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The Elephant in the Video Conferencing Room

The fundamental challenge of running enterprise-wide video conferencing (VC) is keeping users happy. Happy users feel empowered, not foolish when confronted with the challenge of setting up or running a VC meeting. If you keep users happy you have most likely cut support costs while increasing utilisation – both metrics critical to any AV service manager come review time.

However for some inexplicable reason the VC industry as a whole has done a very poor job of keeping users happy. Regardless of what the respective vendor marketing departments say, most VC users consider the experience to be at best annoying, at worst completely off-putting. Integrators try to put lipstick on the vendor-grown pig, but inevitably only add cost and introduce unneeded complexity.

How to become a Videoconferencing Expert

I will start this article by answering what exactly is an expert – to me it’s a person who is really really good at something. Simple as that. This post is only about my thoughts on what it takes for a person to become such, not how he uses his expertise.

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There is more to becoming an expert than this.

I agree with the assumption that all humans are born as “tabula rasa” (lat. blank state), meaning all their knowledge comes from learning, experience and perception, but with genetics playing significant role in the process. Unfortunately, not all people take advantage of the amazing opportunities that lie ahead of them in becoming really good in something they love doing, often due to fear of failure. But failure is not something to be feared of, on the contrary, as Thomas Edison said:

“I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Every person can be good at anything, good in so many things at the same time. But becoming really good at anything isn’t just a walk in the park. It takes discipline, focus and more importantly a strong will to make it happen.

So how does one become expert at anything? Well, I believe the formula is pretty much the same for any skill you choose. Since this is a Unified Communications blog and it happens to be the field that I’m currently working in, I’m going to point out what I consider to be important in becoming a Videoconferencing Expert.

Videoconferencing Education

I believe education is the first step in becoming good at something. Once you identify your objective and set your goals, you have to start preparing for reaching that goal, show genuine interest in learning all the bits and pieces that are related to what you really want to do, in this case Video Conferencing. I’m talking about harvesting knowledge you can use from every source you can get your hands on: specialized courses , forums, blogs, whitepapers, industry reports, product guides…

When it comes to official training, major industry leaders like Cisco and Polycom are already offering specialized training programs for anyone interested in becoming engineering or sales expert in Videoconferencing / Unified Communications and these certifications are usually valid for 2-3 years in order to keep up with the latest trends in the industry.

Cisco recently added two new programs to their certification portfolio focusing on Video, which already included the Cisco TelePresence Solutions Specialist and Cisco Rich Media Communications Specialist:

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CCNA Logo by Cisco

  • CCNA Video establishes an individual’s ability to deploy video endpoints, set up new users, and operate networked voice and video solutions for job duties that include configuring voice and video single-screen endpoint devices, supporting telephony and video applications, and troubleshooting. The certification also validates a candidate’s knowledge of the architecture, components, functionalities and features of Cisco Unified Communications Manager solutions.
  • Cisco Video Network Specialist establishes and enhances key skills including the ability to configure video single-screen endpoints, set up new user accounts, support video applications and troubleshoot networked video solutions.
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Polycom Logo

Polycom is offering the Polycom Certified Videoconferencing Engineer – a program that confirms the successful candidate has the necessary knowledge to perform implementation, configuration and troubleshooting operations for small to medium-sized environments on the Polycom RealPresence Platform including. In addition, the PCVE exam will validate the individual’s knowledge of networking models, standards and protocols relevant to videoconferencing.

Plenty of free training material is also available on the Internet. Personally, I liked the old Tandberg Certified Expert Partner (TCPE) program, simple and straight to the point, it’s perfect to gain the necessary technical knowledge when it comes to Video Communication.

Forums such as the VTCtalk and the Cisco Support Community are a great place for promoting and  sharing knowledge and engage other experts in constructive conversations about topics of the Videoconferencing / Unified Communications industry. There are also great groups on videoconferencing business and technology available on LinkedIn for anyone to join and listen or contribute.

Working Experience

It has been said many times before – no amount of theoretical knowledge compares to a real world experience, no matter what field are you part of. If you’re just starting in the industry, try an entry-level position and work your way from the bottom up. There are also companies who first offer training to their personnel for couple of months, and then make hiring decision, this is another good way of getting practical work experience.

And once you get there, try to learn as much as possible, try to learn everything you can about the topic, focus on becoming better and better until you become “so good they can’t ignore you”.

The constant hunger for knowledge is what separates experts from…well, everyone else. The beauty when working with technology is that it changes constantly, there is always something new to digest. Personally, I don’t understand how some people are pretty content with doing the same thing day by day. There is much more you can do, if you want to. The internet is there, the books are written and there are heaps of people to talk to, who are more than happy to engage in discussions – so jump right into it and become an expert!

I am going to end this post with two quotes from people who were really good at something and accomplished a lot:

“Action is the foundational key to all success.” – Pablo Picasso

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” – Benjamin Franklin

Can Your Business Benefit From Cloud Computing?

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Simply put, cloud computing is computing based on the Internet. So, instead of running programs or applications on a physical server, cloud computing allows you to access the same apps and software online, without needing to download or install them. Web applications, including but not limited to email, document sharing, instant messaging and more, are all designed to make it easier to collaborate and get work done no matter where you’re located.

From reducing costs to improving communication and collaboration to enhancing productivity, the benefits of cloud computing are countless.  Because of this, it’s important to understand the benefits of cloud computing and just why so many businesses are moving to the cloud.

 1. Reduced costs

Moving to the cloud will not only help you reduce costs on infrastructure and software but you’ll also be able to invest more money back into your business in research, marketing strategies, product innovation and anything else you need. Using the cost savings from cloud computing to free up resources will give your business a strong competitive advantage in the market.

With cloud, you only need to pay a small amount of money in return for a huge amount of storage space. Plus, cloud resources are easily scalable which means they can be altered to suit your exact needs as your business grows.

2. Disaster recovery

Did you know that 800,000 laptops are lost each year in airports alone? Although replacing the laptop may be costly, what do you do about everything you have saved on it? When you have everything stored in the cloud, you no longer have to worry about losing or not being able to access your data because it’s all in the cloud, safe and sound.

If you’re a business owner, cloud-based services will also help you solve issues faster in the event of a disaster. In fact, a recent survey conducted by the Aberdeen Group revealed mid-size businesses took almost half the time it took larger companies to recover after a disaster because of their commitment to the cloud. Furthermore, cloud-based disaster recovery services were able to get companies up and running again in 2.1 hours, compared to eight hours for those not using the cloud.

3. Automatic software updates

Using the cloud means you’ll no longer have to worry about purchasing, installing, downloading and updating software. Cloud computing suppliers take care of this for you – security updates included – thus freeing up your time so you can focus on other important aspects of your business.

Not only does this save you hassle, but it also means you don’t have to worry about hackers exploiting out of date software.

4. Increased collaboration

Cloud computing makes collaboration easy as all employees – no matter where they’re located – can access and work on shared documents at the same time and don’t need to keep sending them back and forth over email. This is a huge benefit of cloud computing as all files are stored in a central location which means employees can talk to each other while making changes to the central copy at the same time. The collaboration is simplified and it translates to business efficiency as no time is wasted on uploading and emailing files and waiting for updates.

5. Work from anywhere using the cloud

You can have employees working from anywhere in the world, so long as they have an Internet connection. In addition, the cloud has also become more accessible via smartphones and tablets, which means that you really can have access to your documents anytime and anywhere.

As you can see, the reduced costs, the flexibility and security provided by cloud computing can truly give a business leeway to focus in its core priorities.

Can you think of any other fantastic benefits of using cloud computing? Go ahead and share them with us in a comment below.

How To Maintain Security With Teleworking

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Padlock (Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn)

Advances in mobile technologies and networking have made it possible for more people to work in the convenience of their homes or outside the office, also known as teleworking. We can work anywhere – client offices, hotels, cafés, beach resorts, etc. This has made virtual companies possible and has made tapping talent from far away possible.

While it is convenient to work from different places, the devices you use are also vulnerable to malware and viruses. These things can also infiltrate your company network and these criminals can steal your company data. Smartphones and tablets are very susceptible to threats as they can easily be stolen. Your company may experience a lot of problems if your employees’ devices get comprised. Tighten your security with these tips.

Protect devices

Your first line of defence against cyber criminals are firewalls, antivirus software and strong passwords. In an ideal world, you should be able to bring your devices anywhere, connect to the Internet and do your work. That is just not the case in the real world as free Internet and public connections are very high risk. You also can’t prevent your employees from opening their personal mail and browsing the Internet especially if they are using their own devices.

Train your employees to regularly update their protective software or better yet, turn on auto-updates in the settings. Install encryption software in your devices too so you can prevent unauthorized people from accessing your data. You should also install a remote-wipe program in case the device gets stolen.

Use cloud applications

Cloud application providers have invested in robust security systems to keep your data protected. If you can’t invest in security software, use cloud applications instead. This is an affordable option for small businesses. If you need more specialized tasks, you can get them starting at $5. That’s not a bad investment especially if you can get peace of mind knowing that your data is safe. Remember to use strong passwords for your accounts.

Secure the company network

Your employees should be able to securely connect to your corporate network. The traditional system used is a Virtual Private Network or VPN that encrypts the employee’s internet traffic. It also has tools to make sure that remote computers have security patches. It can also monitor a machine for potential infections. There are different providers for this kind of security and you can surely get one that fits your budget.

Remote working gives both employees and the company a lot of benefits. The key is to be able to provide a secure working environment wherever your employees are.

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!

Common Technologies Complicate The Telecommuting Debate

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Photo by Victor1558

Twitter and the blogosphere have been completely immersed in a fierce debate over the merits of telecommuting vs. coming into the office to work thanks to actions taken by Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer a couple of weeks ago. With the adoption of new technologies, including widespread use of smartphones, video conference software, and VoIP PBX phone systems, how important is it to come into the office every day? The answer is: we’re not really sure. There are too many entries in the debate to read through, but here are a couple of the main arguments from each side:

I can be just as productive at home

The core of this argument lies in the technology that most professionals have at their disposal these days out of necessity. Most people have access to a broadband internet connection at any given moment, whether it’s in their home or the café down the street.  If a business invests in the proper IT, they can offer their employees a myriad of ways to connect to workers who are based at the office and fellow telecommuters. Thanks to unified communications tools in addition to even more advanced conferencing applications, employees can be “at the office” while in the comfort of their own home. This saves workers from being distracted by the day to day social goings on at the office, as well as the time suck that is the morning and evening commutes. With the addition of VoIP PBX phone systems that allow for “virtual” offices in any location, proponents of telecommuting see no real need to spend every day at the office.

Only an office can provide the collaborative atmosphere a business needs

Those on Mayer’s side think that even though there are these technologies available, nothing can replace the benefits of face-to-face interaction and socializing. Water cooler talk isn’t just about talking about last night’s football game. It’s also about brainstorming and hashing out strategies pertaining to the day’s projects. Working in the office is also about being able to have proper oversight when it comes to worker productivity. Bosses like Mayer want to foster a sense of community at the workplace so employees will feel like they’re a part of a team working towards a goal that everyone will benefit from.

Who’s right? 

It’s impossible to say who’s right. It comes down to management style and people’s individual personalities. Some people do their best work at home while others get hopelessly distracted. But with unified communications technology available, there’s no reason why people can’t alternate between the two. Working from home half the week and the office the other half might provide employees with the best of both worlds.

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!

Unwanted Guests: How Easy Is It To Hack Into Corporate Video Conferences?

Is your video conference solution safe? It’s up to you, to set it up safe.

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Image by codepinkhq

History

For as long as recording technology has existed it has been used for espionage. From the ever-so-stealthy tape recorders (often hidden in books in James Bond films) all the way top the wires used by police agencies to catch a criminal in the act, there is no better way of foiling your enemy than listening to him when he doesn’t think he is being heard.

Nowadays

These days however it is not just living people you need to worry about. It is often said that your computers webcam can be accessed even when you’re not using it; a terrifying prospect for many and considering how long people have been able to listen in on phone calls, are video conferences really that safe? Video conferences are now an important and effective way for modern businesses to communicate. Instantaneous communication with anywhere else on Earth is amazing, but being able to visually gauge the reaction of the person you are talking to make it one of the most powerful tool in any company’s arsenal.

But..

But what if you are being looked in on? If someone watches in on a business deal than they can make money at your expense, work to crush your plans or even make your move before you do. So how safe are they? Hackers like HD Moore say not very! Moore, the creator of Metasploit, has managed to hack his way into the offices of law firms, courtrooms and even the boardroom of Goldman Sachs with ease, suggesting that peeping toms might have more power than previously thought. While this may seem fairly reminiscent of Back to the Future II there isn’t really too much to worry about at home. Moore says that the reasons these companies fail so spectacularly at securing their cameras is because they set them up outside of their company’s network firewalls, meaning easy access to those with prying eyes and hacking know-how. At home in fact, it is not the outside hackers you should worry about but the companies themselves.

And beyond the board room?

Skype has previously stated that it is able to gain access to cameras even when not in video call and a simple Google search can turn up thousands of programs designed purely to hack into webcams without people knowing. It’s not just the anonymous hackers you have to consider. In the early 2000s there was controversy over the US government’s plans to allow phone hacking to counter terrorism. Last year the US government set up an agency called the DCAC (Domestic Communications Assistant Centre), collaboration between the FBI, the DEA and the US Marshall’s Service which is specifically designed to enable wire-tapping on wireless and internet conversations. A court order is required to allow the agency to listen in on their targets (the same as with phones) but this time there was very little controversy at all.

Conclusion

So what conclusion can we come too? Is video conferencing safe for corporations or people at home? While there is plenty of evidence to the contrary I would say yes. If you have the right firewalls, security and managed video conferencing infrastructure then it is incredibly difficult for any peeping toms to get it and if anybody is really that determined to listen in to your conversations then video conferencing is just another tool in their box. If you learn HD Moore’s lessons and don’t underestimate the importance of online security, your company’s secrets should be safe. Are you guys convinced by Moore’s Argument?

Skype and the Telepresence Holiday Surprise

Skype brings Santa Claus into Classrooms via Telepresence

Skype picked three classrooms from across the world and provided the chance to have a telepresence session plus open Q&A with the person they were all waiting for – Santa Claus. The schools were also provided with a $10,000 Microsoft Store voucher each to give the children a better chance to be educated about high-end technology and software. Read the full story on the Skype Blog.

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Events like this enhance the public recognition of telepresence as a common way of communication which is also good for the industry in the end. Such initiatives can also be seen from LifeSize, who are frequently holding educational events open for schools to join. The recent release of the new Nintendo console with telepresence capabilities also greatly adds to increase the consumer feeling of video communication being a normal option for communication that might replace the text chat that was used until now.

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It is interesting to see that Skype / Microsoft continues to drive this even beyond the Skype integration in Microsoft Outlook and of course it is great to see how they do it and making children happy on the way to a unified solution  and interoperability (or interop in short) between home and enterprise users.

And while we are in the right spirit now, please allow me to wish happy holidays to all our readers on behalf of the whole Telepresence24.com team!


Santa in the Classroom

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