Everybody's in pictures

As video use grows for meetings and training, systems that capture and manage content come into the picture<@VM>Sidebar: Choosing a video system

Think of online video, and you'll likely conjure images of songs, clips and political mudslinging on YouTube. However, videos are also rapidly joining e-mail as a mainstay of business communications.

Agencies at all levels of government, including such heavyweights as the Homeland Security and Defense departments, are increasingly turning to video management tools to get a handle on it.

Industry experts say a desire to avoid travel costs is driving much of the demand ' particularly in the age of $4-a-gallon gasoline ' just as it earlier fueled the purchase of videoconferencing equipment.

However, content is becoming easier to produce in-house so video is being applied to not only executive meetings but also a broader range of content, including training sessions and daily briefings. At the same time, regulatory compliance is boosting the variety and volume of training materials, and security and open-meeting requirements create more uses for video.

The broader goal is to exploit rich media, broadcasting information that everyone in a group needs to know in the most efficient way possible and with an interactivity that strengthens accountability.

Salad days

Steve Vonder Haar, founder and research director at Interactive Media Strategies, likens content management's present state of development to the early days of the Web. 'We're kind of in that pre-Google phase where companies are trying to figure out the most effective, most cost-effective way to help relevant multimedia content bubble to the surface when people most need it.'

Video management systems serve two primary purposes, said Ira Weinstein, partner and senior analyst at consulting firm Wainhouse Research. First, they manage cameras, digital video recorders, storage devices and other infrastructure elements to ensure quality and reliability. Second, they handle content management, which can include recording or capturing video and computer data such as PowerPoint presentations, packaging it for streaming via the network, and archiving it for later viewing. The systems can also measure the popularity of content or certify that employees have viewed mandatory videos.

'The first half makes it deployable,' Weinstein said. 'The second part makes it leverageable.'

With few exceptions, these tools are network appliances with inputs for video cameras, audio devices and PCs if their purpose is content creation. The resulting package is typically a streaming video played live or afterward from a file downloaded to popular media players such as Apple's Quicktime or Microsoft's Windows Media Player.

Other appliances come with Ethernet and other network connections for managing the video after it's on the network.

What all these products have in common is managing video on internal, enterprise networks. Don't confuse them with video-editing and rich-media development software such as Adobe Premiere Pro and Apple Final Cut Pro, which focus more on the details of production. Other well-known vendors, especially Akamai, address performance of public Web sites and the Internet.

Mandatory viewing, at your leisure

The number of vendors with industrial-strength video content management programs can be counted on two hands.

The two most direct competitors ' Accordent Technologies and Sonic Foundry ' emphasize video capture and management, and both have numerous government customers.

Another vendor, Qumu, formerly called Media Publisher, goes beyond these two to include more management of the network and its store of digital assets.

The Western Area Power Administration, an agency of the Energy Department, uses the Accordent Media Management System, Capture Station and related products as part of an effort to reduce administrative time, which had reached nearly a third of staff hours, said Jim Potts, the agency's regional information officer.

'We wanted to find ways to push that number down below 20 percent,' Potts said. The Accordent system helps automate the administrative side of training, including sending e-mail reminders, issuing certifications and reporting to DOE.

Another vendor, VBrick, touts itself as an end-to-end solution with a broad line of appliances. DOD uses VBrick to help troops monitor sites and spot threatening activity.

John Bowman, the company's director of federal sales, said other agencies have similar applications. 'I've seen more [requests for information] this year than in the previous three.'

Starbak also covers the full range but does it with appliances that create a content-delivery network, which normally requires dedicated hardware from a source such as Cisco. Starbak's system can capture videoconferencing for incorporation into rich-media presentations, said Greg Casale, the company's chief executive officer.

DHS uses Starbak to deliver TV news programs to desktop PCs and record and distribute depositions in immigration cases.

The two leading videoconferencing vendors, Tandberg and Polycom, also play tangentially in this market with content management servers ' although Weinstein said their interest is in making their videoconferencing offerings more valuable by extending the life of the content created on them.

Analysts and vendors say that rather than outsourcing production to a professional producer, agencies are recognizing the value of user-generated content, much of it made on their existing videoconferencing hardware.

The content explosion is causing a needle-in-the haystack problem. 'If you're going to create a lot of content, you have to make sure your people can find it,' said John Pollard, technical product manager at Sonic Foundry.

The search technology behind video management tools has a long way to go, observers say. You need a mix of workarounds because video ' unlike Web pages, word-processing files and structured databases ' isn't an inherently searchable medium.

Content creation and capture tools let you attach searchable text labels, indexes and synopses to files, and some people hire stenographers to transcribe presentations.

'Everything on that presentation that is being included as text will be ingested as time-stamped metadata,' said Mike Newman, CEO at Accordent. 'It's essentially triangulation.'

Search is the only real complaint Rogulja Wolf, digital/streaming operations and content manager at Sandia National Laboratories, has against Sonic Foundry's Mediasite. Sandia has used Mediasite for more than five years to deliver training and collaboration. 'You have to be pretty specific in your request,' Wolf said. 'It isn't as forgiving as some things.' Regardless, he praised Mediasite's ease of implementation and use. He also cited significant savings from reduced travel costs for trainers and trainees and reduced production costs for labor and materials.

Thematic portals containing content organized by topic provide another indirect way to find the information in videos, Vonder Haar said. In theory, text-to-speech software should be able to generate searchable keywords automatically, but with recognition rates of barely 90 percent, it has so far played a limited role.

Every expert interviewed for this article offered a standard piece of advice that might seem trite if they weren't talking about video, a notorious bandwidth hog and helpdesk burden. 'Perform a complete analysis of how it fits into your system and every aspect of it,' Paluru said.Checklist

1. Hammer out a consensus about what the system should do. Everyone should be on board.



2. Ask your network operations center to analyze your bandwidth and network hardware carefully to see if they can support worst-case video loads.




3. Understand your needs for compression and media-player software, such as MPEG-2, MPEG-4 and the emerging H.264.




4. Video can quickly become a 24/7- operation so you'll need a help desk that also works around the clock.




5. Make sure the system integrates easily with your Active Directory or Lightweight Directory Access Protocol, which are needed to control who can create and access content.




6. Ask the vendor to describe the steps required of both content creators and users. Do PowerPoint and other PC files need to be uploaded ahead of time, or can they just blend in seamlessly with the video?




7. Think carefully about who will be allowed to create content and put it on the network. An overly liberal approach could generate more traffic than you can handle.




8. See if the system reports all of the usage information ' who watched what, when and how long ' at the level of detail you need.




9. Go into picking a system with eyes wide open about video's likely effect on your network. 'It's ruthless traffic ' it's brutal,' said Ira Weinstein, partner and senior analyst at Wainhouse Research. 'It's a fire hose of traffic, not a garden hose. If it fails, it's going to fail spectacularly and in front of a lot of important people.'

More resources

Accordent Technologies

www.accordent.com

Interactive Media Strategies

www.interactivemediastrategies.com

Polycom

www.polycom.com

Qumu

www.qumu.com

Starbak

www.starbak.com

Tandberg

www.tandberg.com

VBrick Systems

www.vbrick.com

Verint Systems

www.verint.com

Wainhouse Research

www.wainhouse.com

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