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Virtualization, Unified Communications Meet, At Last

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Virtualization is coming to unified communications, ready or not.

"Until now, UC has sat outside of the world of virtualization," said Irwin Lazar, a VP at Nemertes Research, in his introduction to a panel discussion at UBM's Enterprise Connect conference. The trend throughout the IT industry is to consolidate applications that used to run on individual servers so that multiple apps run on a single server, with isolation between the applications provided by virtual partitions between operating system instances.

Initially, UC was left out of the equation because network managers hesitated to subject any application for the transmission of realtime audio or video to the overhead imposed by virtualization, Lazar said. However, virtualization is not as novel as it once was and many network managers have become skilled at running all sorts of workloads in that environment. Rather than running up against diminishing returns, it seems "the more you virtualize, the more you realize the benefits of virtualization," Lazar said.

In his research, about 16% of survey respondents said they are virtualizing their UC servers now, while 37.8% have no plans to do so. The rest are at some stage of considering or planning a virtual deployment.

Virtualization on the desktop tends to be more problematic, when it collides with the deployment of desktop UC applications such as replacing desk phones with softphone software, Lazar said. Because virtualized PCs and thin client desktop devices move most processing to the server, they can interfere with access to speakers, microphones, or other peripherals.

Mitel was one of the first UC vendors to proactively work on tailoring its server software for virtualization and more recently on working with VMware on desktop virtualization client software integration for access to audiovisual peripherals, said Stephen Brown, VP of systems engineering. The result works well with audio, he said, "and we're currently releasing a controlled introduction of video, with a formal product introduction planned for this summer."

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The videoconferencing firm Vidyo introduced the VidyoRouter Virtual Edition earlier this week, and it was one of the Best of Show finalists. Vidyo is initially targeting VMware platforms, with additional virtualization environments to follow.

Mark Noble, senior director of product marketing at Vidyo, said his company is capitalizing on an architectural difference between its products and those of most of its competitors. "We're not doing heavy duty video transcoding at the core like on a traditional MCU," he said. The multipoint control units used in most videoconferencing rely on a processor-intensive mixing and redistributing of video streams, usually on purpose-built hardware. Vidyo uses the H.264 Scalable Video Coding compression standard, sending a complete copy of each stream to each location and relying on software in each endpoint to sort it out.

That means the VidyoRouter software can run in a virtualized partition on a server without becoming a performance bottleneck. That's something an MCU-based videoconferencing system could never do, Lazar said. "It's getting hard to justify buying an MCU, it really is."

In addition to appealing to enterprises that employ virtualization internally, the new product is easier to deploy on cloud computing infrastructure and easier for cloud vendors to embed in their own services. "Now you can bring up a VidyoRouter anywhere in the world where there are cloud computing resources and an Internet connection," Noble said. "You can spin up a new router in an hour and enter new markets with zero risk on the technology side."

Paul McMillan, director of cloud and virtualization portfolio strategy at Siemens Enterprise Communications, said his firm has been virtualizing UC deployments for years. However, successful deployments require more planning, careful sizing of server capacity, and testing than if virtualization were not included. "If a customer runs a significant proof of concept pilot environment, we can work through a lot of issues in troubleshooting. When they don't do that, those kind of day one experiences are never too pleasant," he said.

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr. The BrainYard is @thebyard and

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