enterprise deployment, but they do offer hosted cloud Videoconferencing solution, labeled MeetMe – it’s a cloud-based, “any-to-any” video conferencing service which supports interoperability between SIP, H.323, Google Talk, Skype, and WebRTC. It supports up to 20 video conferencing endpoints with 720p. The infrastructure for video conferencing is hosted on a Vidtel central cloud and each participant is given a private meeting room ID and a login PIN; they use this to join the Vidtel MeetMe meeting and start communicating and interacting almost as if they were in the same office.

 LifeSize

LifeSize UVC Multipoint is a software-MCU that can be installed on industry-standard servers. It supports H.263 and H.264, SVC video standards and interoperability with Lync (Microsoft RTVideo). Customers can purchase and scale one port at a time and administrators can selectively control the quality and capacity of each port, ranging from 360p for mobile users to 1080p for room-based environments (with the Enterprise edition) and maximum of 128 participants in a single conference.

 Cisco

Cisco became the undisputed king in Videoconferencing hardware, with the acquisition of Tandberg, but they do not offer software-MCU that can be deployed on-premise. They do however offer cloud Videoconferencing service called – Cisco WebEx Telepresence, which can support up to 12 participants per conference with 1080p. At the moment it’s only available in the U.S. and Canada.

 Blue Jeans Network

Blue Jeans – similar to Vidtel, Blue Jeans is a service provider offering hosted hosted video bridging with multi-vendor interoperability including Skype and Lync. Also they are the developers of their own solution and allow re-selling. It supports up to 25 participants per meeting with 720p at 30 fps  and offers easy web based management capabilities for administrators as well as reporting capabilities.

 Avaya / Radvision

Avaya / Radvision is offering the Elite 6000 Series – software-based hybrid multi-point control unit providing high port density up to 40 full 1080p HD ports (80 720p) on a single 1U system. All the major video standards are supported as well as interoperability with other vendors.

As we can see there are lots of different flavors and there are more solutions out there, opening new opportunities for those who could not own standalone MCU before. It’s hard to say what the future holds, certainly it’s too early to dismiss hardware-based MCUs in which companies have invested a lot of money. It’s clear that the two solutions will coexist for some time and it’s up to the customers to choose the best solution for their business based on their requirements in usage, cost and features.


Software MCU Example Video by Pexip

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dA2oh-4A8Qg&w=575]

Microsoft Lync 2013 – New Feature Overview

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Microsoft Lync 2013 – Main Window

Are you planning to upgrade your unified communications IM client? Following up on the article “What Is Microsoft Lync?” by Mark Stubbles we would like to introduce you today to all new features of Microsoft Lync 2013.

In comparison the Microsoft Office Communicator (also known as OCS) had the look and feel of Windows XP, the Lync 2010 update brought it up to speed with the Windows 7 design and finally Lync 2013 has the looks of the Windows 8 and Office 365 environment. But of course there is much more under the hood than just eye-candy. I listed below a few of the new features that were most interesting to me.

Overview of new features in Lync 2013

Visual Features:

The main window has been optimized to provide better access and a more intuitive using of the application. The new tabbed conversation feature gets rid of having several chat windows open at the same time – so you can keep track of all your conversations in a single place and just have to browse through them. Similar to the tabbed browsing of Google Chrome you are also able to move a certain chat out of the tabbed conversations and provide them with their own window and naturally you can move it back into the tabbed conversation window.

And for everyone who would like to display the images and fonts larger they can easily adjust the display setup in the configuration of the client. This is not only a help to users with sight challenges, but also can be useful for a deployment on wall-mounted displays.

Easier Deployment:

The main Lync 2013 client and the Online Meeting add-in is now included in the setup program of Office 2013 so deployment on the software side has been made significantly easier, especially for large enterprises with many thousands of workstations.

However because this part has changed Microsoft has also changed how the group policy is deployed. Instead of working on the communicator.adm file to define policies, certain ADMX and ADML admin templates are provided along with Office Policy Administrative Templates to work on. For more information on this particular topic I suggest reading the Microsoft article on “Group Policy Settings for Lync 2013“.

BYOD Enhancements:

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Microsoft Lync 2013 – Calling a Smartphone

With Lync 2010 the App for smartphone, there was only support for presence and instant messaging while the new Lync 2013 App for smartphones and tablets also supports Voice calls and mobile video conferencing over WiFi and cellular data connection alike. Regardless of the fact that many desk phones can be connected with your Lync client, utilizing Lync on smartphones and Lync on PCs within your organisation your permanently replace the requirement of having a separate hardware phone on your desk and cutting costs for invest and maintenance by enforcing unified communications technology. For a more detailed overview of the features for mobile Lync I recommend the “Mobile Client Comparison Tables” page by Microsoft.

The users accessing from non-corporate workstations via browser also get some good news. The Lync 2013 Web App for web-based conferencing received support for voice and high definition video conferencing devices. Meeting participants can also show their screens for collaboration or presentation and re-assign the presenter role to others – They get the full Lync 2013 meeting experience without having the software client installed on the machine.

Functional Features:

The Lync 2013 client can handle virtual environment better. Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) fully supports audio and video devices, like a headset and a webcam, to be connected to the client even though you might be using a virtual machine such as a thin client or a differently re-purposed workstation. For more details on how to deploy the Lync VDI plug-in please check the Microsoft TechNet article.

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Microsoft Lync 2013 – Chat Room Integration

Another interesting new feature is the chat room integration (also known as persistent chat rooms or topic feeds). In older versions you were already able to create group conversations for multiple users to chat or hold a presentation for instance. In the new Lync 2013 however these can be promoted to be permanent and will be also available for others to be joined, including all the content that was added and when. It might not be applicable to all services and organisations, but this feature might the need for static email lists and adds a new dynamic way of sharing information and making such available for all. If you don’t want it to be available for all users, there is also the option to limit the visibility to certain users or user groups.

Also newly implemented is a feature that lets Lync 2013 automatically assign you with “presenting” status, to block incoming communication unless the sender is in an approved group. If you are a two-screen users however this is not automatically done for you, if you use the secondary screen as presenting space.

You may have made experience with previous versions of the client that you would like to keep a certain conversation up for reference but you need to restart the machine. What happens? The information is gone. In the new Lync 2013 once you are back booted up, the conversation comes back along with the content of the conversation, you held before rebooting. I found this to be quite the time-saver in those moments.

Improvements of already deployed functions:

  • Outlook Meeting Scheduling updated
  • Native Video Conferencing enhanced
  • Web App and Mobile App now support voice and video conferencing
  • Contact and card view was improved
  • Meeting participation functions were heavily improved for better collaboration

Have you tried Lync 2013 out yet? Missed your favourite new feature? I would be delighted to hear your opinion. Drop us your comment below!

Personal Telepresence – Software Solution Comparison

Telepresence on your desk is a great enhancement to the benefits of video collaboration. It enables you to join meetings ad-hoc and (at least for me) replaced the need for doing a phone call. Even if hardware based endpoints are not available there are software solutions available for personal telepresence.

Throughout 2012 I have been using a hardware-based endpoint for quick communication via video and since January 2013 I switched to a software-based solution. I tried out a few and wanted to share the comparison with you.

In the personal telepresence solution comparison below, I listed several options on personal telepresence software clients or web conferencing solutions with video conferencing functions. You will also find links to each solution further down, in case you would like to get more details on the products.

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The Telepresence24.com comparison for software-based personal telepresence solution – Updated 22.4.13 – Click to enlarge

My requirements

In the comparison we considered most features and functions but to keep it short and sweet, we published only the most popular and relevant ones. For myself I have a strong focus on security and encryption as well as the ability to call all other H.323 based endpoints and infrastructure devices. With the Videoconference24 client for example I am able to call any box no matter if it is from Huawei, LifeSize, Cisco, Radvision / Avaya, Polycom or similar manufacturers. As long a software-client supports standard SIP or H.323 calling those is also possible – you get the idea: I want to reach them all and I want my line secure even through public internet!

Beside that I enjoy the ability to invite for multipoint video conferences without reserving resources on a separate MCU. In most cases this would cost money yet again and like this I can completely cut both the invest in MCUs as well as starting a video call for right now, without booking nor calling anyone to prepare my conference. Of course video conferencing managed services do make sense in many occasions but just for a sudden meeting I don’t need someone on top of things.

Participants of comparison:

There are more solutions than that available and if you would like to add the solution you have good experiences in please feel welcome to let us know in the comment section below. As usually I am more than happy to update the comparison in collaboration with you.

Summary

I am now using the Videoconference24 solution provided by Global Media Services and don’t have a broken heart when I think back to my hardware-based endpoint from last year. Just one thing I would like to add is that when you are saving big-time money going to software-based solutions: Get high-end peripherals for it! You don’t want to be the VGA person in a HD call because you are using the old webcam back from the days. Recommended gear (in my books) comes from makers such as Logitech and Jabra.

What are you using? And … are you happy with it? I want to know your opinion!