Video's star is rising
After years of promise, video is starting to invade corporate workplaces throughout SA. From streaming of video training to video collaboration and surveillance, companies are looking towards Internet Protocol-based (IP) video applications to help them save money and improve productivity.
Tumbling bandwidth prices, the commoditisation of technologies such as video conferencing systems, soaring travel costs, and expansion of South African businesses into the rest of the world, are all helping to drive growth. And today, video is no longer an elite boardroom application, but a tool that many rank-and-file workers use on their desktops and tablets.
"A lot of local companies are adopting video," says Conrad Steyn, collaboration product sales specialist at Cisco South Africa. "When people collaborate, they're increasingly expecting to have access to two-way video. And nearly every meeting room or boardroom today is a video environment."
"IP video is coming into its own," says Stanley Louw, infrastructure senior manager at Accenture SA. "We're seeing higher uptake of video conferencing, e-learning, telepresence, and Web-based conferencing. Companies are looking strategically at what these applications mean for their businesses."
There are two major reasons that companies are looking at video applications, he adds. The first is to optimise and reduce costs, especially travel expenses and the productivity costs of pulling people out of their work environments for training or meetings.
The second is to enable better collaboration between people dispersed across different regions or countries. This is not just limited to internal collaboration, but also includes how people interact with clients, says Louw.
For South African companies, room-based and Web-based conferencing are the most popular starting points for a video enablement journey, because initial business benefits such as savings in travel costs and higher productivity ratios can quickly be realised, he adds.
Another driver in the uptake of business-quality video conference is the availability of high-end video conferencing systems in the cloud, making it possible for even cash-strapped businesses to afford high-end solutions, says David Brooks, product manager for voice and cloud services at MWeb Business.
One major trend sweeping the market is growing adoption of video services, particularly video collaboration, among remote and mobile users. The reason for this is that technologies like Microsoft's Lync and open Web standard WebRTC have helped to bring affordable video with acceptable (though far from perfect) quality to the general workforce.
"Today, video is not just about the boardroom, but also about the remote user," says Brooks. "In the past, you'd have dedicated lines and proprietary systems in the boardroom. Now, you might have ADSL and 3G users dialling into video calls from remote offices or mobile devices."
It's important to converge social, mobile, video and virtual communications capabilities to shape the new collaboration experience.Conrad Steyn, collaboration product sales specialist, Cisco.
Despite the growth in adoption, companies still face some infrastructural challenges in getting video applications up and running, and maximising the benefits these offer. Constrained bandwidth remains one of the biggest concerns and inhibitors of video in the corporate space, says Hannes van der Merwe, product manager at Itec Distribution.
A 4Mbps ADSL line isn't going to be good enough for day-to-day high-definition video streams. Although compression and other technologies can be used to deliver video applications to users with poorer connections, the lowered picture quality is often a disappointing end-user experience, adds Van der Merwe.
Video's additional infrastructure and connectivity requirements will demand that IT departments negotiate technologies, protocols and algorithms they haven't traditionally managed in the IT infrastructure, says Mauritz van Wyk, senior product manager for messaging and collaboration at Vox Telecom.
Most companies have put a range of network management tools in place to help prioritise network traffic and bandwidth allocation, says Van Wyk. Usually, the C-suite gets separate bandwidth allocations from the rest of the employees, guaranteeing better performance for their video streaming. However, it's actually the people further down the rank that need reliable and high-quality video to access training, collaborate and get their jobs done.
"What we recommend from a bandwidth perspective is to put video on the same priority level as VOIP and other live communications," says Van Wyk. "Reserve bandwidth for the call and give it back once the call is completed." This approach gives a massive quality improvement over commodity services such as Skype and Lync, he adds.
At the back-end, companies must put in place solutions such as call routing engines and firewall traversal to ensure a good experience for end-users. Encryption and other security technologies are also essential, given that many users will be making confidential video calls, Van Wyk says.
Today, video is not just about the boardroom, but also about the remote user.David Brooks, product manager for voice and cloud services, MWeb Business.
In addition to looking at the network, companies must also scrutinise their storage environments, says Louw. "It's critical to ensure that the organisation's IT infrastructure is ready for high-quality video services. A bad user experience will reduce user adoption, and ultimately, the benefits," he adds.
Video will not stand alone in the enterprise, but should rather be integrated with IP telephony and data on a single platform, says Steyn. "It's important to converge social, mobile, video and virtual communications capabilities to shape the new collaboration experience," he adds.
"The technology makes it easier to connect and collaborate with colleagues, partners and customers from any location and it's reliable. High-quality, interoperable video - as opposed to video that's Webcam-based, unreliable or incapable of scaling - will play a significant role in the collaboration mix."
The challenges are not purely about technology, says Van Wyk, but also about changing deeply ingrained end-user behaviour. "Change management is critical. We're used to picking up a phone to make a call, not speaking to someone via video on a PC. It's important to make sure staff members are actually using it."