I was recently researching the various types of deployment challenges faced by today’s enterprise and SMB business users. Over the course of many discussions with various industry experts, I narrowed it down to three basic models. Of course, not all users will neatly fit into one of these models, and there is plenty of overlap. Still, I found that thinking of the market in terms of these three models has been helpful for me to understand the market better, and how the various vendors and solutions are targeting their customers.
As part of my research I spoke with William MacDonald, CTO of StarLeaf, and I was impressed by how the StarLeaf Cloud has very carefully and purposely developed its feature set to meet the needs of all three deployment models. Let’s take a look at these three scenarios and how the StarLeaf positions itself to be the “go-to” vendor in all cases.
The Greenfield (Starting From Scratch)
Amazingly, in 2016 there are still many organizations with little or no current investment in video technology. The prospect of creating an entire video environment from scratch may seem daunting. There are so many moving parts to the video puzzle. Infrastructure, network, meeting room hardware, desktop/mobile apps, analytics, support, and more all must be addressed.
Very few vendors can provide a suite of offerings that answer all of these needs. While it is possible to mix and match, this approach has a number of weaknesses. A multivendor environment introduces multiple potential points of failure, and if something goes wrong, it isn’t always clear where to look for service and support. Multivendor environments also require interoperability and compatibility between the various elements. It is possible that the various products may work together to some degree, but it is unlikely that each vendor’s solution was designed to be optimized to work with other vendors’ (perhaps competitors’) products.
The StarLeaf suite of products not only includes each element of your potential video environment, the products and services offer unique benefits when used together. For example, the StarLeaf Cloud can host any video room system, but provides extra value when paired with a StarLeaf room system. In the old days it was beneficial to buy your hardware video infrastructure and video endpoints from the same vendor. If the pieces were made in the same lab by the same engineers, you knew they would work flawlessly together. Similarly, there is another level of synergy, beyond basic interop, between StarLeaf endpoints and the StarLeaf Cloud.
These higher level synergies include endpoint provisioning, pushing software updates, pulling metrics/analytics, providing a higher level of management, and even advanced workflow/callflow dynamics. The StarLeaf Cloud does support competitor endpoints, in fact interoperability is one of the strengths of the StarLeaf Cloud, but pairing their cloud service with their endpoints will provide a next-level experience for your users while as well as your system administrators. StarLeaf appears to be the pioneer of the tightly coupled cloud service and endpoint approach, having offered it since the launch of the StarLeaf Cloud in January 2013. Since that time, a few other vendors have followed suit and now offer a similar cloud/endpoint model.
As stated above, the StarLeaf Cloud is notable for its strong interoperability. This means greenfield sites not only will be able to “talk amongst themselves” on StarLeaf but will be able to call or be called by clients and partners using their own video solutions. This interoperability with traditional H.323 endpoints (Polycom, Cisco, etc) and even Skype for Business, makes the StarLeaf Cloud a capable B2B solution. This is a crucial feature for businesses who are looking to use the power of video to enhance their external relationships, as well as empower their internal working teams. During our discussion, Will stated that Skype4B interop has been a particular priority for his developers from day 1, and they are continually working to lead in this area as they expect Skype4B use in the enterprise to become more and more endemic.
In addition, StarLeaf offers its Breeze mobile/desktop app to customers at no additional cost, which further expands this environment beyond the meeting room. Since there is no charge for the software, an organization can easily make it available to all employees. With the same UI, benefits, and workflow as the StarLeaf room systems, the Breeze app requires no additional learning curve. Mobile/desktop callers are on an even playing field with meeting room attendees, and your IT team can manage and provision Breeze users using the same tools and methods as they manage the room systems.
Finally, it should be noted that their infrastructure is run on their own PoPs on dedicated hardware to ensure a higher quality of service, call quality, and reliability. From virtual infrastructure, to meeting room systems, to desktop/mobile apps, to support, to security, to network, and now even recording, the StarLeaf Cloud was designed to hit every possible element of a video deployment and to be a “one stop shop” for new video users.
Expansion of Existing Video Deployments
A very common scenario involves a business with a partial video set-up. Perhaps they have a Cisco or Polycom codec in a few premium locations (boardroom, etc), or a few executive appliances in the C-level offices. They may even have several dozen systems in various meeting rooms throughout their facilities. Now they need to expand to desktop and mobile in addition to turning up their remaining meeting rooms and huddle spaces.
In the past, this would have been an IT nightmare requiring the installation and management of hardware gateways and bridges to provide interoperability between the old world and the new. Today’s cloud services make it easy. Many services feature virtual meeting rooms (VMRs) in the sky which can accept calls from traditional H.323 or SIP endpoints, as well as from new desktop and mobile apps. However, most of these interop cloud services offer nothing more than the neutral VMR in the sky. They have no knowledge of, or support for, the endpoints in your environment. They are simply an empty virtual room which can accept your calls.
While the StarLeaf Cloud boasts strong interoperability to support your existing endpoints, it takes it to the next level by treating those endpoints as part of the environment. The StarLeaf Cloud recognizes those endpoints and provisions them within its directory. All of the features of the StarLeaf Cloud are available to those endpoints, such as call detail records, usage reports, endpoint monitoring, presence, directory services, firewall traversal, outbound calling to Skype for Business users, inbound calling with spam protection, to name a few. This allows for more call flexibility, including directory based point to point dialing in addition to the typical “join my VMR” dynamic. Furthermore, the StarLeaf Cloud allows direct point to point calls to be seamlessly escalated into larger meetings, without requiring the parties to hang up and rejoin a new VMR.
No one wants to “rip and replace” their existing video investment, even if they only have a few systems in place. The market has spoken and it loves the idea of leveraging existing endpoints and expanding deployments through the use of an interop cloud service. But keep in mind, not all clouds are the same. It is one thing to use a cloud that welcomes your existing endpoints and quite another to have a cloud that embraces and supports those endpoints. In other words, by bringing your existing endpoints into the StarLeaf Cloud, you can enjoy nearly all the benefits of the nice, clean, greenfield deployment above, without starting from scratch.
The Skype4Business Shop
It is always a bad idea to ignore the 800 pound gorilla in the room. If Microsoft is going to make a play for business video, we need to take it seriously. With Skype for Business (Skype4B) included as part of Office 365 it will be installed on millions and millions of desktops. Google Docs may do the trick for small businesses that can get by without Microsoft Word, but you can’t seriously suggest that any real techy give up Microsoft Excel. This is one of many reasons that Office 365 (and Skype4B to some extent) is a sure bet. Furthermore, as Microsoft continues to transition its massive Exchange base to Office 365, more and more business users will find Skype4B installed on their desktop, and heavily integrated into the rest of their workflow.
With this in mind, Skype4B interoperability is quickly becoming a checklist item for cloud interop services. While the StarLeaf can count itself among the Skype4B compliant clouds, it also offers a unique product for Skype users with its GTM 5250. At first glance, this room system appears to be a StarLeaf system with Skype4B compatibility. However, upon closer examination it is revealed to be a full Skype4B room system dressed up in a StarLeaf wrapper. In other words, this product doesn’t interoperate with Skype4B, it RUNS Skype4B natively, and it does so in a form factor appropriate for meeting rooms with support for high end PTZ cameras, microphones and all the other expected bells and whistles.
Between the GTm 5250, and the Skype4B interop inherent in the StarLeaf Cloud, any business with a Skype4B user base can quickly expand their desktop communication tool into a full blown videoconferencing / UC deployment.
The days of “one size fits all” communication solutions are long gone. Each customer has differing needs for their unique environment. Most however, can be (at least roughly) categorized within the three above-mentioned scenarios. While many of today’s cloud services can support all of three categories to some extent or another, it is clear that StarLeaf is looking to take a leadership role in providing a complete and comprehensive answer to all possible business communication deployments.