Face-to-face in the cloud

July 2011 » Features » BUSINESS CASE STUDY
Web-based video conferencing adds more corporate training and communication opportunities.
Tom Toperczer
Edwin Villafana, system support specialist at GEI Consultants Inc. (lower right, floating HD video) and other conference participants (left side, floating video bar) share a document for discussion. The floating videos can be moved around on a single or dual monitor display. The latter is especially useful in a large conference room setting.

When a board member of employee-owned GEI Consultants Inc. was unable to travel from the firm’s Sacramento, Calif., office to its headquarters in Woburn, Mass., for a board meeting, the firm quickly began adoption of video conferencing technology. A standalone, point-to-point (two-party) video conferencing platform was swiftly purchased to connect the offices, allowing them to conduct this meeting and any future board meetings when someone couldn’t travel at the last minute.

SUMMARY DETAILS
Objective: Inter-office video conferencing
Firm: GEI Consultants Inc.
Product application: Nefsis Professional cloud-based video conferencing platform provided low-cost deployment across multiple offices nationwide.

With 450 employees in more than 20 offices across the country, GEI Consultants provides a broad array of geotechnical, water resources, environmental and ecological science, and engineering consulting services to clients nationwide. Founded in 1970 by five graduates of Harvard University and MIT, the company has completed more than 25,000 projects in all 50 states, across Canada, and in more than 20 countries. GEI Consultants has earned an international reputation for solving complex geotechnical issues, and has gained a strong national presence in the environmental and water resources engineering consulting sectors.

Once video conferencing was made available at GEI’s headquarters, other departments in Boston were able to utilize it to communicate with their West Coast counterparts. In time, the IT department began to get more requests to set up video conferencing meetings. Eventually, regular lunch-hour training sessions were being held between the two connected offices, and the participants soon realized that other locations could benefit from the training sessions.

But when managers decided to extend video conferencing capabilities to multiple offices, they suddenly discovered that adding more locations utilizing the existing system required reconfiguration of their entire network infrastructure.

Realizing they were not budget-ready to implement a new network infrastructure and purchase the additional proprietary hardware it would take to go multi-point, the IT Systems Support department began to research other options for a more up-to-date solution. They discovered a cloud-based video conferencing technology that seemed promising — no expensive hardware, network re-engineering, or months-long implementation would be necessary.

Cloud computing generally refers to shared resources — such as servers, hardware, and software — that are provided on-demand via the Internet. A key underpinning is the distribution of workload processing across multiple servers — the cloud — thus making cloud computing a generational improvement compared with centralized client/server and mainframe computing prevalent in earlier decades. In addition to being a catchy name and delivery model for IT services, cloud computing offers substantial business and technical benefits, including performance, scalability, and the simplicity and reduced maintenance associated with buying complex applications as a simple online service. Google and Salesforce.com are well-known examples of cloud services featuring high performance and simplicity. For product categories such as video conferencing, cloud solutions also can eliminate large, up-front capital expenses.

GEI support staff selected Nefsis Professional based on its call quality, low entry cost, and easy implementation. Running over the existing GEI network, the online service deployed quickly without any network reconfiguration. The Professional edition allows any number of parties to be connected in real time to a single online video conference.

Since the GEI system support specialists at the headquarters office provide the technical support across most of the company, they wanted to standardize the video conferencing experience in each of the five offices targeted for training classes. Starting with Lenovo T60 laptops that were no longer in service, the support team added Logitech QuickCam Orbit/Sphere webcams and shipped the configured systems to each remote office where they sit on mobile carts ready to be turned on. Instead of using costly, large-screen LCD monitors in each office, the participants have the option to connect the laptop to an existing office projector for conference room viewing.

“Since Nefsis does not require any high-end hardware, we were able to repurpose our older Windows XP laptops that were sitting in a closet,” said Edwin Villafana, system support specialist at GEI Consultants. “With only a standard PC, off-the-shelf webcam, and an Ethernet connection, each of the offices became video conferencing-ready. It’s pretty straightforward. Since Nefsis is Web-based and uses standard Web URLs and a point-and-click interface, you just turn on the computer and it works. I also enjoy the scalability and easier maintenance of the system. I don’t have to worry about adding new office locations. The Nefsis cloud automatically manages it for me.”

Among other benefits, the built-in Nefsis network diagnostics tool allowed the support staff to test the network bandwidth and video quality at each location remotely. “That was definitely a timesaver,” Villafana said.

With the new Nefsis cloud-based video conferencing platform, GEI Consultants was ready for its company-wide training within weeks — not months, as the company had estimated with its original infrastructure equipment. During the training, a live presenter taught a technical writing class from the Connecticut office to more than 60 people from five offices, and the presenter was able to see and interact with the participants at each office. The class proved to be such a success that the company plans to hold regular training sessions on other topics.

Starting with laptop computers that were no longer in service, the IT support team added off-the-shelf webcams and shipped the configured systems to each remote office where they sit on mobile carts ready to be turned on.

Expansion of the video conferencing capabilities to the five offices allowed other groups, such as the 401K committee, to hold regular meetings. The six- to eight-person committee is spread out in the Boston; Portland, Maine; Denver; and Sacramento, Calif., offices, so they are using video conferencing as a way to complement their current corporate communications methods.

“Conducting telephone conference calls just about every month with a group that large can get unwieldy, making it difficult to have a real dialogue,” said Benjamin Sawa, project manager in operations. “We really noticed a big difference when we changed to a video conferencing format. Having the visual really helped keep the flow of the conversation going, and there’s a real advantage to being able to see the body language of the participants.”

Situations also arise that make the availability of video conferencing handy. “During a recent shareholder meeting, the president of the company couldn’t make it to the Denver office at the last minute, so he was able to address the shareholders from headquarters via a video conference,” Sawa said.

Currently, not every office has a need for video conferencing, but eventually each office will be equipped with a video conferencing cart.

“Moving video conferencing to the cloud offered us a business-grade, secure video conferencing alternative without the financial risk of making a hardware investment,” Villafana said. “The system just keeps growing with our needs.”

Tom Toperczer is vice president of marketing at Nefsis (www.nefsis.com).

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