Polycom aims browser-based cloud videoconferencing at enterprises, carriers

Users will be able to launch calls with RealPresence CloudAXIS Suite through Facebook, Skype and other platforms

Polycom plans to break down one more set of barriers to videoconferencing early next year with a cloud-based software platform that can set up sessions with anyone who uses Facebook, Skype, or certain other online services.

The platform, called RealPresence CloudAXIS Suite, can deliver a variety of added features such as whiteboarding within participants' browsers along with the videoconference. Other participants can be on dedicated videoconferencing systems from Polycom and other vendors, including Cisco, the company says. CloudAXIS is to be announced on Monday and delivered in the first quarter of next year.

The CloudAXIS Suite will allow both large enterprises and service providers to offer what Polycom calls Video Collaboration as a Service (VCaaS) on private or public clouds. Those services can be scaled up to support up to millions of simultaneous participants, said Rick Levenson, Polycom's group vice president of Unified Communications Endpoints.

CloudAXIS could make it easier to manage videoconferencing and to engage infrequent users and those from outside organizations, said Carlos Carrasco, corporate director of business development and innovation at Orlando Health. The operator of nine hospitals in central Florida uses Polycom video systems now for internal meetings and telemedicine. Those systems rely on native applications, which need to be distributed, managed and updated.

Orlando Health uses video to link doctors with patients when they can't be at their bedsides, Carrasco said. For example, with an assistant on site, a remote neurologist can run through a series of tests for strokes and watch the patient's responses. Often the doctor connects in on the spot from a tablet.

"Doing video gives you a better chance of selecting the right patients for further intervention," Carrasco said. Sometimes the company calls in specialists from other health organizations or doctors who don't often use videoconferencing.

"Now, we can just push them a link and they can jump in," Carrasco said. He spoke about CloudAXIS without having used it but said he's familiar with its features.

Setting up meeting participants with client software is a major hurdle to the use of videoconferencing, analysts say. CloudAXIS is designed to get around that problem by using standard browsers, with only a one-time download of a small plug-in. The user interface that pops up is the same regardless of the browser, the client device or the social network that delivers the invitation. That interface is a new one that Polycom developed to run on all platforms, from room systems down to smartphones, Levenson said.

To organize a video session, the leader can send links to participants through common online channels such as Skype, Facebook and Google Talk. When the users click on the links, the Polycom interface comes up in a browser window along with any other elements used in the session, such as a whiteboard. The back-end systems can adapt the quality of the session to the screen size and power of the user's device, Polycom says.

Polycom will make CloudAXIS work through social-networking platforms by tapping into open APIs (application programming interfaces), Levenson said.

Even though there's a plug-in required, there's a world of difference between that and making users install an application, said Ira Weinstein, an analyst at Wainhouse Research. For one thing, installing an application usually requires administrator rights that the end user may not have. Combining browser-based access with a consistent user interface should also help administrators, he said. "I can give you help when you have problems, because we're in the same UI," Weinstein said.

As new technologies such as Polycom's make it easier for more employees to take part, videoconferencing may become a regular part of work, said Forrester Research analyst Henry Dewing.

"The utilization of desktop video in the daily lives of information workers is a key tipping point for the video industry," Dewing said. "That will then mean IT will be expected to supply that, just like they're expected to supply a telephone or an email address."

Also on Monday, Polycom is announcing a software-based MCU (multipoint control unit), the Polycom RealPresence Collaboration Server 800s, which adapts video streams for different types of end systems participating in a call.

Traditional MCUs are appliances with large numbers of DSPs (digital signal processors) to convert the video. Software-based MCUs can run on standard x86 servers and be moved around in virtualized environments, Levenson said.

Moving away from expensive, dedicated MCUs should help enterprises and service providers to scale up their videoconferencing systems more efficiently, Weinstein said. "This thing is chewing on video all day long, for every participant," Weinstein said.

To implement its new software-based approach, Polycom is using SVC (Scalable Video Coding), a standard that offers a more efficient way to deliver different quality levels of video. Polycom says using SVC boosts the video capacity of its RealPresence Platform by three times.

The big product rollout on Monday also includes a variety of new video endpoints, including the RealPresence Group Series and Ultra-Slim RealPresence VisualEdge Executive Desktop. Polycom is also updating its RealPresence software for PCs and mobile devices.

Newer videoconferencing vendors such as Vidyo and Blue Jeans Network have already taken a software-based approach, and analysts believe the industry as a whole, including Cisco Systems, is moving in this direction. But by integrating the new technology with its existing systems, Polycom can help to set itself apart, Weinstein said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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