Ready for Close-Up

By David F. Carr  |  Posted 06-05-2008

Putting a TV Network in Your Network

CIOs at some companies have been responsible for supporting video broadcasts and conferences for years. But in the YouTube era, users and executives expect video to be far easier to create and more ubiquitous than ever before. Since specially equipped conference rooms can cater to a limited number of participants in a videoconference session, the better way to reach the mass market of employees is to act more like a TV broadcaster.

Streaming video on the intranet makes that possible, but it's rarely an initiative that comes from the IT organization. "It's not typical for a CIO to say, 'I've got all this bandwidth, so let's find a way to use it,'" says Ira Weinstein, an analyst at Wainhouse Research, a market research firm that specializes in video and rich media. Rather, the demand tends to come from a corporate communications department, or from top executives eager to see their smiling faces broadcast across the enterprise.

But supporting video will soon become IT's problem--and it will be a big problem if CIOs aren't prepared.

Mark Tarleton is an "accidental" information technologist. He was a video production professional in Raytheon's corporate communications group back in 2000, when he first experimented with streaming video on the corporate network.

Raytheon, a large defense contractor that has grown through acquisition, had experience supporting video in other forms, such as videoconferencing with dedicated conference room equipment and broadcasts over satellite networks. But streaming video over the corporate data network posed different challenges.

Getting started wasn't all that hard. He got a bit of help from an IT staffer and used free tools from Microsoft to encode video to Windows Media Format and post it to a Windows server.

"The next thing I knew, I got e-mails from on high saying, 'This is great, make this happen everywhere,'" Tarleton recalls. "Pretty soon thereafter, I found myself standing in the CIO's office explaining why I had committed them to making this happen everywhere."

As a video guy, Tarleton saw only the benefits of online video on the desktop, calling it the holy grail of corporate video, which was previously available at only a few select locations. "We had never had the equivalent of a TV in every room," he says.

But by letting the genie out of the bottle, he had unleashed a demand to support corporate Webcasts that soon crowded out his duties as a video producer. Tarleton wound up being transferred to IT, where he is now manager of Webcast operations.

While the first experiments were easy to get started by publishing video to a Web site, Raytheon has since had to master the challenges involved in deploying the technology on a much larger scale. The company conducts about 300 Webcasts a year--about two-thirds of them as simple audio Webcasts and the rest as video. Nearly every divisional manager conducts at least a quarterly Webcast.

On the technology front, Raytheon implemented Qumu's Video Control Center management software, installed racks of video encoding appliances and tweaked its network for more efficient transmission of video. But there is a caveat: "A lot of our communications people would love to take a link to a video and e-mail it out to thousands of people, but we ask them to roll them out in segments," Tarleton says. "Otherwise, they could do real damage to the network."

Training and Travel

Training and Travel

At the Western Area Power Administration, the federal agency that manages the transmission of electricity generated by hydroelectric plants in the West, the rationale for video revolved more around training than corporate communications. It started in WAPA's Phoenix-based Desert Southwest Region, as a way to reach more employees more cheaply and cut down on travel costs within the five-state region, which covers Arizona, California, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah.

"Fully half of our staff members are out working the lines or at different substations, and they're not readily available to come into a training room," says Regional Information Officer Jim Potts, who is essentially a regional CIO. As a result, WAPA had to schedule multiple training sessions, and personnel could easily wind up spending a few days traveling to a meeting that lasted only a couple of hours. Now, in many cases, the agency will conduct a training session once in a conference room equipped with easy-to-use video equipment and publish the recording on its intranet for employees to view at their convenience.

The video capture and publishing system WAPA purchased from Accordent Technologies cost about $100,000 to implement, and Potts expects it to save about $3,000 per person for up to 135 people, or more than $400,000 per year. "Everybody is impressed by our savings," he says.

After equipping several conference rooms with the requisite cameras, microphones and lighting, Potts' team used Accordent's capture-station appliance to simplify the process of making a video: Essentially, all someone has to do is press the "record" button. The system includes basic video-editing capabilities, sufficient to edit out pauses and interruptions, and it allows integration of other visual content such as slideshows.

When the resulting video is published, Accordent's distribution and management tools allow WAPA to track who has viewed it. Potts says that's important because, in many cases, it's essential to be able to document, for example, that all employees have taken part in the company's required diversity training.

In the past, WAPA tried to reduce travel expenses by equipping conference rooms with videoconferencing equipment, but the return on investment never materialized. "When we looked at how much was saved on travel, and how often the room was utilized, the ROI [return on investment] wasn't there," Potts says.

Rather than continuing to invest in that equipment, the agency decided to limit itself to using relatively simple desktop videoconferencing software.

WAPA thought videoconferencing would provide value, but it didn't--partly because people still tended to want to meet in person. On-demand access to video turned out to be more useful because it allowed employees to "attend" an event that otherwise would not have fit into their schedules.

Ready for Close-Up

Ready for Their Close-Up

In his research on enterprise video adoption, Wainhouse's Weinstein sees similar scenarios playing out at many companies. A group, usually within corporate communications or training, decides it needs to get its message out to more people, faster. "They can't get all those people into conference rooms and auditoriums--that's where it starts," he says.

Desktop video "is coming, and you're not going to hold it back," predicts Raytheon's Tarleton. CIOs who want to be prepared should understand the ramifications of this technology for their networks and server infrastructure and take steps to build that out, he says, adding, "Once an organization within the company begins using it, they ramp up very quickly."

Another major area of adoption is in higher education, where many lectures are recorded explicitly for on-demand video playback. Frank Monaco, who served as CIO of Pace University from 1997 until March 2008, says the school takes advantage of classrooms that were configured specifically for videoconferencing to also make recordings for later playback. In addition, it uses portable video equipment that can be wheeled on a cart into any classroom.

The classroom videos are cataloged in Blackboard, the university's curriculum management system, and published to streaming servers from Real Networks. The university has also begun publishing videos to Apple's iTunes University, and Monaco expects the school to increasingly rely on such external services, rather than on storing and serving the video content itself.

Wainhouse's Weinstein says the first step in forming a strategy for enterprise video is to assess the complexity of your requirements. If your needs are modest--say, limited to streaming out a recorded video message from the CEO a couple of times a year--you may be able to keep it simple. In other words, encoding the video with simple desktop tools, uploading it to a Web server and publishing a link to it may be just fine, he says.

On the other hand, if executives, trainers, university professors or other professionals are going to record their own videos on a regular basis, your organization needs to figure out a way to automate that so these users can create the videos themselves, without the help of IT. That's the only way video can be part of an organization's routine communications, Weinstein states. "Imagine if you had to get help from IT every time you wanted to send an e-mail," he says.

Prepping the Stage

Prepping the Stage

Weinstein breaks the video lifecycle into four major phases: capture, content management, content delivery and playback. He identifies four vendors that he thinks have done the most to address all four phases-- Accordent, Sonic Foundry, VBrick and Starbak--and says each one has different strengths. For example, he says Accordent is particularly strong in simplifying the initial video capture.

Beyond picking a core video management system, you will need to assess the impact on your network. WAPA's Potts says he was surprised to find that introducing video hasn't put any undue strain on his region's network. Two other WAPA regions are implementing the same on-demand video technology, and Potts has agreed to grant them access to the servers on his network rather than making them field their own. The incremental increase in demand will be modest enough that he is not requiring them to pay for access.

However, one other WAPA region decided it couldn't use the video technology at all. The Upper Great Plains region covers large rural areas in the far Northwest where the network is thin, according to Potts, and many offices are served by mere 256 kbps wide area network links. Those connections are fully loaded with existing transmissions of e-mail and financial data, and he says the ROI on video isn't good enough to support a complete network upgrade.

Monaco says Pace University's major challenge was to upgrade a university network that stretched across six campuses in New York City and Westchester County. "The infrastructure got to be robust enough to handle video," he says, explaining that video and voice are time-sensitive, meaning that quality suffers if the supporting data arrives at an irregular rate.

Modern network switches are capable of delivering the required quality of service by treating video differently from routine data transmissions. But Pace couldn't afford to replace all its network switches at once, so the process took about five years.

Raytheon's Tarleton emphasizes the importance of enabling multicast routing if you are going to do live video broadcasts on your corporate data network. Most routers support this feature, but they don't have it enabled by default.

Multicast routing eliminates redundancy in the broadcast of an audio or video stream by transmitting a single copy of the stream across the network and feeding it to individual recipients. In the absence of multicast, each user's computer would open an independent connection with the video server and pull down its own copy of the stream, placing a far greater load on the network.

As a large organization, Raytheon also uses content distribution techniques to replicate the stream to video servers in each geography, which then redistribute it to the users in that region. The company has about 32 video servers, most of which are dedicated to the edge server function of redistributing content.

The system is also designed for redundancy at the level of Web servers, video servers and video encoding appliances. The Qumu software ties together all the components of the system and also provides a Web-based program guide and a search tool to help employees find relevant programming.

WAPA's Potts, Pace's Monaco and Raytheon's Tarleton all mention integration with network user directories and authentication systems as an important part of their selection criteria. This enables them to restrict access to a given piece of content to specific users or groups of users within the enterprise.

Of course, there are alternatives to the approaches discussed here. For example, instead of streaming video, you can send it out to employees using a file distribution product such the Ignite Technologies Content Distribution System, which delivers a complete copy of the video to each recipient's PC.

Also, instead of hosting video on your own network, you can contract with a company such as SplashMedia, which will help edit, encode, host and manage your video. The firm has a professional-grade studio available to record programs or add an introduction to programming you've produced internally.

However you approach it, there is nothing quite like video for allowing an executive to "look his employees in the eye," even if they're halfway around the world, Raytheon's Tarleton says. "It lets you see what's going on in other parts of the company in a way no other technology can," he adds.

Also see:

John Parkinson: Enterprise Video's Data Problem

Inside the Enterprise Video Spectrum

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