Cheaper desktop videoconferencing

Widespread use of videoconferencing on standard enterprise networks is now feasible and affordable with the launch of HP SkyRoom, executives said.

Released last week by Hewlett-Packard Co., the videoconferencing software is designed for internal use on corporate networks and allows up to four users on the same network to collaborate and share information in real time.

The minimum network requirement is broadband with a minimum transfer rate of 400 Kbps and video quality ranges from SVGA to HD. HP recommends 1 Mbps for SVGA quality or higher, but the video engine will support up to 5 Mbps, noted Maria Del Rio-Arbuckle, category business manager, Workstations and Commercial Displays at Hewlett Packard (Canada) Co.

IT managers can set per user bandwidth caps to accommodate their networks, said Del Rio-Arbuckle. “Because of the type of files that are being shared at the desktop, bandwidth can become a problem. As you have larger, higher resolution displays, you need to make sure that the corporate network bandwidth can support it,” she said.

Other features include the use of TCP/IP “with no requirements for proprietary networks, special cables or limited distances” and the ability to extend the system “beyond the firewall boundaries through VPN connections,” states HP.

SkyRoom works by monitoring the presenter’s screen, compressing and encrypting the information and then sending it the participants, where it is decrypted and decompressed. The core technology is based on three years of research at HP Labs on video and image compression.

Graphics traffic is secured with AES 256-bit encryption. “Data security is inherent to HP SkyRoom because no applications or data leave the presenter’s computer – the only information sent is the image on the presenter’s desktop,” states HP.

Because the software presents an image of the presenter’s desktop, content from any application can be shared – including office documents, streaming videos and 3D models. And because the participants are only receiving image data, they can view 2D and 3D graphics on machines that have only 2D graphics cards.

“By only sending information that describes changes in the display, network traffic is greatly reduced from sending raw video. Latency and bandwidth requirements are reduced, and the need for dedicated networking hardware is reduced or eliminated,” states HP.

Priced at $169 for a single license, minimum system requirements include an Intel Core 2 Duo 2.33GHz processor with 2GB RAM, a Webcam and Microsoft Windows XP or Vista. The software will also support the upcoming release of Windows 7, noted Del Rio-Arbuckle.

HP will include SkyRoom software as a standard built-in feature on HP Z800, Z600, Z400 and xw4600 workstations. Free 90-day trial versions will be included on select HP premium business PCs and notebooks.

HP’s SkyRoom Standard Accessory Kit is available for $134 and consists of a high-res Webcam and headphones, but HP hardware is not required to use SkyRoom.

The software doesn’t support communication between HP SkyRoom users on different corporate networks and isn’t available for Macs.

Less than 10 per cent of offices use videoconferencing regularly in North America, said Michelle Warren, president of MW Research & Consulting. “This offers a tremendous opportunity for HP to address some of the concerns, especially as travel has cut back for so many departments,” she said.

SkyRoom will be an attractive piece of technology for IT managers, according Warren. “It’s particularly attractive to organizations that have HP installed, so if they have HP workstations as a desktop or a notebook, if they have HP riding on the network, any of the ProCurve technology, I think this will be a natural migration,” she said.

“IT managers will like the fact that they can set up controls around who connects and how much bandwidth the software will take up on the network,” she said. The software will also bode well with IT because of the simplicity of the setup, she added.

“While it might take one of the IT staff to go in and do it, it will only take 10 minutes as opposed to taking 2 hours, and the training of the actual business users will be minimal because it is based upon the Windows environment, which is fairly familiar to most of us,” said Warren.

But one downside is that users have to go through Microsoft Office Communicator (OCS) to conduct back-and-forth messaging, noted Warren. “I would like to see that messenger built into SkyRoom so that users don’t have to run OCS plus SkyRoom, which will take up bandwidth … then it would just be a one-stop solution for users,” she said.

Cisco Systems Inc. announced its offer to buy video communications vendor Tandberg SA on the same day HP announced the release of SkyRoom. Info-Tech Research Group Ltd. released a news analysis on the topic, suggesting the acquisition would strength Cisco’s position “in the burgeoning enterprise collaboration space.”

“The acquisition is a natural fit for Cisco, which has made no secret of its ambitions around video but to date has not presented a competitive video endpoint lineup. Notwithstanding successes at the upper end of the market with its TelePresence portfolio … Cisco has lacked offerings for the larger audience of mid-sized and small enterprises,” states Info-Tech.

The timing of the announcements is coincidental, but it shows where the focus is at the moment, said Info-Tech senior research analyst Jayanth Angl. “You look at large IT vendors like HP and Cisco, both are investing a lot into video and into collaboration and I think it’s really more indicative that this is a priority for enterprise IT vendors and for enterprise customers,” he said.

Angl doesn’t foresee Cisco’s announcement as having a substantial long-term impact on HP, which is “certainly moving forward with their product developments.” 

“I think there is a lot HP is doing with respect to video and video collaboration – SkyRoom is just one element of that. They have their own telepresence line and there is certainly a lot of opportunity for them in this market as well,” said Angl.

While Cisco’s Tandberg acquisition would “continue their push into the whole telepresence market,” the timing of the SkyRoom release could bode well for HP, said Warren.



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