Tag Archives: Videoconferencing

Web Conferencing

We recently went through an evaluation of web conferencing or webinar software. There is considerable overlap between applications for videoconferencing and webinar software. However, most webinar software includes the components below, sometimes as extra-cost add-ons, and sometime including in the full bundle, or “pro” version.

Typical increments are 24, 100, and 500 participants. “Meetings” are usually limited to around 24 participants. “Webinars” can go up to 100, 500 and above.  Some vendors have a free version for three or four participants. and many vendors have initial 30-day trials that don’t require a credit-card

In addition for desktop applications that run on Windows and Macs, many vendors have apps for IOS and Android. Some newer programs are HTML5 only, and require only a modern browser. Older programs may install various plugins and additions such as Flash, Java or Silverlight to help with video and audio conferencing. In general these seem to work OK, but it is an extra step that is required before attending the webinar, Inexperienced users may require support to get plugins installed.

Before the Webinar

Assuming that you aren’t having a spontaneous web meeting, many packages allow you to schedule a webinar and have people pre-register to attend. The package may send out eMail invitations, or at the very least, you can obtain a unique Url to copy and paste into an email invitation sent from your own eMail account. If the package allows registration, then you can see how many have registered, and their locations and email addresses.

The Toolbox

Screen sharing:  Display a screen, an application, or a window interactively to show how to use a program. You may also be able to have another person share their screen with the full group, or have them control your screen.

Presentations: Display a presentation using PowerPoint or KeyNote.

Videoconferencing: Allows the presenter to appear full-screen or, when showing a presentation or whiteboard  to appear in a shrunken window in a corner.  Some software allows for several videoconferencing streams simultaneously, to give a CNN effect.

YouTube Videos: Choose a YouTube video and play it within your webinar.

Chat Window:  This is helpful if people need to alert the technical team if they are having  problems. Chat is also a way for people to ask questions of the presenter, and provide commentary on the presentation. Chats can also be restricted to the presenters only, or to one-on-one conversations.

Whiteboard: Allows you to annotate and draw on either a blank white board, or on an existing document. Never used it myself.

Other considerations.

Audio: Most webinar applications have some provision for people to talk and listen via a separate voice line. This is especially helpful when he voice-over-ip audio is substandard; people will tolerate problems with the video or presentations, but most of us have a much lower tolerance for problems with the sound. External voice integration varies from vendor to vendor, with some plans including a custom toll-free number for each of your presentations. Payment can also vary; sometimes the participant has to pay, at other times you do, or it may be free.

Some programs include recording as part of their functionality. With others, it is an add-on. Personally I watch many webinars as recorded events, as I’m unable to watch them in real-time, and often don’t find a live version to have any added value over a recorded version.

And the Envelope Please!
Because we use GotoMeeting on a regular basis, we decided to stick with it, so chose GoTo Webinar, the extended version of GTM for up to 200 participants. We already know how to use it, and it appears to be pretty reliable. During testing we found some webinar software not to be as reliable as we might have hoped, with problems related to screen-sharing or audio.

Skype 5.0 with Multipoint Video

The latest Skype, version 5.0 for Windows includes multi-point videoconferencing. We’ve tried it with up to four participants, and it works surprisingly well.  Skype fan-persons are waiting to figure out what the actual cost of this might be; right now multipoint is available for a 28 day free trial.  Point-to-point video calling works very well; on a par with the Polycom PVX application. We have tested on a variety of Windows platforms; Windows XP embedded, XP Pro, and Windows 7 Home and Pro with good and consistent results.  The interface is kind of a mess; but once the calls are connected, sound and video are outstanding. Like everyone else they are trying to integrate with FaceBook in version 5. 

Unfortunately, version 5 for some reason does not include the setting for receiving video calls full screen. So, our favorite application is broken in this version. Back to version 4.8!  
Linux and Mac versions of the Skype program are still miles behind the Windows version.  Multipoint video is promised soon for the Mac.  I have this fantasy, of a Linux version, with multi-point video, with a programmable interface that would allow stripping out all of the directory and calling stuff, and simply allow people to receive full-screen video calls.  Will this ever happen?

We’re also eagerly awaiting the SkypeKit, an updated version of the Skype API which should allow programmers to do wonderful things with Skype. Early beta users have been working on Skype TV applications that are embedded with some new televisions. We’d love to take part in the beta, but after being on the waiting list for some weeks, we are beginning to think we’ll never get the chance.  SkypeKit is due to be released in the first quarter of the new year. 

Tech Friday: The Forgotten Art of Scripting

Well, maybe it hasn’t been been forgotten by everybody, but it has been a long time since I looked at scripting, which might be considered another name for “accessible programming for casual users”.

In the beginning was the shell script.. any of several flavors of command line languages that manipulated UNIX operating system shells. These included component programs with funny names like AWK, and SED that allowed the manipulation of data and (especially) text files. And they all still work and and are used. I’m personally fond of grep, which is a sort of search engine on steroids available on any UNIX variant (like the Mac OS X)

Then there was the DOS batch file, which appeared in the earliest versions of DOS and has been carried up through all versions of Windows with the availability of the Windows Scripting Host. It has now has morphed into the PowerShell… but you can still write and execute a simple batch file if you want. Great stuff for network administrators.

Then there is JavaScript, which has nothing to do with Java, used for calculations and manipulations of web pages. I wrote my TimeCard web page program in JavaScript; and it works, and it it is fast, but working with the language was kind of a mess.

Why bother?

The later versions of the Tandberg Codian Multipoint Control Unit (MCU) for videoconferencing includes an XML-RPC interface to allow programmers to interact with the box without going through the provided web interface. The latter, by the way, is actually quite good. Our idea is to figure out the basic sub-set of functionality that we usually use 90% of the time, and build a custom interface for that 90%.

XML-RPC is, (it appears) to be a languishing standard for having one machine issue calls to another machine, and allow the second machine to execute commands. The reason I call this “apparently languishing” is that Google searches for XML-RPC turn up documents mostly from the early part of the decade. Also, there are few good tutorials on how to get things to work… right now I’m winging it using an (excellent) free client for the Mac which sends XML-RPC commands to the target box from a Mac workstation. Still, XML-RPC is what our box expects to receive…and for the moment at least, that’s what it will get. Once we’ve figured out what to send…we’ll figure out how to send it, ultimately using any scripting language that will work, but starting with AppleScript, which is native to OS X and which comes with an editor and dictionary built in.

Setting up remote premise VoIP or Videoconferencing

The Trixbox Wiki has a number of digestible pages of advice on how to successfully deploy a VoIP application. Here are recommendations for remote sites.

Formula for the best remote telecommuter Experience

  1. Use T1 internet access at the main location, not DSL or Cable.It’s worth the additional expense in order to ensure good, steady performance at your main location.
  2. If your routers and/or firewalls support QoS features, activate them. Give priority to the SIP and RTP protocols. Consider replacing equipment that lacks VoIP-aware QoS features. See Also: How do I use QoS on my network?
  3. Consider using one of our Suggested Routers with QoS on both ends of your connection.
  4. If your QoS solution allows you to limit total bandwidth, set the limit to slightly less than the line speed of your internet connection. Use a DSL line speed test to determine where you should set your limits. Setting it about 5-10 Kb below your maximum speed will keep the packet buffers from filling up on your DSL/Cable modem. This will yield better overall performance.
  5. Consider having two internet connections… one for your existing data application, and one for your VOIP phone and trixbox Pro servers. You can use this approach in your main location, as well as your remote locations. If you use this approach, you may not need any QoS capable equipment.
  6. If possible, connect your main office and your remote office using the same internet provider. Usually performance on the same provider’s network is superior to the performance when traffic needs to traverse multiple internet backbone networks.
  7. If possible, remove NAT devices between the trixbox Pro system, and the remote telecommuters.
  8. If you must use a NAT configuration, consider using a “DMZ Host/Server” configuration rather than port forwarding. This uses less CPU power in the router/firewall and yields optimal performance.
    1. At the main location, the setting will forward all unknown packets to your trixbox Pro server.
    2. At the remote locations, the setting will forward all unknown incoming packets to the IP Phone.
    3. Reserve the phone’s IP address in DHCP or give the phone a static IP Address on your private network in the remote location so the IP Address does not change. If you use a static IP Address, pick one outside of your dynamic DHCP IP Address range.
  9. For mission critical remote employees, consider using a fractional T1 internet service at the remote office instead of a Cable/DSL connection.

Dynamic DNS & Port Forwarding

One thing that is necessary when dealing with IP videoconferencing is the whole network management thing. This means dealing with DNS, ports, and firewalls.

DNS remains a bit of a mystery, but in essence, the DNS system maps numerical IP addresses to domain names. So for example, my web site is located at The way I know this is by running the NSLOOKUP command in Windows.

You can find your current public IP address by going to www.whatismyip.com

For help in setting up your router with port forwarding, go to http://portforward.com/

Laura Chappell produces fantastic tutorials on network troubleshooting. I should say “still”…because I’ve been reading her stuff since Novell was the networking operating system, and that is going back close to twenty years. The linked tutorial, from Novell Connection Magazine is entitled 10 Tasks Every Troubleshooter Should Conquer.

She references the SecTools site for tons of networking tools

Suggested Routers for VoIP

In addition to the new Trixbox training mentioned the other day, Fonality is now offering commercial versions of TrixBox…called Trixbox Pro. This is offered as a “hybrid hosted” model, in which you supply the server and other hardware, but the server is more or less permanently in contact and managed from their hosted server application.

As they are rolling this out, they seem to have upgraded the help support wiki, with some very specific information gleaned from their experience of deploying over 60,000 phones. For example, here are recommendations for routers suitable for use with VoIP.

They have also published a hardware compatibilty list, which lists certified, (fully supported) hardware and uncertified (supported by at a 25% cost premium) hardware. Of interest are several HP servers that are certified, and the Dell SC440 (tower), and 1950 (1-U rackmount). Aastra and Polycom phones are on the certified list, as are Sangoma interface cards.

On the suggested router list at the low end are the Linksys BEFSR81, D-Link DI724U and Fortinet Fortigate 50B.

They also have a “blacklist”…stuff that they don’t recommend for various reasons. These include problems with firmware (notorious with some low-end routers), and design incompatibilities. Sure enough, my BEFSX41 is on the blacklist.

Microsoft Action Pack Update for July

One reason why I like the Microsoft Action Pack is that it gently feeds you a trickle of the tsunami of new Microsoft products, betas, Community Technology Previews (CTPs), samples, trials, and templates. This months quarterly update is no different and includes a couple of interesting products:

  • The 64 bit version of Vista Business
  • Beta 3 of Windows Server 2008 Enterprise in both 32 bit and 64 bit versions.
  • System Center Essentials 2007
  • Office Live Communications Server 2005 Enterprise Edition
  • Windows Server 2003 R2 32 and 64 bit

I’ve been running Windows BackOffice 2003 on my server for what I think is at least two or three years, so I’m contemplating installing one of the straight Windows Servers as a replacement. BackOffice is fine if you want to run Microsoft Exchange, and you want to have some beefed up management tools, but I’ve never been convinced of its utility over the regular Windows Server product. Exchange is a whole trip in itself, (can you say backup and spam control?) and in small offices that would otherwise be the typical customer for BackOffice, I would normally recommend just going with mailboxes from your internet service provider.

Live Communications Server is the Microsoft VoIP back-end product…something I’m interested in looking at; but was unable to install on my Win 2003 BackOffice server.

The Action Pack is a quarterly shipment to Microsoft Partner subscribers, and is suited for small consultancies or businesses with ten or fewer desktops. You get the full office suite with all the goodies like Visio and MapPoint, as well as all the server operating systems. No development tools–that is for the Microsoft Developers Network Subscription, but so many of those are available as trials and free versions that you can get pretty far without spending a lot in that area.

Ekiga, formerly known as Gnomemeeting, is a Linux based softphone/videophone. (A newer version is also available for Windows). They’ve thought of everything… STUN, H.323, SIP, a directory, NAT traversal, you name it.

I’m using version 2.03 that was in the stock installation of Ubuntu Feisty. After a couple hours of fiddling, (at least 30 minutes of which was finding out that my microphone was switched off…) I’ve been able to make test voice calls to what sounds like their Asterisk server. Looking around, it says they are up to about 2.09, and if you want it work full-screen, you have to compile from the source code.