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Enterprise Connect Day One: WebRTC is Hot

What is WebRTC? The usual short answer is, it's the standard for voice/video-enabling Web browsers. Another answer, given in one session this morning, was that: "WebRTC is an endpoint." But above all, what WebRTC is, at Enterprise Connect Orlando 2013, is: Hot. Very hot.

The WebRTC Conference-within-a-Conference almost literally burst at the seams today--with overflow crowds we had to open up the room and almost double the seating, until more than 330 attendees were crowded in to hear a technical introduction to WebRTC, followed by some key vendors' takes on the technology, demos, and more.

Cullen Jennings of Cisco, who co-chairs the IETF's WebRTC working group, teamed up with Jan Linden of Google, the company that pushed WebRTC out into the world and has been its strongest advocate, to present our opening session laying the technology groundwork and discussing important issues. In many ways, the session was almost a refresher course on how voice and video over IP work--the key overlay for WebRTC being, how do you deal with those existing IP network issues like jitter, latency, security, etc., when the network is the Internet and the multimedia client is a Web browser?

For example, congestion control: In today's world of voice (and video) over the Web using specialized clients, there's been a "damn the torpedoes" approach of just putting the media on the Internet, Cullen said. "This is not really going to work if every Web browser in the world is doing it."

And the idea is very much that every Web browser in the world will be doing it, as well as any number of other clients that aren't Web browsers--they may be discrete applications that use WebRTC for their real-time component. That means that, as the technology progresses, it will need a way to be "fair" to more "traditional" Web TCP traffic as well as real-time UDP, Cullen said.

Our other opening speaker, Jan Linden, added that it's important to have good-quality connections early in the process of WebRTC's rollout to the Web, so that the technology doesn't get a reputation for bad quality that it subsequently has trouble overcoming. "It's absolutely crucial for a good experience, to have low latency, even if we've gotten used to" poorer voice quality over networks like cellular, he said.

That's true even if the future is heavily skewed toward video, not just voice, he added. "As we always say, the most important part of video is audio," Jan said. "Because if you don't have audio, you don't have communication."

For the next session of the morning, four key vendors offered their vision of how WebRTC would impact the enterprise: Val Matula of Avaya, Albert Kooiman of Microsoft, David Jodoin of Thrupoint, and Jim Donovan of Acme Packet.

Albert Kooiman was probably the most-anticipated member of this panel, since Microsoft is a key player in the browser market, and has come up with its own take on WebRTC, called CU-RTCWeb. Albert began his talk with the caveat that he works for the Lync/Skype business unit and not those responsible for Internet Explorer, so he would have no announcements on browser support for WebRTC. But he said that CU-RTCWeb should not be seen as competing with WebRTC. "This was not an alternative to WebRTC," he said. "This was an illustration of how WebRTC could improve."

Val Matula of Avaya offered an upbeat assessment of the technology's prospects for the enterprise, and illustrated some possible ways it will enter the enterprise. One example was that, by making it easier to embed voice and video into online group collaboration, you can avoid an all-or-nothing decision about video in conferences--people can be on video for introductions, but then, when the real focus of the meeting shifts to the slides or other work product that's the real topic of the meeting, the video can go away--"put some video into a collaboration--not a lot," is how Matula described it.

This is the way much of the conversation may go when we talk about WebRTC in the months and years ahead: It's not that you couldn't build an videoconferencing system on the "introduction" model today, it's just that, with WebRTC, you can do it with very minimal cost and time commitment, so there's almost no reason not to.

Matula's other example involved a choice of words that probably didn't serve him as well as it should have: He described the ability to have a "brick" on the desktop connecting to the PC, delivering hardware-based WebRTC media, so that you can have optimized performance for real-time traffic. This sounded similar to something Cisco actually announced a couple of years ago for doing hardware acceleration in Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) deployments that do real-time traffic. It certainly seems like one possibility, though I'm not sure many folks relish the idea of putting a "brick" on people's desk. Presumably it'd be something closer to a little appliance the size and weight of a personal WLAN access point--not something you could build a wall with.

David Jodoin of Thrupoint was the speaker who explained that "WebRTC is an endpoint"--it'll start in browsers, but that's just the beginning of what the technology can enable. He also noted that, "WebRTC isn't going to take over the world tomorrow," and showed that Thrupoint, which has bet heavily on WebRTC, emphasizes its ability to interface with existing enterprise communications platforms.

Finally, Jim Donovan of Acme Packet called WebRTC "another access framework," which Acme plans to provide the point of integration along with just about any other technologies that work with its session border controllers today--SIP and legacy systems today, plus mobile operators on the carrier end of its business.

So WebRTC was a major story, the major story from Day One at Enterprise Connect. The WebRTC conference-within-a-conference was organized and overseen by Brent Kelly of Constellation Research and Irwin Lazar of Nemertes Research, who did an incredible job putting together the program. This is something we're going to be hearing lots, lots more about.

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