A blog by Brad Kult, HGA Architects, and Engineers
Over the past several years there has been a shift from hardware to software video conferencing. Enterprise level software, or soft codecs, include Microsoft Skype, Cisco WebEx, GoToMeeting, Zoom, BlueJeans, Join.me, and more. This shift has been driven by cost savings of the initial hardware purchase and the convenience soft codecs offer for both in-room and mobile conferencing. In-room web-conferencing technology has moved beyond low-quality webcams. High-quality conferencing cameras with USB connections can give the same quality experience through a soft codec that was once only available through a hardware codec. Hardware codec boxes tend to be expensive, and additional cost savings can be realized because a PC running a soft codec requires fewer physical connections that can quickly drive up the cost of Audio/Video headend equipment. Let’s explore typical video conferencing features to determine what differentiates hardware and software codecs.
Software and hardware codecs have much in common. Along with the same in-room quality camera options, software codecs can offer security features such as password security and end-to-end encryption. However, it’s important to verify the security features of any software platform before finalizing a selection. The specifications for Skype for Business, for instance, list that their communications are protected with AES 256-bit TLS encryption, which meets Department of Defense (DOD) standards for encrypted communications.
Archiving of meetings is possible with both hardware and software codecs, but tends to be more native to software codecs that have their roots in cloud-based infrastructure. Additional infrastructure may be required to record meetings with hardware codecs. Both options are capable of combining face-to-face video conferencing and content sharing. Soft codecs can add collaborative features that allow all participants to markup content simultaneously, whereas hardware codecs generally only support one host sharing content at a time.
Hardware codecs are good for connecting point-to-point rooms if they both have the same manufacturer’s hardware codec installed. But as the workforce becomes more mobile this is less likely to be the case. It’s possible to use a bridge service or virtual meeting room (VMR)—often a subscription-based service—to connect multiple hardware codecs, connect codecs from different manufacturers, and to bridge in mobile clients. But the bridge service or VMR is another added cost and may not lend itself as well to impromptu meetings. By comparison, because software codecs are native cloud-based technologies they require no bridge service and adding multiple attendees on the fly is rather trivial.
Conference room control of soft clients is more challenging than with hardware codecs. Because each software codec is a different application running on a PC or mobile device, there isn’t a physical interface that can be connected to an in-room controller. The tradeoff is that soft codecs support many different conferencing applications without the need for a bridge service. The conference room experience used to be central to video conferencing because it was the only option, but as mobile becomes the dominant use case this trade-off becomes more acceptable. You must evaluate what your organization values and decide whether you favor ease of in-room controls or flexibility to easily connect to any web-based platform. Typical clients who choose hardware codecs are law firms, financial companies, and executives at high bill rates who accept the up-front hardware spend for the added convenience of launching meetings through a single touchscreen control interface.
As a business decision, it comes down to a break-even comparison of the hardware ownership versus software subscription cost model, as well as the evaluation of the other considerations listed above. Skype for Business is prevalent in the corporate world. If your organization already uses Skype for Business for web-conferencing, consider incorporating conference room web-conferencing using the Skype platform. If you only use Skype as a chat client and need to choose a chat client you’ll need to compare features to cost. But we don’t endorse anyone conferencing platform or system architecture approach to conferencing. Your organization must weigh the trade-offs and determine what is best for your workplace culture and technical support team.