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Friday, December 26, 2014

WebRTC & Academia / Education

Earlier in December I went to the inaugural meeting of the WebRTC "task force" of the TERENA European academic networking consortium. It's looking to exploit the technology for various research and education use-cases, especially videoconferencing between sites or organisations:

"WebRTC may finally offer a path towards a large-scale, low-cost and easy to use real time communication infrastructure for group conversations across institutional boundaries"

(A quick tour of various over-contrived acronymical names: TERENA is currently being renamed GEANT as it combines with another EU programme, DANTE. Historically DANTE deployed the networks & TERENA worked on "developing, evaluating, testing, integrating and promoting new networking, middleware and application technologies". What do any of these stand for? Don't even ask.....).

It turns out that the research/education community is already a major user of videoconferencing, because it has widely-distributed teams that need to collaborate, constrained travel budgets - and, importantly, it has ample bandwidth through the academic network infrastructure and a good supply of smart, technically-savvy people who can work around clunky UIs or tools. In addition, the links with higher education and medicine bring in various other use-cases like distance learning, interactive webinars and tele- diagnostics.

Plus also, in Europe at least, there are often various requirements for cooperation among multiple international organisations, in order to get research funding for big projects. Given that many don't have budget to fly people to meetings all the time, online collaboration is a priority. Similar issues also occur at national levels, especially in larger countries where it's troublesome to bring teams together physically.

There's a lot of use of "legacy" H323, as well as pockets of Adobe Connect, Microsoft Lync and various other platforms. Particle physics research institution CERN switched from a proprietary platform to Vidyo last year, for one of the world's largest video networks.

However, while room-based video is quite widely used today in universities and other reseach sites, it is seen as expensive in terms of both products/licences and ongoing opex from support staff and software maintenance. As such, its use is often rationed. Conversely, desktop conferencing is hampered by islands of poorly-interoperating UC systems selected by each location independently. There has been very little use of app-embedded video or voice communications.

Enter WebRTC, with a goal of extending both reach and depth of video communications for TERENA/GEANT, by lowering costs and extending to browsers across Europe - and beyond, for some larger projects. In addition, some countries' national research/education networks are looking independently at WebRTC for their own local requirements, which (depending on the structure of education administration & technology provision) may also span higher education and schools.

At this point, it is worth noting that GEANT serves over 10,000 locations and (in theory) up to 50 million people, plus interconnects with other research networks elsewhere in the world - for example, an Australian academic network representative was present at the event. Put together, the global academic networking community is equivalent to a Tier-1 telco in terms of reach, but with some important differences:

  • It is mostly publicly-funded, with all the value-for-money considerations that implies
  • Each individual body acts as an enterprise, but with certain communications capabilities and services provided by central national / international organisations
  • It is mostly fixed-oriented using PCs, rather than mobile (today, at least). Interestingly, a lot of devices use Linux or FreeBSD compared to the market as a whole, which means some applications may not be supported
  • There tends to be much greater acceptance of open-source and experimental technologies in production environments - not least because the experiments may be part of the organisations' own raison d'etre.
  • Although groups like TERENA refer to "services" they are generally not rated and billed in telco-type fashion, although some network authorities view their members more like "customers".
  • Security and privacy is a major concern, but more in an enterprise-style fashion rather than a telco-type approach with SIMs etc.
  • There are significant groups of people able to work on new projects - eg open-source - that are usable both internally as well as general web-community projects
  • There are no serious competitive concerns - indeed, commercial organisations often work with academia in areas of "technology transfer" or joint projects funded by government research grants
  • There is little willingness to do "forklift upgrades" - there will usually need to be interoperability with existing equipment, using gateways etc.
There are already a number of early examples and pilots around WebRTC. The French network RENATER (which hosted the meeting) is enthusastic, while the Norwegian UNINETT organisation turned out in force - and had some of the most advanced ideas about extending WebRTC to the broader education and app-embedded sphere.

The latter is an important consideration - as well as doing existing comms use-cases more cheaply/conveniently, my view is that WebRTC has much broader scope if used in a platform-type approach, with a view to new and unexplored application scenarios.

That said, some representives from certain national networking organisations seemed more sanguine and less enthusiastic - concerned by the lack of standardisation , browser support and interoperability questions. Some of this negativity surprised me a bit, reminding me of conservative, legacy-telco managers unwilling to embrace disruptive technologies until they have already been themselves disrupted. Given that most initial use-cases of WebRTC will start as secondary (eg guest access) and it will likely evolve quickly, this recalcitrance seems ill-advised.

(This perhaps reflect an element in the telco-academic world I've noticed before: although it leads in many areas of basic science and networking, when it comes to the telecoms industry and applications, much of the understanding is via the blurry rearview-mirrors of IMS, 3GPP and other legacy standards processes, rather than the Web. There's an awful lot of nonsense spouted by academics about Net Neutrality as well, albeit mostly from the economics groups who seem to like concepts like two-sided markets despite their inapplicability to broadband).

A couple of products and platforms already seem to be increasingly popular - Jitsi had both a presentation and was mentioned as already used by various groups. Janus is an open-source WebRTC gateway project discussed, while Ericsson Labs attended to talk about its OpenWebRTC stack and newly-opened Bowser browser.

Overall, I think that academia (rather than basic school-level education) is perhaps going to be in the vanguard of WebRTC vertical markets during 2015, along with healthcare and finance. However, it may prove rather harder for commercial vendors and platform providers to access - although there will definitely be some opportunities within some institutions, and also the potential to be exposed early to in-house developments and projects which could well be "transferred" to the broader market. I'm hoping to keep in contact with the GEANT, Uninett, RENATER and other academic WebRTC initiatives during the next year.

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