Oct 15 2011

Unified Communications in the Cloud

Holocaust Memorial Museum embraces web-based tools to communicate and collaborate.

Photo: Darko Zagar
Video conferencing lets the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s staff “deliver their presentations virtually to anywhere in the world from the museum,” CIO Joseph Kraus says.

The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., is using a cloud-based web conferencing application to remotely teach people about the Holocaust.

The museum’s two education arms — the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies and the National Institute for Holocaust Education — are using Adobe Connect to give presentations online, mostly to university students and researchers studying the Holocaust and occasionally to K–12 teachers who are integrating the Holocaust into their curricula, says museum CIO Joseph Kraus.

Museum educators piloted the technology for three months this spring, holding several web conferences with universities. It’s worked so well that the museum is standardizing on the technology and considering it for other communications needs, including meetings with board members and staff as well as chats with donors and Holocaust survivors.

“It’s worked quite well, and it’s been well received,” Kraus says. “The video quality is fine. We find that people don’t really notice. The days of video over the web being herky-jerky are no longer.” 

An increasing number of federal agencies are adopting collaboration and unified communications tools in the cloud. In fact, 11 percent of federal agencies have fully deployed unified communications using a cloud model, 13 percent are deploying it, and another 51 percent are evaluating cloud-based unified communications services, according to the 2011 CDW•G Unified Communications Tracking Poll, which surveyed 150 federal IT managers.

For example, this spring, the U.S. Department of Agriculture turned to Microsoft's Business Productivity Online Services (BPOS) to provide its 120,000 employees with e-mail services, collaboration and unified communications tools over the cloud. And the U.S. Agency for International Development now offers a video cloud application that provides its 8,000 employees with video conferencing, file sharing, messaging and whiteboard services.

Startups and traditional service providers alike are providing unified communications over the cloud, such as hosted Voice over IP, hosted call centers and desktop video conferencing, says IDC senior research analyst Rich Costello.

“Expense and convenience are the two big benefits,” Costello says. “With cloud-based services, you don’t have to buy or manage infrastructure. Typically, you just pay a per-user, per-month fee, and you just have to buy endpoint products like cameras for video conferencing or handsets for voice. And that’s compelling.”

How Cloud-Based Web Conferencing Works

The technology is easy to use and requires a simple webcam and a Flash-enabled web browser on each user’s computer, says Holocaust Museum Chief Technology Officer Chandra Chandrasekaran.

Kraus says the museum presenter sends a web link via e-mail to the participants, who click on it to enter the web conference. The presenter and the audience can see and talk to each other through their computers’ webcams, he says.

The presenter can also upload a PowerPoint presentation to the cloud ahead of time, and the students can see the slides as the presenter lectures. Students can use a text chat function to ask questions. One benefit of the technology is that the museum can record the presentations and post them on its website, so other researchers can view them, Kraus adds.

The Holocaust Museum does have high-end video conferencing equipment that is primarily used for staff meetings and occasionally for teaching programs, Chandrasekaran says. Five years ago, the IT staff standardized on Cisco Systems Tandberg equipment and 60-inch flat-panel displays. The video conferences are conducted through an IP network.

Although the high-end video conferencing equipment provides higher-quality video, it stays in fixed locations, Kraus says. The web conferencing application, while lower quality, is more convenient, he says.

With the recent introduction of the new web conferencing application, Chandrasekaran believes that most museum meetings and educational presentations will shift to the cloud-based technology because of its convenience and ease of use.

“The benefit of simple video conferencing is multifold,” he says. “It reduces travel costs not only for the board members who cannot always go to Washington, D.C., to attend meetings, but also for the staff to deliver their presentations virtually to anywhere in the world from the museum.”

In addition to the web conferencing application, the Holocaust Museum is embracing additional cloud tools. In November, it is switching from Microsoft Exchange e-mail to a public cloud service provider for e-mail and collaboration.

With this new tool, the museum’s 400 to 500 employees can check e-mail and send instant messages to colleagues or make audio and video calls over the web. The biggest benefit is online collaboration through cloud-based desktop productivity software, Kraus says. Through the cloud service, employees can collaborate and edit documents simultaneously, which “will really drive staff productivity,” he adds.


Percentage of IT managers who have deployed communications in the cloud who say using the cloud made the implementation faster and easier

SOURCE: 2011 CDW•G Unified Communications Tracking Poll

While a growing number of agencies are adopting or evaluating cloud-based unified communications tools, agencies can still take advantage of the same technology the old-fashioned way: by installing the tools in-house.

The U.S. Coast Guard, for example, installed Microsoft Office Communicator, the PC-based unified communications tool, on every user’s desktop. The software is tied to its Active Directory server, allowing employees to reach each other with a click of a button. Employees can check a colleague’s online presence and communicate through instant messages or audio or video conferences. The Coast Guard’s 250 most senior leaders can also use the tool for desktop video conferencing.

Coast Guard users also have high-end video conferencing suites for formal or larger meetings, and uses its PC-based unified communications tool for more informal or impromptu meetings with smaller groups, says Alan Alto, the Coast Guard’s enterprise video conferencing service manager.

“By implementing this technology, we can provide the ability to have multiple people in a collaborative desktop session, which can greatly improve our emergency response and enhance our operational capabilities,” Alto says.