Ever since our company was acquired nearly four years ago, I’ve wondered what the long-term plan for traditional AV (audiovisual) services was going to be. If you look at an IT business pie chart, AV is a tiny sliver compared to giants like telephony, managed services, and cloud. At times, I’ve felt frustrated that so much opportunity to marry our technology with other lines of business goes ignored. And other times, I wonder if I’m a dinosaur clinging to an extinct idea of what a meeting space should be.
The Way Things Were
Before I get into the cloud, I want to take a look back at how I got here.
When I started in AV 16 years ago, videoconferencing was already cemented as a cornerstone of daily business. TANDBERG and Polycom reigned supreme in that landscape, and the ITU was working on interoperability for things like firewall traversals. It wasn’t uncommon in this period for customers to rely on the availability of ISDN while gradually moving everything over to H.323 systems.
Moving away from dedicated ISDN circuits to ubiquitous IP networks made perfect sense. Broadband Internet access was readily available and getting progressively cheaper every year. Video dialing over ISDN had its unique problems anyway: sometimes not all channels would connect (for any number of reasons outside of your control) and the call would degrade. All you could do was hang up, try again, and hope you’d get a different route through the PSTN.
The alternative was placing calls over the public Internet which had zero assurances about packet loss or latency. It was typically best–but not great–effort.
This was all CIF-resolution video and G.722 audio and I remember thinking it looked and sounded amazing. It was fluid, there weren’t many network glitches, and it just worked most of the time.
Technology doesn’t sit still.
Faster hardware meant advanced codecs like H.264 could be used that compressed video better and allowed higher resolutions to be transmitted. Suddenly there was a race to provide a low-cost, HD-quality hardware codec that could replace the aging analog systems of the previous generation. LifeSize exploded onto the scene with exactly that, and TANDBERG and Polycom were forced to play catch-up. The release of the C-series and HDX codecs brought everyone into the Full HD era of videoconferencing.
Typical MSRP for one of these devices was anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 depending on the model and options purchased, so it was no small investment. And our industry really wanted to put a device on every person’s desk.
This was also the age of integration. If you were going to put that much money into one device, you wanted to put it somewhere it captured a lot of attention and use: boardrooms, executive offices, auditoriums, etc. It was accompanied by multiple displays, retractable screens, audio systems, and other things that necessitated a programmable control system. The company I worked for at the time built an application layer on top of the T.120 protocol so you could remotely control someone else’s room system from your own. Of course, that meant we got to sell you two systems instead of just the one!
But the dream of putting videoconferencing on every person’s desk wasn’t going away…
Somewhat parallel to the story of hardware video codecs are software-based codecs. I think the first video call I did from a computer might have used Skype, but before long there were a number of ways to call someone as long as you had a webcam available.
Microsoft (ever the lumbering, sleepy giant) bought Skype and started adapting it to their Office platform. Office Communicator became Lync became Skype for Business became Teams. With each successive generation, it’s a software product that tries to do more and more. The whole concept of Unified Communications is accurately depicted by Teams: I can see if somebody is available, send them a quick message, launch into an audio or video call, and collaborate on a file while remotely viewing their desktop. And the fan on my laptop screams the entire time I try to do any of this.
Is this better than what came before it? Solutions like Teams make video more accessible to a wider audience, so we are likely communicating more than we did. But I think the quality of that communication has dropped sharply. I can’t go 5 minutes without interruption from any number of people in my organization. Is that Teams’ fault, or maybe we need to be taught better business etiquette before we’re handed these tools? Or it might be loneliness caused by the work-from-home mandate. What I really need is an environment away from the computer where I can have light conversation with coworkers and not be staring at deadlines on my calendar the entire time.
I would be a fool to pine for the days of $30,000 hardware that only a select few are allowed to use. The cloud is here and has democratized video across the board. That’s ultimately a good thing; we’re just learning how to adapt as mere humans do. We’ll get there. And maybe I’m speaking from an older generation that has a harder time “getting it” but it would be foolish to turn away from the next stage of communication.
One thing I know for certain is (and this takes the wind out of sales people’s sails):
The cloud is just servers running somewhere else that you don’t have to personally worry about managing.
The concept of a physical device sitting in an equipment rack that requires firmware updates and maintenance just sort of fades into the background. I think this is what makes selling cloud services so attractive: the customer can focus on their business application, sales focuses on the recurring revenue stream, and some poor engineer worries about how to keep it all running 24/7. And on top of that, it ends up being more cost effective than the old way of provisioning a device dedicated to a single user or space.
I learned a bit from reading Cloudflare’s What is the Cloud? guide. Here’s a synopsis of the different cloud setups based on customer needs:
- Private – a physical server, network, or even whole data center is dedicated to one organization
- Public – hardware is virtualized and shared by multiple organizations
- Hybrid – services are divided between private and public, maybe even servers that are still on-premise
- Multicloud – uses services from multiple cloud providers to gain better resiliency and availability
- Containers – partitioning a single virtualized machine into many but they all share the same kernel
Hybrid and Multicloud seems to be where the money can be made as a service provider, and I think that’s where my current company puts most of its attention.
One of the problems you face when you outsource all your servers and infrastructure is you’re at the mercy of service outages. Microsoft recently had another outage that caused parts of Azure and Teams to drop offline. Depending on how this impacts your business, you might have lost money for every minute you couldn’t access your applications in Azure.
Going Multicloud–where you spread your infrastructure around multiple services–means you can weather through outages like this that may only affect one cloud provider. The complexity skyrockets because now you’re spreading yourself across different platforms, but that’s where a vendor can help guide the process or even manage the whole thing for you. For instance, we offer a product in the Disaster-Recovery-as-a-Service (DRaaS) space and it lends itself quite well to the Multicloud architecture.
Cybersecurity becomes a huge concern too, once you start placing your infrastructure in publicly accessible servers.
I don’t know how well LinkedIn job postings represents the market at large, but I wanted to do a simple comparison between AV job openings and cloud job openings.
Audiovisual has 2,750 results with job titles like:
- Consultant/Architect – sales channel executive, UC experience required
- Audiovisual Specialist – on-site support, entry level
- Audiovisual Systems Engineer – design conferencing spaces, CTS, CCNA, AWS, Azure
- Audiovisual Project Manager – PMP and CTS preferred
- Audiovisual Technician – some installation, some engineering
Cloud has 331,388 results with job titles like:
- Azure Cloud Specialist – Azure DF, Azure Functions, MS SQL Server, Python
- Senior Cloud Engineer – DevOps, Linux, programming
- Enterprise Cloud Architect – Google Cloud Platform
- Cloud Architect – Azure, AWS, GCP
- Security Engineer, Cloud – identify potential risks, model configurations and code, mitigation options
I can’t see many salary ranges, but most of the AV postings seem to be entry level while the cloud postings seem to be senior level. And there’s the fact that cloud has roughly 120x more job openings to choose from.
So What’s Next?
I can’t stop my skin from crawling every time I hear someone say “the cloud.” I’ve accepted that, but I need to train myself not to have such an immediate, negative reaction.
Sales people can go on and on about “putting everything in the cloud” like it’s a panacea for every problem. It’s an easy sales pitch now, but there are talented engineers behind the scenes making sure those applications work reliably and business doesn’t slow to a crawl. And as I’ve learned, there are different topologies that could involve a lot of private, on-premise equipment that is supplemented with public servers. It isn’t quite so easy a solution once you start looking beneath the surface.
I hope there’s a future where we merge the old experience with the new. I can’t get over how much better the communication experience was 16 years ago when I first saw enterprise-grade video conferencing. We need to bring that level of quality back to our Teams and WebEx meetings. Because right now, the experience isn’t always good: laptop mics pick up every keystroke, there are distracting environmental factors like poor lighting or background noise, and sometimes network problems continually kick people off the call.
What if we try to split the difference? I’d really like a personal device that could be used to join video meetings so that my laptop doesn’t struggle with the other work I’m trying to do. Not to be a shill for Crestron, but I think their Flex Phones are exactly what I’ve wanted; something to bring that old conferencing experience to the cloud.
What does this mean for traditional AV spaces though if everyone is sitting at their desks on their videophones? Even now, when I’m working in the office, I’d still prefer to jump into a conference room if it’s available rather than sit at my desk. I don’t think I’m alone in that feeling either. The conference room is a different environment. I’ve noticed I pay more attention to the meeting rather than getting distracted by my open calendar. The equipment in the conference room will typically be better than what I have available at my desk, too. We’ve got big TVs, touchpanels, laptop inputs, comfy chairs, shades, a large table to spread things out on, you name it. But if the conference room isn’t an available option, I’d definitely like to have something nicer right at my desk.
I really hope we don’t forget that people working in the cloud still need an accessible space to get them there. The servers may be virtualized, but we’re still humans, and damnit, I’d like to have at least one conference call this week where I’m not hearing a wicked echo from the other side.