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Talking Communities News » 2008» September
    
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Archive for September, 2008

Technology: Where to Spend your Money, if at All

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

There is a common misperception that spending more money on technology will yield less technical problems. I recently had two experiences that epitomize this reality:

I have had the opportunity lately to do some work with the local university here in town, and specifically in their Distance Education classrooms. The university is equipped with Polycom compressed video units and audio-conferencing systems. The professor, located about 60 miles away, sat in front of a camera and was broadcast across a T3 connection to the classroom. Likewise, the classroom was broadcast back to the professor, who at any time could switch from broadcasting himself, to broadcasting his local students, to broadcasting his computer screen, which usually just meant a PowerPoint slide. All of this was displayed on the wall from projectors mounted in the ceiling. The whole system, centralized at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, cost over $20,000 to implement, not to mention the cost of maintaining it. The Internet connection was run through dedicated lines provided by WiscNet, with bandwidth “guaranteed” by the Cisco routers specifically for the Distance Education classrooms. Multiple tests were done prior to the start of the school year, coordinated by the CIO in Madison.

With all of this, you would expect some pretty impressive technological results, right? Well, as of the first class, the quality of the transmissions appeared more like a poor Youtube webcam video than a high-tech video-conference. The video was shifting from 2 to 12 frames per second and freezing for up to 5 seconds at a time. At one point in a class, the PowerPoint slides remained frozen for almost 15 minutes until they magically suddenly started appearing again. Statistics showed over 100,000 packets dropped over the course of a single class transmission. And audio sounded like a cheap cell phone going through a tunnel.

Cutting-edge technology, competent technicians, and the best Internet connection available, and it still had serious problems. Clearly, money does not purchase you technology that never fails, or at least has issues. However, I mentioned the one component here, which is worth the cost, and that is the competency of the technicians that support the technology. Within a couple days and a few rounds of tests, the issue was discovered. The culprit? A $2 cable from one of the routers in the middle of the path between the sites. With the cable replaced, the quality jumped to the expected level instantly.

The second experience I had is with one of our own competitors, the well-known WebEx. I recently participated in a conference over WebEx with our chief developer in Brazil, myself in Wisconsin, and two development partners in California. I was accessing the meeting on a Dell Dimension with 1 GB of Ram. Not the most robust computer in the world, but certainly, I thought, good enough for this participant role. I noticed immediately when the WebEx application launched that my computer started running at sloth speed. The computer became basically unusable while using WebEx. I checked Task Manager and saw the WebEx app using 70% to 100% of my CPU, leaving virtually nothing for any other multi-tasking. Meanwhile, Keith, in California was remotely accessing our chief developer’s computer in Brazil, which happened to be an Intel dual-core Vista machine with 4 GB of Ram. Surely, there should be no problems here, but about 20 minutes into the meeting, the application crashed, causing our developer’s machine to freeze, require an “end task” from within Task Manager and knocking him out of the meeting.

Clearly, even the industry’s leader, and one of the most expensive services in web-conferencing, is far from a guarantee of no technical issues. Imagine when you have 20 or 30 or 100 different computers, on different Internet connections, running different operating systems and different configurations, how many things can, and almost inevitably go wrong. The truth is, no matter how expensive e product or service in the technology field is, you will always have technical issues to deal with.

So why pay more? Well, if you know you are going to have some technical issues with this stuff no matter who you go with, then it behooves you to find the service which best handles your technical issues, doesn’t it? I mean, in the end you are not buying the technology, you are buying the service. So you should buy the one that meets your needs, and best responds to your concerns and difficulties when you have them.

In the end, technology is just circuits and code that when put together create a tool that is supposed to help you do a job. Sure, not all tools are the same, so make sure you buy a tool that will get your job done. But if you want to know whether you are getting your money’s worth in service, look at the people behind the tools and see if they are accessible and helpful. See if they go the extra mile in trying to get your specific issue resolved. Because when the tool is not working, you are going to have to deal with the people, and that’s when you know whether the money you have been paying has been going into making their product better or into make your productivity better, or both.

To try Talking Communities web conferencing for free check out http://www.talkingcommunities.com

How Web-Conferencing Technology Really Works

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

As part of my job as President of Talking Communities, I oversee our tech support department. We don’t get a lot of tech support calls, but we have a few every day. Most of them are simply a “training” issue in which people do not know how to do something in the conferencing system, but some are truly technical challenges. Sometimes, we are able to find problems on specific user’s computers and resolve them, such as a bad sound driver, a spyware infection, or a personal firewall blocking access. Many times, however, there is no direct evidence as to what caused the issue. When we investigate these cases throroughly, what we often find is that technology just isn’t perfect, and when one tiny piece fails along the way, problems results. Unfortunately, many of those pieces are things we, and our customers, have little or no control over.

Technologies used in a web conference:
When you log onto a Talking Communities conference room, you are combining a lot of technology to make the virtual conference come to life. The client software installed and running on your computer is using built-in codecs installed in Windows to convert voice from your sound card into data. The sound card, manufactured by companies like Creative Labs, use specialized software called “drivers” to work. The data is then sent from your computer using a “winsock” connection, another component of Windows to your router through your network card (hardware installed in your computer and using special Windows drivers developed by the manufacturer of the network card, such as 3Comm). The router may be a D-Link, Linksys, Belkin, or another brand and uses its own hardware, software, and firmware to relay the data to your modem. The modem, provided by your Internet provider also uses hardware and software to connect via your phone line or cable to the ISP. Once the data reaches the ISP, it passes through firwalls (more hardware) to other routers (maintained by companies like Cisco) . It then reaches the Internet and gets sent out to more and more routers in different locations. These routers are maintained by “backbone providers”, such as AT&T, Sprint, Global Crossing, and many others. After passing through maybe 8 or 10 routers across the country or across the world, the data finally reaches our data center, where it again passes through firewalls (maintained by our data center provider) and finally reaches our server.

 It is only at this point that Talking Communities technology finally comes back into play. The data is replicated by our server software and sent out through our data center to all the participants connected in the conference room. It then repeats the above process, in reverse, to reach the client software running on each participant’s computer where the client turns the data back into voice and plays it for the participant to hear.

So, as you can see, there is a lot of technology involved in this process. There are a variety of companies involved in this process. Some such companies may be as Microsoft, 3Com, SoundMax, Creative Labs, D-Link, Linksys, Belkin, 2-Wire, AT&T, Verizon, Norton, MaCafee, AOL, Sprint, One and One, Siemens, Cisco, Time-Warner, and so on. In fact, routers running on the Internet have software and firmware developed by many other 3-party companies, and even our own software uses some third-party software for certain tasks. In all, every packet sent and received involves maybe 50 or 60 different companies of hardware and software components, and service providers. Any one of these could have a problem somewhere and cause packets to be “dropped”.

Packets “dropped”, meaning the data did not arrive to the other side, can cause a variety of issues. The most obvious would be break-up in voice. But it could also result in a signal being “lost” and locking up the queue so that no one can speak in the room. This issue, by the way, is easily remedied by a moderator clicking “clear speaker”. It can also result in a participant not receiving a slide presented, or in sever cases, a person being “bumped” from the room or a client crash.

If you think about everything that has to come together and work correctly for web-conferencing to work perfectly, it is pretty amazimg that all these technologies are actually able to work so well together and not have more issues than we do. But this is why we sometimes have a hard time nailing down exactly where the problem lies. Many times, the problem a customer is experiencing has nothing to do with our software or service, but is a problem with one of these other components that is involved in the process.

Unlike many other companies in the industry, however, we at Talking Communities will not simply pawn off the problem to someone else. Although we cannot directly support other hardware and software, our tech support agents have a great deal of experience in working through issues with these components and will assist each and every individual to resolve his or her specific problem.

To experience Web-Conferencing yourself, visit http://www.talkingcommunities.com