Videoconferencing has become relatively commonplace within many organisations, but it still has a number of limitations that render it less useful than it could otherwise be.
Telepresence – essentially a high-definition (HD), high-fidelity form of videoconferencing – is set to close the gap between meeting in person and meeting virtually.
By providing full HD images (at 1920x1080 resolution) at 1:1 size on large (65-inch) plasma screens, telepresence is able to provide a hyper-realistic conferencing experience that is qualitatively different – and vastly superior –to a standard videoconferencing solution.
At Dimension Data we pride ourselves on our technical ability and our leadership in the videoconferencing field.
Our close partnership with Cisco has enabled us to build an unrivalled understanding of Cisco’s new TelePresence system and we decided to install two fully-fledged end-points (one each in our Sydney and Melbourne offices) with a number of smaller units planned for our other Australian offices.
With our senior management teams split between our Sydney and Melbourne offices, TelePresence has great potential to both cut down on our interstate travel at the same time increasing the productive time of our most valuable management resources.
It also gives us direct, hands-on experience with the technology and demonstrates to our clients that we’re confident in the technologies we install and support.
As a participant in Cisco’s EFT (Early Field Trial) programme, Dimension Data has access to the latest products and solutions before their commercial release. This gives us crucial insights into the products and even some small degree of input into their final development.
In the case of Cisco’s TelePresence solution, it also meant that we were able to become the first integrator in Australia with in-house TelePresence capabilities, with our staff receiving their training direct from Cisco in the USA.
Cisco’s intention is to produce a globally-standardised telepresence experience, and this means that every element of the videoconferencing environment – from room size and acoustics to wall and carpet colours, lighting and air conditioning – is tightly controlled.
Every TelePresence room must be audited by Cisco to ensure it complies with its stringent standards and, while this adds cost and a degree of complexity to any deployment, it also ensures that the user experience is of a consistently high quality, regardless of the physical locations involved.
With our TelePresence implementation we did a considerable amount of work on our network, as the system’s Quality of Service (Q0S) requirements dictate aspects such as dedicated bandwidth, certified telecommunications carriers and integration with existing communications infrastructure and applications, including Microsoft Exchange and Microsoft Outlook.
For any organisation considering a Cisco TelePresence deployment, here are a number of best-practice recommendations, gleaned from our hands-on experience with our own system:
Do your research. Obtain a broad-spectrum understanding of the business requirements of TelePresence to establish parameters such as locations, type or users, type of meetings, number of users in each location, number of locations in each meeting and so forth. This will provide the framework for network, end-point type, infrastructure requirements, scheduling and ongoing management and maintenance methodologies.
Appoint the necessary staff. We recommend three key positions: an overall project manager, a technical lead (we actually had two of these, one each in Sydney and Melbourne) and a facilities manager, who handles the system from a client perspective.
This includes managing bookings and enquiries, compiling usage statistics and so on. You’ll find that having a single point of contact greatly simplifies management and improves the user experience.
Room selection. It is important to select a room that is suited for TelePresence. Each TelePresence end-point has its own set of requirements, from boardroom-style units all the way down to the executive personal systems.
Considerations include ambient noise levels, HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air conditioning) location, power, room acoustics, lighting and wall, ceiling and floor materials.
Maintaining a consistent theme across all TelePresence rooms will provide you with a true “in person virtual meeting room” experience. This includes wall colours, room adornments, and lighting.
Audit your network. Once you have the proposed locations for each end-point, the next step is to audit (and if necessary, upgrade) the network path that will connect them. Parameters to audit include end-to-end packet loss, jitter and latency, so it’s a good idea to benchmark the network against Cisco’s recommended guidelines.
The Cisco TelePresence Solutions Reference Network Design is largely vendor-agnostic reference guide that can be used to assist this process. Cisco TelePresence is one of the few HD video systems that can operate via dedicated carriage or on a converged network.
If the converged path is your preference, a couple of additional steps are necessary including bandwidth capacity planning, selecting carriage that supports both prioritised traffic and QoS modelling for TelePresence and other latency-sensitive, business-critical traffic in your network.
Prepare your infrastructure. When deploying TelePresence we recommend a phased approach. The first phase should encompass any activities that are hard to forecast in terms of time, such as room and network preparation. Some locations will need to be upgraded for carrier and/or equipment requirements, and the lead times for these will vary.
Some building works also require council and regulatory approvals –and room remediation procedures (lighting fixtures, air conditioners, etc) may have lengthy lead times. We had special compliance requirements for the Sydney installation as our office is located in the heritage-listed Bushells Building in The Rocks.
Optimise, then deploy. Once the carriage, network infrastructure and rooms are in place, we recommend you optimise your end-to-end network configurations for TelePresence and install the TelePresence central infrastructure (Cisco CallManager, Cisco Transport Manager, Bridge, Gateway, etc). Network path assessments between proposed end-points can help in ratifying network readiness for TelePresence.
Once this is done you are ready to install each TelePresence end-point. Ensure a sound acceptance testing document is drawn up to test network performance during TelePresence sessions, ensuring correct end-point operation and overall system functionality.
Have a well thought-out communications plan. Once it is all in place, you want your stakeholders to understand the new technology and how it works, how best to use the system and what the process is for accessing it. A ‘user guidelines’ communication can be especially helpful in this regard.
Feedback is vital! Telepresence’s key driver is the user experience, so you need to know if it’s meeting expectations. Make sure you have a mechanism in place to receive and review feedback.
Measure your results. On the business side, you need to demonstrate the cost savings and rapid ROI that telepresence can achieve. Put mechanisms in place to measure the benefits in terms of productivity gains, process efficiency and travel costs (at Dimension Data, our system saved us nearly $24,000 in travel costs in just its first five weeks of operation).
Dimension Data’s Sukhomoy Basuroy, Technical Consultant, contributed to this article.
Opinion: Best practices for deploying Cisco TelePresence
By Anthony Stevens, CIO of Dimension Data on Jul 2, 2008 3:16PM