Friday, March 4, 2016

Univago - Solving Video From the Cloud

Cloud-based video collaboration platforms are turning up across the spectrum of communications providers these days, and for good reason. Ease of use has improved, the quality of experience is now enterprise-grade, and cloud economics are making these offerings very attractive. All of this represents a big step forward from legacy, room-based systems, and now the power of video is accessible to everyone across an organization.
One of the keys to making video valuable as a collaboration tool is the ability to support ad hoc meetings. There will always be a need for formal, scheduled conferences, but today’s workplace is highly fluid, and what enterprises are really striving for is to provide applications that employees can use on their own, from any location, at any time and with any type of endpoint.
The cloud makes all this possible, and I’ve had a chance to review one of the latest entries, namely Univago from Yorktel. Pronounced Uni-vahgo, their cloud-based collaboration service was launched last October, and is one of many offerings Yorktel has developed as a managed services provider for the enterprise market.
User experience
My comments about the user experience will be brief since I don’t have intensive needs for platforms like this. That said, the user portal is intuitive, and the screens aren’t overly cluttered with options that tend to cut down the real estate that’s actually used for video. Overall, I’d say Univago has succeeded in making the process of collaborating fairly easy, right from starting a meeting, inviting people and then managing the session.
All the features you’d expect are there in terms of control functions -mute/unmute, show self view, full screen mode, etc. - selecting audio/video devices, content sharing, screen sharing, chat, etc. I particularly liked the feature for selecting bandwidth – not just to optimize the quality of experience, but also to help conserve power consumption. While Univago is very much built as a self-service platform, IT is accountable for the costs, so this is a subtle way to encourage end users to help keep that in check.
In terms of capacity, it’s worth noting that Univago can support HD meetings up to 30 people, and for a cloud-based service, this should suffice for most needs. I should also add that Univago can be customized, meaning that enterprises can use these meeting rooms as branding opportunities to show customers how tech-savvy they are. The same applies to service providers as well, so they could offer Univago on a branded basis to enterprise customers to differentiate themselves from competing carriers.
Joining a conference is quite easy, with three options that cover all the basic scenarios – via a browser, a phone or an endpoint. For browser access, Univago is optimized for Chrome, while other browsers may need a plug-in for initial use, and some certain features, such as desktop sharing are not yet supported. When calling in via mobile phone, Univago supports iOs and Android, and both require the Pexip Infinity Connect Desktop Client, which can be downloaded for free from their respective app stores.
These are fairly straightforward, but it’s the third option that enterprises will especially like. The “Endpoint” option allows participants to enter a Univago meeting room from existing video systems, either legacy or IP-based. While enterprises will already have some mix of such endpoints, in most cases, they’ll be able to use what they have to join Univago-hosted meetings. More importantly with Univago, they’ll be able to interoperate with each other – more on that later. Currently, Univago supports video endpoints and applications from Polycom, Cisco, Microsoft Lync 2010 and 2013, Lync Online via Office 365, Skype for Business, as well as the dominant video protocols, H.323 and SIP.
Another nice feature is the ability for users to have up to three separate rooms – URooms – so they can have saved settings and groups for regular meeting sessions. This makes it easy in cases where employees have back-to-back meetings with different groups or teams. Once these meetings are scheduled in the calendar, going from one to another just requires a few mouse clicks. Nothing needs to be customized or downloaded, allowing each meeting to start on time.
Notable points of difference
With so many hosted and WebRTC-based video conferencing/collaboration solutions out there, it’s hard to tell them apart. For everyday needs, they all perform similarly and have a comparable set of features. To be fair, the lines are getting blurry when focusing just on video conferencing for meetings, and then needing to compare that against full-fledged UC and/or collaboration platforms that incorporate video into their offerings. That’s a broader discussion for another time, and I’ll conclude by noting three aspects of Univago that stand out for me.
1.   Flexible deployment options
Univago is offered via three different models, two of which will be familiar. First is the pure play cloud model, where the service is hosted by Univago and accessed over the public Internet. This will be the most economic option, requiring no new infrastructure, but QoS can be impacted as scale increases or during periods where bandwidth demand is highly variable.
Second would be a private network scenario – namely MPLS – where the enterprise connects directly with the Univago cloud, bypassing the Internet entirely. Off-net users would still need to connect via the public Internet, so the attraction of this option may depend on where most employees will be working from. This option will be more expensive, but it scales better than the public Internet and IT has more control over QoS.
Third is a bit of a twist, in what Yorktel calls the “hybrid deployment”, where a Univago conference node resides onsite, behind the enterprise’s firewall. Off-net users still need to connect via the public Internet, but for everyone else – on-net users - this provides the most secure environment with highest quality experience possible. What makes this attractive is the ability for Univago to deliver a consistent experience for meeting participants from wherever they’re calling in.
For the enterprise, there’s a big benefit in that all the public Internet traffic is routed directly to another Univago node, hosted in Yorktel’s cloud. In fact, they have three data centers, one each in North America, EMEA and Asia, and each one hosts a Univago node. Wherever this traffic originates from, it is routed to the closest of these data centers, at which point, it establishes a direct connection with the Univago node on the customer’s location.
In short, this federated approach allows public Internet traffic to be vetted by Univago, only allowing authenticated participants past the enterprise firewall and into the meeting. Not only does this help keep customer bandwidth consumption down, and mitigates IT security risks, but with this distributed architecture, Univago can intelligently route calls, saving precious milliseconds in latency that can degrade a video session. There’s also a cost savings element for enterprises when participants use telephony for the audio portion of a conference. Since the nodes are regionalized, local toll free numbers can be used in place of a centralized system where all the calls dial in to the same number.
To date, this option is still in trials with some enterprise customers, so it’s not yet commercially deployed. However, I’m told interest has been keen, as it addresses some key challenges faced by distributed enterprises for supporting video with both onsite and offsite participants.
2.  Virtual gateway to bridge legacy and IP systems
The earlier issue of supporting proprietary systems and mixed protocols is addressed by their Enterprise Gateway service. This can be deployed either onsite or in the Univago cloud, but the result is the same - “any to any” interoperability. Yorktel believes Univago to be unique in this regard, whereby this service brings together all these disparate elements that usually create barriers for video conferencing – H.323, SIP, WebRTC and Skype for Business.
For enterprises struggling to do this, along with having a strong desire for a video solution that’s accessible to everyone, their virtual gateway will be a selling point. Another factor to consider here is that Univago is a full service partner. That means they’re more than just a conference bridge up in the cloud. If enterprises need support to get these elements working together, this is where Univago – and Yorktel – adds value that pure play cloud offerings cannot provide.

3.       Virtual receptionist
This is another feature that ensures only authenticated participants calling in off-net can join a Univago session hosted on the customer’s private network. Much like with audio conferencing, callers are prompted via IVR to enter their ID using DTMF tones to pass the “gatekeeper” and enter the meeting.
Since these calls will be Web-based, an IP address can be used as well, which only bona fide participants will have. Aside from making the process of joining a meeting more seamless, it keeps the spam out, which also helps optimize bandwidth consumption. It’s also worth noting that this feature represents another branding opportunity for enterprises, whereby callers can have a direct association with the company at every step of the way during their meeting experience.
All of the above comes with the offering – not separate, costly add-ons - so enterprises have a comprehensive solution in Univago, with a great deal of flexibility for deployment. There’s far more here than what purpose-built cloud video services offer, and compared to premise-based systems, Univago gives customers greater choice and control.
In essence, Univago is a PaaS offering that’s built for what enterprises need today when it comes to making video meetings and collaboration as easy to use a making a phone call. For enterprises looking for a vendor-agnostic partner, and don’t have the resources to manage a collaboration solution in-house, PaaS for cloud-based video is a viable approach. I’d keep watch on Univago, as their success will be a good indicator of the PaaS model as a driver to accelerate the use of video for collaboration.
Unlike most cloud-based services that are pure play video providers, I should add that Univago is one of several offerings from Yorktel, and being new, it’s almost like a startup venture inside the company. So, kudos to Yorktel for innovating around long-standing problems which enterprises really need to get solved. Collaboration is too strategic now, and with enterprises so decentralized, video simply has to work better, and that’s why Yorktel has come up with Univago.
Finally, from the buyer’s side, it’s worth noting that Univago can be purchased as a standalone offering – making it directly competitive with pure play video providers – but also in tandem with other Yorktel services. This would make sense where enterprises are looking for a full-service MSP to handle all their communications needs.

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