Cisco Systems Inc. has decided to become a supplier of
video-streaming and videoconferencing technology in hopes of giving business customers
another reason to invest in data infrastructure.
Cisco believes the consumer market for broadband services
is too small to merit investment of time and energy in video products for that sector.
But it also thinks it has a way to knock down the remaining
barriers to wide-scale use of video streaming and videoconferencing in the business world,
said Heather Rose, group manager for product marketing in Cisco's video
"Unlike the public networks, corporate networks are
fully managed with sufficient bandwidth to support delivery of high-quality video to every
desktop," Rose said. "At the same time, streaming and conferencing technology
has matured to the point where companies see that they can derive real benefits from the
use of video."
Dataquest Inc. analyst Sujata Ramnarayan, who was briefed
on Cisco's new Internet-protocol-video products, agreed that the moment has arrived
for much wider use of video in streaming and conferencing applications over corporate
networks. But she disputed the notion that Cisco's move was a big step in the
"I wouldn't say that what Cisco is doing is
tremendously important, but it helps," Ramnarayan said. "Having such a huge
share of the embedded base of routers, they're in a position to offer management
tools that facilitate the end-to-end operating process."
Cisco, with various vendor partners, is focusing on two key
issues that must be resolved in order to make high-quality video an important component in
corporate communications, training, worker collaboration and other key operational areas.
They are the need for software meant for high-end applications, rather than mass-market
applications, and the need for support at the network-systems level to ensure reliable
end-to-end performance in video applications.
"We are driving business adoption of IP-based video by
investing in products and technologies that make it as sharp and reliable as a TV
image," said Jack Bradley, general manager at Cisco's video Internet-services
Where streaming is concerned, Cisco is releasing version
3.0 of what it calls "IP/TV" server software, which is built on the
"Windows Media Technologies" platform from Microsoft Corp. It is also
introducing a new line of broadcast servers, the "IP/TV 3400."
The streaming software -- which supports MPEG-1, 2 and 4
and multicasting -- is designed to maximize the high-bandwidth capabilities of corporate
networks, where video can be delivered at speeds well in excess of 500 kilobits per
second, Rose said.
Windows Media-based streaming is designed to accommodate
the hazards of packet navigation over public networks, she noted. In contrast, IP/TV taps
into the latest IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) standards such as "IP
Multicast," "Real-Time Streaming Protocol" and "Real-Time Transport
Protocol" to add a higher level of quality-of-service management.
"The key point is that the IP/TV protocols tend to
work best with managed routers and switches, whereas the protocols Microsoft uses assume
that the routers and switches across the public Internet aren't going to be
cooperating with each other in a particular streaming session," Rose explained.
"By building on Windows Media, we're able to control both the Microsoft server
and our server, allowing the user to pull up whichever server and client options are most
appropriate for the media being streamed."
The broadcast-server hardware allows the company or an ASP
(application-service provider) to approach video streaming on a distributed-networking
basis, avoiding the potential congestion from distributing video-on-demand from a single
point in the network, Rose added.
Potential for video over high-bandwidth, managed networks
was tunefully demonstrated in early October. Cisco and the University of Oregon cooperated
to multicast 14 hours of live concert programming and backstage interviews from the United
Nations' "NetAid" event to more than 150 universities around the world via
"Internet2," the "next-generation Internet."
Students watched broadcast-quality concert images from
dormitory rooms or campus cyber cafés, using Cisco IP/TV client software, UO director of
campus computing Joanne Hugi said.
"Sending vast amounts of audio and video information
over the Internet to large numbers of individuals is where the business world is
headed," Hugi said. "With everything connecting to the network these days,
it's fairly obvious that IP video is about to take off, and networking companies like
Cisco are going to play a major role in making that happen."
Work remains to be done to ensure that multicasting
operates smoothly over a network supported by routers from different vendors, Ramnarayan
said, adding, "Cisco is trying to do something about that."
Cisco's videoconferencing initiative will make it
easier to manage new products coming on the market from vendors specializing in
IP-conferencing devices and software, Ramnarayan said. "There needs to be a central
point of control that's compatible with the overall network environment, which is
difficult for end-point vendors to do," she added.
Cisco's move into support for videoconferencing with a
product family labeled "IP/VC" stems from customers wanting help to ensure
reliable performance in IP-based videoconferences, Rose said. "We got into this
because customers really want to use this technology if the performance quality
they're looking for is there," she noted.
Cisco is tapping technology provided by RADVision Inc. to
establish a gateway interface between the IP-telecommunications domain defined by
International Telecommunications Union standard "H.323" and the legacy
videoconferencing environment based on ISDN (integrated services digital network) under
ITU standard "H.320."
The IP/VC product group also includes gatekeeper and proxy
software to manage sessions and QOS, and a multipoint-control unit that allows
participants in multiple locations to join a videoconference with full, real-time