High-def videoconferencing to any device, even on low bandwidth

When a rare 5.9 magnitude earthquake struck the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States in August 2011, many federal offices in the Washington Metro area were shut down, including those of the National Cancer Institute. This was the same day NCI was participating in a remote conference with the Asia-Pacific Network for Global Change Research.

“Our key speakers weren’t available” because of the shutdown, said Todd Cox, NCI's lead computer specialist.

However, by using Cisco's Jabber unified communications mobile client on their laptops, along with Cisco’s TelePresence endpoint software and Web cameras, they were able to give high-definition video presentations from their homes to viewers in more than 20 Pacific Rim countries.

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For NCI, what began as a pilot project to test the feasibility of voice over IP at a new NCI campus has evolved over the past two years into a collaboration platform that enables videoconferencing between almost any networked devices. “That is what is going to catapult health care research,” said Cox, who heads the unified communications group at NCI, a part of the National Institutes of Health.

The any-to-any IP communications technology is not a solution to an existing problem, Cox said. Instead, it is creating new opportunities for scientists in different parts of the country and the world to share information and work together in ways that did not exist before.

“This has grown into a scientific collaboration that I did not envision at the time,” Cox said. “I’m not talking about Skype-quality. This is high-definition video. I don’t care who you are; if you have an IP connection, I can bring you into the fold.”

NCI is using Cisco’s TelePresence product suite, which has itself evolved from a high-end enterprise videoconferencing system to a portfolio of comprehensive endpoint and infrastructure features that enables conferencing over almost any network to almost any device.

From somewhere to anywhere

Cisco built the original large-screen, high-definition TelePresence system from the ground up as a dedicated video conference room for use within the enterprise, not over outside networks, said Chris Coleman, director of cybersecurity for Cisco’s U.S. Public Sector division. “It addressed only the high-end market,” Coleman said.

But in the post-PC world demand is growing for high-definition capabilities for remote and mobile devices. As the market for video grew, the TelePresence portfolio was augmented through the acquisition in 2008 of Jabber Inc., a unified communications application for accessing presence functions, instant messaging, voice and video messaging, and desktop sharing. That was followed by the acquisition in 2010 of Tandberg to supply high-quality endpoint videoconferencing. Tandberg enabled the exchange of video codecs and protocols, which governed communication of multiple systems through a business-to-business gateway.

Cisco’s Video Communications Server handles call set-up for conferences and serves as the secure gateway for outside connections.

When Cisco first built its TelePresence system, videoconferencing was complex, Coleman said.

“This was a game-changer," he said. "You could have the experience of a face-to-face meeting without the expense of travel. The quality of the video is unlike what we’ve seen in the past. It’s not just videoconferencing. It’s beyond that.”

Cox had much the same reaction when he saw that the same platform could be used to enable less traditional conferencing at NCI, such as the remote sharing of microscope views. “It got me thinking this is a major game-changer,” he said. “My customers are all of the researchers, and by extension all cancer patients. Distance and time should never be a hindrance in research.”

The global microscope

NCI’s first steps toward unified communications were taken with an eye toward the institute’s new campus, which is being built in Rockville, Md., north of Washington, D.C. The cancer institute’s clinical programs will remain on the main NIH campus to the south in Bethesda, but more than 2,000 administrative and program staff members will be moved from two other remote sites to the new buildings in Rockville over six months beginning early next year. The facilities are being designed to be environmentally friendly and to foster scientific collaboration.

The original idea was to implement voice over IP, which is often the choice for greenfield implementations because it eliminates the need for separate data and voice networks and allows for easier adds, drops and moves on the network. It also allows the integration of traditional telephone functions with data applications to create a single inbox with easier remote access for e-mail and voice mail. With VOIP, telephone traffic also follows the user rather than being directed to a fixed handset.

A pilot program with 50 users was up and running within a couple of months using Cisco CallManager, which not only sets up calls but can determine the availability of users and enable instant messaging and videoconferencing. Cox soon found himself using the system with other networking and security shops at NIH who were outside of the NCI VOIP pilot program.

“We started to collaborate in ways that weren’t just VOIP,” he said. It also allowed teleworkers to be brought onto the system while Cisco’s 2010 acquisition of Tandberg provided a more complete integration with high-quality video on the desktop.

Cox stretched the application even further when he saw researchers working together at a six-station microscope. It allowed them to share an image of the slide in real time, but only within a single room. “We were able to link the equipment to the video codec unit,” and extend that collaboration to almost any point in the world, he said. “Now, in five minutes we can hook up a video call and show the slide image in real time,” rather than e-mailing a static image of the slide to remote users.

“In the last year, the whole scientific collaboration has taken off,” said Cox, who doesn’t pretend to be an expert in medical research. “I know very little about what the scientists are doing,” he said. “But I understand the technology.”

High-res, no jitter

The technology requires minimal bandwidth, working over almost any kind of connection that is faster than a dial-up modem. “I can get a high resolution video call going with little if any jitter at 384 kilobits/sec.,” he said. The unified communications servers continuously monitor the sessions to increase and decrease compression as needed to provide the best image over available bandwidth. “We have done video over a 3G cellular connection at high definition.”

The system is not proprietary. It allows conferencing equipment from other vendors to be registered with the platform to set up calls. Cisco also has a Jabber cloud service with free client software that a remote user can download to connect with the conference bridge. For the cost of an inexpensive Web camera the user can join in a high-definition videoconference with desktop sharing.

Security also has evolved on the platform. Originally, TelePresence was built with a focus on quality rather than security. “You were relying on the enterprise for security because that’s your controlled space,” Coleman said. Likewise, H.323 and the Session Initiation Protocols, the original protocols for setting up audio and video sessions over IP, were not developed for security. “When they were developed 16 years ago, it was with the mindset that these things were never going to leave the network.”

Today the systems are working across networks and enterprises, and a new protocol, H.460, provides extensions to H.323 for traversing firewalls and network address translators. The Video Communications Server also supports security policies for requiring encryption and will negotiate 128-bit AES encryption for a connection.

The NCI’s unified communications project has moved beyond pilot program to a “full-on production system,” Cox said. There are 400 users now, and that is expected to increase to almost 3,000 when staff begins moving to the new campus in February. “Our goal is to have our entire campus on the system in a few years.”

With the NCI equipped with the expanded TelePresence platform, the ability to collaborate can be extended to almost anyone on an IP network, Cox said. “Which is a big difference from the original conferencing and collaboration tools. It didn’t open it up to everybody. Today, the sky is the limit.”

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