Video's role in the enterprise accelerates

Video, in the form of video on demand or streaming video, is becoming the training vehicle of choice for many corporations. Find out how WAN optimization and content delivery mechanisms can keep video from hogging the network.

To comply with regulations, corporate policies, and operational guidelines, organizations need a well-trained workforce. While the need is well-understood, keeping a workforce well-trained is a challenge in an environment with changing standards and technologies, accompanied by significant employee churn. To exacerbate the issue, enterprises are more distributed than ever, with over 90% of employees working outside the headquarters location, according to Nemertes Research.

Training and communicating with this changing, geographically-distributed workforce is difficult, from both cost and logistical perspectives. Face-to-face training is expensive, in both real and opportunity costs. Furthermore, training in person cannot be done frequently enough to offset employee churn and rapid changes in policies and procedures. For this reason, many organizations turn to video training.

A few automakers have shipped and maintained entire libraries of video tapes at every corporate location (plant, distribution, dealer) around the world. This is, obviously, a logistical challenge, but also -- as the amount of training content and the rate of change increases -- keeping materials up-to-date borders on nightmarish. Furthermore, these automakers discovered that the library was, um…lightly used.

When dealing with training mandated by regulation, insurance policies, or when for CPE credit, organizations must be able to audit training completion for each employee. For all of the reasons stated above, many organizations are streaming training and corporate communications video content to the desktop.

There are two kinds of streaming video: video on demand (VoD), which is pre-recorded content that can be viewed whenever the user wants (e.g., procedural training), and live streaming, which is a "live" event viewed by entire groups at one time (e.g., corporate communication). VoD and live streaming have different characteristics and present slightly different challenges, but both are high-bandwidth applications that can consume all available bandwidth. Consider that for reasonable quality, video must consume 128 kbps per stream. For an acceptable user experience, video cannot abide significant latency variability or packet loss (resulting in delays and choppy viewing). For live streaming events, these issues are even more critical, because of the sheer number of simultaneous streams. This bandwidth-hungry nature can disrupt all other traffic on the WAN -- even a T1 needs only 12 users to participate in a live streaming event to saturate the network link.

Despite these issues, organizations are choosing streaming video as the preferred choice for many types of training and corporate communications. Dealing with the infrastructure impacts has become the key issue in ensuring a positive user experience and in keeping other applications running smoothly.

Read more in Bandwidth for video over IP may skyrocket

Organizations may choose to upgrade their WAN circuits to address the issue. Obviously, this is expensive, and still may not cope with spikes in bandwidth usage caused by multi-user live streaming events. Furthermore, remote offices still may have latency issues that cannot be addressed with additional bandwidth.

For other projects, enterprises are examining WAN optimization appliances as a way to accelerate a variety of applications. Some of the improvements that WAN optimization can make are truly impressive (such as 30:1 bandwidth reduction) for the applications they support. Many appliances use compression to reduce the amount of traffic on the WAN. Unfortunately, video, as it travels across the WAN, is inherently not compressible. Caching, on the other hand, can help, but the difficulty is in managing it properly. Indeed, some readers may remember the enterprise content delivery network market heating up a few years ago -- but ultimately, the value proposition was not appropriate for many enterprises.

In 2006, there's an interesting alternative. Application delivery infrastructure combines the features of a WAN optimization solution with those of a content delivery network in a single solution. Such a solution offers a wide range of benefits, enabling organizations to achieve a variety of compliance and cost savings, while maintaining business processes across a globally distributed workforce.

To successfully enable video applications, solutions should have mechanisms to address the challenges presented by both VoD and live streaming video. For VoD, solutions should be able to push videos out to be stored near the user, at line speed (as opposed to viewing speed). Once the content is on the user's LAN, viewing consumes no WAN bandwidth. Furthermore, there should be an automated way of distributing and maintaining video content in advance of users' requests for it. For live streaming, the live nature of the event precludes any sort of caching during the event, but "splitting" can limit the WAN impact by aggregating multiple users' participation requests into a single stream. So a single stream flows over the WAN, but is served to multiple users at the remote site (without upgrading the network for multicast).

There are other requirements (such as audit and report on use, setting priorities and limits on network use for all applications), but, fundamentally, organizations should start thinking about combining the requirements for successful video deployments with other acceleration efforts like WAN optimization for leverage and maximum ROI. The goal: distributed employees get trained in a timely fashion, with current information -- without breaking the bank or killing the network.

About the author:
As the product marketing manager with Blue Coat, Chris King leads strategy and go-to-market initiatives for Blue Coat's distributed proxy solution.

Prior to joining Blue Coat in June 2004, King spent more than eight years as an information technology analyst for META Group and managed an international network for Securities Registration Depository for Ernst & Young. An internationally recognized expert on information security, King has consulted with hundreds of large IT organizations, spoken before a variety of audiences, and is often quoted in trade and business press. 

This was last published in June 2006

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