With the high costs of travel and time wasted with face-to-face meetings, online collaboration services are flourishing — from the big names such as Microsoft and WebEx to less elaborate solutions that include GoToMeeting and Raindance. What these all have in common are ongoing service costs and often extra layers of integration to worry about, such as third-party instant messaging and audio bridges.
Conversely, ShoreTel’s Converged Conferencing solution unites audio conferencing, online presentation, Web collaboration, IM, and multimedia recording within a single 1U Conference Bridge appliance. This unit effortlessly connects to a ShoreTel ShoreGear Voice Switch and delivers up to 96 conference ports. (One IP phone port supports five conference ports on the bridge.) Beyond the benefit of having tightly integrated components, enterprises typically get their investment back in a few months because monthly fees are eliminated.
Setting up the Conference Bridge is virtually hands-off, thanks to the system self-configuring network settings. Administrators finalize the install (such as specifying conference URLs and custom voice prompts) from the Web-based Shoreline Conference Director. I particularly liked LDAP integration, which makes provisioning many users listed in your corporate directory a quick process; there’s also a bulk user upload capability. Flexibility extends to hosting multiple business units or departments, each with its own voice prompts and phone numbers. As with other conference bridge products, you can reserve certain ports for executives’ use and perform other customizations.
Similarities to rival solutions exist throughout, which makes for quick learning. Yet, I was impressed with how smoothly ShoreTel Converged Conferencing integrates all the pieces, which isn’t typically the case with competitors, and contributes to an agreeable user experience. After logging in, the system displayed a familiar instant messaging window where I created a list of contacts from Converged Conferencing’s global directory. I had no trouble sending an IM or placing a phone call to any contact. In the same way, I called all contacts in a group and then quickly added in someone who wasn’t on my contact list.
Audio controls to mute callers or to lock out unruly users further complement audio conferencing.
The same Converged Conferencing user interface let me schedule a conference or request a reservationless conference. Again, ShoreTel kept things simple. A single dialogue is used to specify the conference time, request different access codes for presenters and participants, and e-mail invitations. Conferences may also be scheduled directly from Microsoft Outlook, a feature only a few high-end products offer.
Importantly, these online conferences use the same Web interface, slightly enlarged, to display documents. As one test, I quickly uploaded Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files; these then appeared to me and participants in a pane within the ShoreTel application. As presenter, I had no trouble displaying the Word document and then cycling through the spreadsheet and PowerPoint slide show.
I’d like ShoreTel to consider adding file preview, annotation, and whiteboard capabilities, however; these are standard presenter and collaboration functions available with products such as WebEx and Microsoft Live Meeting.
Also, it would be nice to support additional files for viewing. Visio, PDF, and other documents can be uploaded as attachments, but participants must view them on their local machine in the originating application. Still, that’s nit-picking when most low-end products don’t give you Web conferencing — just screen or application sharing.
Beyond its own decent application or whole screen sharing, ShoreTel provides various recording functions. These range from voice recording of audio conferences and instant message logging to recording synchronized slide and narrated presentations. (The server can store approximately six months of archive data.)
On the security front, there’s certainly an advantage to having a conferencing server behind your firewall for internal online meetings. What’s more, all communications are protected by SSL encryption — an extra safeguard when I used the system with outside audiences. Other standard security functions let me require access codes for calls and put passwords on playbacks. Further, you can log IM sessions to a separate server.
Using ShoreTel was a no-stress experience. The system proved to be reliable and easy to manage.