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