New Outlook for Mac for Office 365 Subscribers

It’s Been Way Too Long Microsoft has finally released a new version of Outlook for the Mac, at least for Mac users who have certain Office 365 subscriptions.  Microsoft announced the new version, its first in four years, on the Office Blog.  While my personal Office 365 Small Business subscription doesn’t grant me access to the new version of Outlook, just as it doesn’t provide me with downloadable versions of the rest of Office, my university-based Office 365 with the A3 upgrade does, so I downloaded the new Outlook to both my Retina MacBook Pro and 27″ iMac today to check it out. Before I write more about the new Outlook, however, I’d like to highlight a quote from the Office Blog announcing it.  Here’s the quote (emphasis mine):

Historically we have released a new version of Office for Mac approximately six to eight months after Office for Windows. However, following the release of Office 365 we made the conscious decision to prioritize mobile first and cloud first scenarios for an increasing number of people who are getting things done on-the-go more frequently. This meant delivering and continuing to improve Office on a variety phones (iPhone, Windows Phone, and Android) and tablets (iPad and Windows)—brought together by the cloud (OneDrive) to help people stay better organized and get things done with greater efficiency at work, school, home and everywhere between. Continuing our commitment to our valued Mac customers, we are pleased to disclose the roadmap for the next version of Office for Mac—including Word for Mac, Excel for Mac, PowerPoint for Mac and OneNote for Mac.

First, I love the phrase “conscious decision” – makes me wonder what unconscious decisions would be, especially ones made by giant global corporations.  Maybe a product manager comes in one day and announces he had a dream in which he decided to delay the release of a popular software package for three years instead of the above-mentioned six to eight months.

Second, let me paraphrase that in my own “I’m mad it took so long to get this update” way. Microsoft released the last version of Office for Mac in 2010.  Since then, it didn’t anticipate the PC market would continue its steady sales decline, that the Mac market would become the only strongly growing segment of the PC market, that iOS and Android would completely own the smartphone and tablet space, and that it would take the departure of Steve Ballmer and the arrival of a new CEO with less attachment to the rivalries of the past to wake up  the largest software companies in the world to the possibility that it could make more money spreading its software to other platforms rather than really only supporting its Windows and Office on Windows cash cow.

We’ll have waited 5 years in between Office for Mac versions, but if the new Outlook for Mac is as nice as OneNote for Mac and Office for iPad, it may just be worth it.

First Impressions: Looks Good

I have a confession to make.  I only started using Outlook on a daily basis a little more than a year ago when I started my current position at the UT Institute of Agriculture.  We’re a PC shop, and switching to a PC as my daily driver at the office was part of the deal.  So I picked up Outlook 2013 and ran with it.  I can’t say I love using it, but it seems to work reasonably well on a fast machine and after getting used to having my calendar and email in the same application, I haven’t had many problems with it.  I point that out as context for making it clear that I never really used Outlook 2011 on the Mac on a regular basis, and certainly never used the travesty that was Entourage before that.  I setup Outlook 2011 once or twice over the years mainly out of curiosity, but found it too slow for my tastes, and stuck with Apple’s Mail.app for my work email and Gmail for my personal email.

If I had to choose a single word to describe the new Outlook for Mac it would be clean.  The design is sparse, flat, and simple, and I like it.  As someone who uses Outlook 2013 every day, it makes sense to me, although it obviously takes some design cues from the new OWA interface as well.  I’m writing this blog post on my mid-2010 27″ iMac, so I’ve only used it for more than a few seconds on a non-Retina screen so far, but it looks good.

O4M_MailThe Mail pane from the new Outlook for Mac

O4M_CalendarThe Calendar pane from the new Outlook for Mac

Speed: It’s Fast

Even on my 27″ iMac with its spinning hard drive, the new Outlook for Mac seems fast.  Once it synced all of my mail I did a few searches.  While there was a brief delay, accompanied by the increasingly rare sound of a hard drive spinning, Outlook returned hundreds of messages and conversations with the keywords I searched for very quickly.  Given how much email I generate and receive these days, being able to find what I need quickly is an absolute must, and this new Outlook does a good job.  I’m sure it will be much faster on my Retina MacBook Pro and its SSD, but I thought trying it out on this older machine with a spinning hard drive would be a good test.

Closing Thoughts: Keep it Up, Microsoft, but Speed it Up

I mentioned OneNote for Mac above.  I think OneNote is one of the best apps Microsoft makes, and I’m sure if I’d used a PC on a regular basis until last year, I would have discovered and liked it sooner.  I use it all the time at work, at my desk and on the go.  I’d used Evernote for years on the Mac, but always hated that anybody I wanted to share a notebook with had to pay for a premium account like I had.  OneNote lets me share notebooks with coworkers, family, and friends without asking them to spend money.

Microsoft released OneNote for the Mac this year, and really improved OneNote for iOS. They’ve also released Office for iOS and are expected to soon release Office for Android. It’s about time, and I hope this new, more platform-agnostic approach serves them well.

I also hope they realize that 5 years between versions of Office for the Mac is way too long. I’m glad this new Outlook for Mac is out, and I’m glad it looks and seems to work as well as OneNote for Mac.  Just don’t make us wait so long next time, Microsoft.

Update: Where Do I Get the New Outlook for Mac?

I was discussing the new Outlook for Mac with a coworker and he asked a very good question – would his users’ Outlook 2011 clients simply upgrade to the new Outlook for Mac?  Unfortunately, the answer to that is no.  Not only that, but for the time being, very few folks at our university will even be able to use this new client.  Everyone at the university has an Office 365 account, but only those who have paid for the A3 license upgrade are entitled to the new Outlook, at least for now.  At some point in the not too distant future, Microsoft will be granting a different type of Office 365 license to university customers who license Office for all of its faculty and staff.  That license will grant everyone the ability to download and use Office on personal computers and the iPad, and should, I believe, allow for use of the new Outlook for Mac.

For the time being, you can see if you have access to the new Outlook for Mac by logging into the Office 365 portal.  Once there, click on the gear icon in the top right of the page, as shown here, and select Office 365 Settings.

O4M-o365settings

On the next page, click on software.

O4M-settings

If all you see is Lync or OneDrive, you’re out of luck.  And by the way, I hope it goes without saying that you should be doing this on a Mac.  I can confirm the Mac specific software does not appear to be available for download on a PC. If you’re entitled to the new Outlook for Mac, you will see it below the section listing Office itself.  On my Macs, Office 2011 is available, and as a separate download, so is the new Outlook for Mac.

O4M-software

One interesting thing to note is that installing just Outlook for Mac on a computer uses up one of the 5 available installations.  So Microsoft is clearly signalling Outlook for Mac is not “free” like OneNote for Mac – it requires an Office license just like Word and Excel would.

Hope this clears up any questions you may have about the new Outlook for Mac.  If it doesn’t, feel free to reach out over Twitter.

This is post 1 in the #NaBloWriMo #vDM30in30 30 Day Blog Challenge

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30 Day Blog Challenge Commitment

Note: I’m am not counting this post towards my 30 posts in 30 day commitment.

Several folks I follow on Twitter got excited about the thought of doing a 30 day blog challenge during November, which is also the month for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).  I’m not up for working on a single long-form narrative right now, but having completed a 30 day Summer Blog Challenge back in August/September that overlapped with a vacation, I know I can do it again.  I really enjoyed it a few months ago and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it this time.  Many of the folks participating this time will be using the #vDM30in30 hashtag, and I will too, even if I haven’t participated in Virtual Design Master yet.  I’ll also be using the #NaBloWriMo hashtag, since I’d planned on doing this independently during November as an alternative to working on a novel before hearing about the vDM-flavored challenge.

As with the last challenge, I’ll be splitting my blog posts between this blog for IT/Tech topics and my other blog, Geek Food Critic, for Food Blog topics.

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OneDrive (personal) – My Current Recommendation for Free/Cheap Cloud Storage

I’ve been thinking about the topic of cloud storage lately, especially from an end-user perspective. While it disappoints me that I can’t recommend OneDrive for Business for our users, I need to be able to recommend something instead.  Working at a university means we’re not generally in the position to tell our users what they can and can’t use, but we can and do make recommendations based on our own experiences.  Some of our users already use and like Dropbox, and if it works for them, that’s fine.  I certainly use it at home and on my mobile devices, especially since many of the apps I use leverage Dropbox as a syncing mechanism for both settings and data.  1Password is a great example of that.  Dropbox’s 2GB free storage tier seems puny these days, but I’m sure that’s plenty for some people.

When someone who isn’t already using a cloud storage provider asks me for a recommendation, especially someone at work, I recommend OneDrive – the personal version.  If the user hasn’t heard of OneDrive, I ask them if they’ve heard of Dropbox, and they always have.  Then I say something that would likely make both Microsoft and Dropbox mad, “Ok, you can think of OneDrive as Microsoft’s version of Dropbox.”  Why recommend OneDrive over Dropbox, though, especially since I’ve mentioned before that I’ve never had any issues with Dropbox?  Glad you asked.

More Storage for Free

First of all, OneDrive now provides 15GB of space for free, so 7.5x the amount of free space Dropbox offers.  In addition, Microsoft recently announced a deal that lets users double their space to 30GB by simply configuring their smartphone or tablet to backup its camera to OneDrive.  Here’s a post describing here to do that at PC World.  So from a space perspective alone, 30GB of OneDrive is better than 2GB of Dropbox plus whatever Dropbox also offers for enabling camera backups.

Tighter Integration with Officeword-onedrive

I can’t overstate the convenience and importance of this one.  Office 2013 natively knows that OneDrive is a place it can save to, just like it can save to SharePoint.  Sure, it can save to your local computer as well, but if you’ve ever taken a second to consider the file open or save locations window, it’s obvious that Microsoft would prefer its customers to think of saving to a local drive or folder as the least desirable option.

Office also leverages the same Microsoft account you use for OneDrive as a sync mechanism to keep track of your recent documents.  That’s why I can work on a new Word document on my PC at work, and later open Word on my iPad and see that file listed at the top of my recent documents, ready for use.

You can always just save to your OneDrive folder on your hard drive, and have the file sync up to the cloud, just like you can with Dropbox, but I actually like the fact that Microsoft, like Apple with iCloud, is abstracting the concept of file location away from the local machine.

Security

Right or wrong, in general I feel like I can trust Microsoft to keep my data more secure than Dropbox.  That’s largely a feeling, but I believe it’s fairly rational based on a number of factors.

Am I saying Dropbox isn’t secure?  Not at all.  Although I hear Edward Snowden doesn’t care for Dropbox.  I use both Dropbox and OneDrive.  I keep truly private data on them, tucked into encrypted disk images, so I don’t trust either of them to be perfect.  But I do expect more from Microsoft, and that might mean I trust Microsoft a bit more.

Need More Space – OneDrive is Cheaper for Smaller Chunks

Is 30GB not enough for you on OneDrive?  Microsoft will sell you an additional 100GB for $24 per year, or 200GB for $48 per year.  That’s plenty for me, as I am not using anywhere near the 70GB of space I have right now via various promotions.  Dropbox used to offer smaller incremental upgrades, but all I’m seeing right now is their 1TB upgrade called Dropbox Pro, for $120 per year.  I don’t need a terabyte of space, so even if I end up bumping up against the 30GB I have for free on OneDrive, I’d rather spend $24 to get 130GB of space than $120 to get 1TB.

If You’re too Cheap to Spend $24 per Year – Use Bing Rewards

A coworker mentioned this to me during a discussion of OneDrive.  He said he didn’t have to pay for his extra space on OneDrive this year because he got it free via something called Bing Rewards.  I laughed at the time, because, right or wrong, I still think of Bing as not being as good as Google for search results.  But I decided to give it a try.  You can learn more about Bing Rewards here, and full disclosure, I’m using my “friend referral” link, mainly to see if it even works, but don’t feel obligated to use it.

Basically, Bing Rewards gives you points for searching with Bing, with a set amount you can earn each day for searching on your desktop, your mobile device, and various other daily promotions.  If you do all of the bing-rewardssearches for which you receive credit each day, you should get a minimum of 26 points per day, with bonus points along the way.  I’m sitting at 487 points right now, so I will hit the 500 points required for the upgrade of 100GB of OneDrive space tomorrow.  I began my Bing Rewards searching on 9/30, mainly because I wanted to see how long it would take to get to 500 points.  I did both mobile and desktop searches each day, but am skipping mobile today because they wouldn’t put me over the top to reach my goal, and frankly they’re a pain in the butt since you have to type search terms into the mobile client.  Now that I know the answer to my question, mobile searches aren’t worth my time.  You might say desktop searches aren’t worth my time either, and they’re certainly not as a means to slowly accumulate points for this sort of thing, but I might keep doing those as well.  Why?  Because all you have to do to get your desktop searches in is click through the Bing News sections for each category, and I’ve found doing that in the morning is a quick and painless way to scan the top news headlines.

OneDrive (personal) for now – Hoping OneDrive for Business Improves

So for today, and the foreseeable future, I’ll be recommending OneDrive (personal), both personally, and for our users.  It’s free, it works, and it provides plenty of space.  I couldn’t make them use something else even if I wanted to, and until or unless OneDrive for Business improves, especially on the syncing issues front, I have to point folks to something that works.  I’d really love to have the budget to deploy something like Citrix ShareFile, but that’s money-wise that’s not in the cards, even if it might be a good topic to address in a future post.

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Office 365 Update: OneDrive for Business – Too Buggy

This isn’t going to be a happy or positive post, which is too bad, because I see a lot of promise in the individual product I’m about to criticize and the overall service of which it is a part. For context, you can consider this an update to my earlier post about Office 365, and if I wished to follow that naming scheme, I might go with, “OneDrive for Business: The Bad.”

My Uh-Oh Moment

I was finally burned by OneDrive for Business (OD4B) this week. It’s been giving a couple of my coworkers fits for a few weeks, but I know each of them has thousands and thousands of files and figured that may have contributed to their issues in some way. I’ve used OD4B exclusively for almost two months without a single hiccup, until it just stopped working this week. I saved a tiny change to a tiny Excel file that I’d been working on for a few days, and noticed the dreaded red X on the OD4B blue cloud icon. I tried pausing and starting the sync, but it didn’t work. Recalling the issues my coworkers had, and especially that one of them said he’d lost data as a result of them, I made a quick copy of my entire OD4B folder structure – barely 3GB worth of data – to my desktop.

An Hour of My Work Day Gone

What followed was nearly an hour of frustrating trial and error to try to get OD4B working again. I rebooted, because you know – Windows. No luck. I uninstalled OD4B, which at first meant modifying my Office 2013 installation, as it was installed as part of Office. Rebooted. Added the feature back via Office 2013. No luck. Uninstalled again, rebooted, then install OD4B separately from Microsoft’s website. At first that didn’t even work because I run the 32-bit version of Office and tried to install the 64-bit version of OD4B. No dice, so I went with the 32-bit version. No syncing. Figured to heck with it, I’d just delete my OD4B folder and put it back, and try to sync everything back up. Windows refused to let me delete the folder. Uninstalled OD4B again and tried to delete the folder. No luck. At this point I frankly went into a bit of a red haze and forget exactly what I did to make Windows let me delete the stupid folder, but by golly, I finally deleted it. Re-installed OD4B, added my library’s (remember, OD4B is really just SharePoint) URL, and thought surely, surely, I was done. Wrong.

I was close to giving up, so I turned to Google. After crafting a couple of searches, I came across this helpful article by University of Iowa IT department. The gist of that article is:

  1. Rename OD4B folder (or make a copy as I had done)
  2. Kill OD4B processes (Groove – blast from the past)
  3. Delete OD4B-related stuff in APPDATA
  4. Let everything sync back down from the cloud

Thankfully, this worked, and since I had lost an hour of productivity to this, I put it out of my mind and focused on getting some actual work done.

We Can’t Recommend This for Our Users

Later that day, though, I got this sick feeling in my stomach. I’d lost an hour of my day to this problem. How much collective productivity might our users lose, if we deploy OneDrive for Business more widely than we already have, and these issues keep occurring? Our university has only just recently enabled OneDrive for Business, and only this past week officially announced it to the campus. The HelpDesk doesn’t have any documentation for it yet, and describes their support level for it as “best effort.” I can beat on OD4B for an hour to try to make it work, but my users can’t.

What really disappoints and confuses me about this is that this sort of utility should just work. I’ve used Dropbox since before it even launched publicly. Do you know how many hours I’ve lost having to uninstall it, or kill its processes, or wipe its preferences or whatever out of APPDATA on my PC’s or out of the Library folder on my Macs? Zero hours. Dropbox just works. I used Citrix ShareFile for quite a while on a selection of PC’s and Mac’s. It just worked. Even OneDrive (Personal) has been relatively problem free. But OneDrive for Business – in addition to all of its SharePoint oddities, seems to be half-baked.

For the time being, I’m switching back to OneDrive (Personal). For one reason or another, I have 58GB of space, and even though it looks like 40GB of that is for being an “enthusiast” and will expire in early 2015, I only have 3GB of files to sync, so I have plenty of room. My hope is that OneDrive for Business will mature and stabilize enough and remain that way so that we can recommend it to our users, but until it does, OneDrive (Personal) or even Dropbox are better, more reliable options.

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A Journey to the Cloud for Video Conferencing – Part III

This is the third part in this series. You can find Part I and Part II here.

Just as I was preparing to send out an RFP for a cloud-based video conference service, expecting to get responses from both Blue Jeans and Fuze, I was informed that the Knoxville campus had purchased a site license for a competing service, and was willing to provision accounts for us for a minimal chargeback fee. The company providing the service was Zoom. I was surprised, as I had taken a quick look at Zoom earlier, and frankly written it off as being too good to be true, or in this case, too inexpensive to be for real.

Zoom: The Kia Option

ZOOM VIDEO COMMUNICATIONS LOGO

Zoom is another startup company like Blue Jeans and Fuze. Like Fuze, they make it nice and easy to find out what their service costs. Zoom offers a Free account level with a pretty severe limitation – meetings can last only 40 minutes, but that would probably be fine for a lot of people. Zoom offers Pro accounts for $9.99 per month and Business accounts in minimum quantities of 10 for $9.99 per month each. Each of these accounts can host meetings with up to 25 participants. Zoom is unique in offering published academic pricing that is so affordable compared to its commercial pricing that I thought it was a mistake when I previously investigated it. I won’t break down all the options here, but I will link to their education pricing and note that it is very much for real.

My evaluation of the Zoom service began not as a limited trial or a series of demos brokered by an account rep, but as a user with a fully functional Pro account. I found the service to be as functional and easy to use as Fuze, and because the UTK site license included a number of H.323 “room connector” ports, I was able to verify its suitability as a replacement for our on-premises Polycom bridge, even to the point of hosting conferences that included more Polycom endpoints than we could support on our existing bridge, as well as additional participants on desktops, laptops, and mobile devices. It was pretty clear that Zoom, while inexpensive, could meet our needs from a technical perspective.

There’s Something to be Said for Affordable

Once we knew Zoom could meet our needs, we considered simply purchasing accounts as needed from the Knoxville campus, but decided that, given the pricing we knew they’d received for their site license, it would be better for everyone if we purchased our own site license if possible. So we conducted a quick bid of our own, soliciting responses from Blue Jeans, Fuze, and Zoom for a large number of named user host accounts, H.323 connections, as well as a number of add-ons that would allow some accounts to host meetings with up to 100 participants per meeting, or webinars with up to 500 viewers. Zoom won that bid and we purchased our own site license for its service. We now have enough accounts to allow every employee of the Institute of Agriculture to host their own video conferences anytime they want, from virtually any device.

I’ve had a group of beta testers and early adopters using Zoom for the last month and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve already seen classes held involving students in Knoxville, Nashville, and Jackson be held that could not have been connected, at least not this easily, before. A department head was able to host a meeting for a Masters thesis defense with no training and no help from IT. With some help from the Knoxville campus folks, last week I connected our Zoom tenant to our university’s Single Sign-On service and am now ready to deploy it to all of our users.

Our move away from our legacy on-premises H.323 bridge has already saved us a ton of money and will save us even more over time. We saved over $20,000 in hardware maintenance this year alone. Over five years, we will save anywhere from $100,000 to $250,000+ if you factor in the hardware we would have had to upgrade to keep running our own service. In addition to the cost savings, we’ve gone from being able to host a maximum of 6 concurrent endpoints across 1–3 meetings, all tied to either a conference room or a terrible buggy software client, to enabling our users to host their own meetings anytime, anywhere, using anything from an iPhone to a Polycom room unit.

Now it’s time for me to make something else better.

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A Journey to the Cloud for Video Conferencing – Part II

You can find Part I of this series here.

Cloud-based Meeting Options: Everybody is in the Game

I actually thought of going with a cloud-based service as soon as I started this job. With my background, as soon as I heard how we were doing things, I thought, “why make it this hard – why not just use GoToMeeting?” Turns out there was a very simple reason why we weren’t using GoToMeeting and wouldn’t be using it to meet this need today – GoToMeeting doesn’t to my knowledge offer any facility for connecting to H.323 conferences, and maintaining compatibility with our existing investment in Polycom endpoints was a must. So while I’ve had great experiences with GoToMeeting over the years, especially when I worked for a Citrix Reseller and used it multiple times per day to meet with and support customers, it simply wouldn’t meet all of our needs.

One of our users suggested we look into Adobe Connect. I’d never used it personally, but I knew it was popular in the education space. Aside from this user, however, the opinion of Adobe among those of us in IT at the university isn’t terribly good. I spent years having to make their bloated Creative Suite work in our computer labs, and we’re still reeling from a rather injurious site license contract Adobe forced on the university after an audit a couple years back. Still, I was looking for a solution to our problem and, at the end of the day, I didn’t really care where it came from as long as it met our needs and didn’t cost a fortune. Adobe Connect may well have been capable of meeting some of our needs, but it became clear that it would also require running software on our own servers to support it – something I wanted to avoid. So I kept looking.

A Lucky Break: Stumbling Upon Several Startups

I was having a conversation with a company about a telephone conferencing service, as at the same time I was looking into cloud-based video conferencing options, I also wanted to move us away from the expensive and not terribly easy to use campus-provided phone conferencing system. While researching this reseller, I noticed they also resold video conferencing services, so I asked about them. That led me into an extended discussion with a company called BlueJeans.

BlueJeans: The Tesla Optionbluejeans-feature-380x285

Blue Jeans is an interesting company with a compelling service and an unusual name. I’m not looking to do a full review of their service, but if I did, it would be largely very positive. The one thing I would stress about the Blue Jeans video conferencing service is that it just works. In all of my testing across several cloud-based video conferencing providers, Blue Jeans was the easiest for even some of my very non-tech savvy users to work with. Its main claim to fame, in addition to ease of use, was that it could bridge calls between what might otherwise be incompatible communications platforms. It was also the first service I seriously evaluated, and I knew it could fulfill all of my requirements except one – cost.

If you visit Blue Jeans’ website and come away thinking you can’t figure out how much the service costs, you’d be correct, because you can’t. That you have to contact sales to even get a base price was the first warning that it might eventually prove too rich for our budget. The second was the sheer polish of their website, sales staff, and customer list. Everything about Blue Jeans communicates a clear message – they are a VC-backed company selling a premium service to customers with lots of money to spend, many of them VC-funded themselves. But it’s a testament both to the quality of their service and my satisfaction with it that they weren’t immediately ruled out the instant I discovered less expensive options.

The various pricing options I was presented with included a base price of $1,200 per year per named user host, with a minimum purchase of 10 host accounts. We were looking to purchase a minimum of 25 accounts, and at that level the pricing dropped to a $960 per year per host. Each Blue Jeans host account could host a meeting with up to 25 participants, and each of those could be using any compatible service or device, including H.323 endpoints. Pricing for H.323 endpoint support on competing services is typically done on a per connection basis, so in some ways this explained the high cost per account.

If I had to cite one thing about dealing with Blue Jeans that frustrated me, it would be their trial period. They offer a 14 day trial only, and while that trial is complete and allows you to use every feature of the service from a user perspective, 14 days wasn’t nearly enough for me to put it in front of all the decision makers I needed to show it to in order to propose spending tens of thousands of dollars. While my Blue Jeans rep was willing to schedule meetings for me after my trial ran out so I could demo the meeting experience, I was told in no uncertain terms that trial extensions were a no-go. I knew that was simply a matter of the right person needing to be convinced to say yes instead of no, but I didn’t care to push it at that point.

While I really liked everything else about the Blue Jeans service, the cost would have meant buying it simply to meet a subset of our existing usage – basically that of our frequent “power users”. Still, at this point in my research, without knowing just how affordable other options could be, Blue Jeans was still in the running.

Fuze: The Camry Option

gfx_fuze_logo

At some point, I came across an online discussion of Fuze, or Fuzebox as they were called at the time. One thing you will notice immediately upon checking out Fuze’s website is their pricing is right out there in the open. $8 per month for a Pro account and $20 per month for an Enterprise account, with understandable feature differences between the two. Fuze even offers a free account level that would work for many people who wanted to conduct basic computer to computer or mobile device meetings, without the H.323 compatibility we would need. For H.323 compatibility, the Enterprise account would be required, at $240 per year per named host, along with the Fuze Telepresence Connect – basically an H.323 bridge purchased at a cost of $1,000 per concurrent connection per year. Simply having the pricing for all of these items available for easy evaluation was refreshing. I’m sure having the price for things locked behind a door that only your potential account rep can open has a lot of value for the vendor selling the service, but I can tell you that it is a frustrating waste of time for me as a customer.

The Fuze service worked quite well. So well, in fact, that because we had some users chomping at the bit to try it, we recommended they sign up for free accounts while we continued to evaluate our options. We also purchased a Pro account for me so I could fully evaluate everything except the H.323 compatibility. I was nearly as impressed with the quality of Fuze as I was Blue Jeans, and while we did have a few users have issues getting their audio devices to work with the service, I’ve seen the same thing with nearly every other online meeting service. So while I considered the Blue Jeans service to be superior to the Fuze service, I knew that, for the money, Fuze would be a better fit for us.

The things I didn’t like about dealing with Fuze were twofold. One, they would not give me a real trial of their H.323 connector – claiming they simply had to schedule any use of it for me. In addition to this being simple nonsense, it also made me feel like they didn’t really want my business. Two, many of the features they listed as coming with the Enterprise account, including custom branding and a success manager to work with my users on training, came with a pretty high initial host account buy-in – 100. We didn’t anticipate needing 100 accounts right away, although we figured we would eventually far surpass that. But the minimum buy-in presented us with a chicken and egg problem – how would we properly showcase the service to our users, stakeholders, and leadership without those features, and how could we get the budget for the purchase without showcasing it?

At this point in my research, I was torn between buying relatively few Blue Jeans accounts with all of the enterprise features and “success team” support at a price that would ensure it couldn’t expand beyond a core group of users, or buying quite a few more Fuze accounts but still not enough to get us the support from the company to ever push it to critical mass among our users.

What I didn’t know is that I was about to have a curve ball thrown into my research and plans to have this completed by the end of our fiscal year in June.

More on that in part III of this series, which will be published tomorrow.

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A Journey to the Cloud for Video Conferencing – Part I

One of the things I inherited when I took on the current role I’m in at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture was management of our video conferencing infrastructure. We’re a state-wide organization in every sense of the word – we have employees in all 95 counties in TN, in 10 Research and Education Centers, three regional offices, as well as a large presence on the Knoxville campus. Remote meetings of one kind or another, be they video conferences or conference calls, are critical to getting the business of the Institute done, and I appreciate that more today, a little over a year after taking this position, than I did on day one.

The Situation: Aging Legacy H.323 Infrastructure

What I was handed when I walked through the door was a legacy H.323 infrastructure comprised of all Polycom equipment, including a bridge, a gatekeeper, a “video firewall”, and about a dozen room units in various locations on the Knoxville campus and around the state. While there was a software client available for use with this infrastructure, it was a version behind Polycom’s current product last year, and two versions behind this year, with end-of-life approaching fast. It was also a terrible product, buggy and dependent on Adobe Air, and required separate manually created accounts for use.

The Problem: Increasing Demand, Disappointed Users

To top it off, our H.323 infrastructure was only capable of supporting six simultaneous connections of good video quality. So at any time, a total of six connections could be made to our bridge, be they room units or software clients, across any number of meetings. If there was a need for more, our users had two options – reschedule their meeting for a different time or pay $40 per hour per connection to Knoxville campus IT to bridge the call. On more than one occasion, we simply had to tell our users we couldn’t meet their needs, and that really bothered me.

One of the first projects our CIO tapped me for was overhauling out video conferencing infrastructure to meet the needs of the Institute. So I put together a plan to address our growing needs, which included more than just bridging meetings between a dozen room units. We needed this new infrastructure to do the following:

  • Allow our users to join meetings from anywhere in a reliable way.
  • Allow our users to join meetings from more than just their PC’s or Macs – tablets and smart phone clients were a must.
  • Integrate with our Active Directory.
  • Allow for unauthenticated guest access to the external folks our employees work with every day. Given our Institute includes UT Extension, Ag Research, and 4-H, that potentially includes interfacing with every citizen in the state.
  • Allow for more simultaneous connections and meetings.
  • Be as self-service as possible. My goal was to remove IT from this process and make hosting and participating in video conferences as easy as making a phone call.

Running On-Premises H.323 Infrastructure: Hope You Have Deep Pocketspolycom-logo

I took a good hard look at what we had and researched what it would take to build it out and make it better. I located the purchase orders for our Polycom servers, just the equipment needed to provide the backbone to which all of the other Polycom room units and software clients would connect. It was staggeringly expensive, six figures, and with a maintenance cost of five figures every year – not including the cost of the endpoints and their maintenance. I knew I wouldn’t have that much money to spend on this project, but I also had been told Polycom was good about preserving the capital value of its equipment over time, making it possible for customers to upgrade or replace blades or cards without ripping out the entire system.

Polycom’s current generation of hardware and software could meet all of the needs I’d detailed for our overhauled infrastructure. In fact, the Knoxville campus central IT organization (the folks our users had to pay to host video conferences when our system was full) was in the process of deploying a new Polycom system to replace its own aging Tandberg system. I sat in on the implementation of that system and it was capable of meeting the technical requirements I’d established.

So I began working with our Polycom reseller to determine what it would cost to either bring that functionality to our infrastructure, or to combine our systems with that of the main campus. My hope was to get out of the video conferencing business to the extent possible. UTK has an entire team of people dedicated to the service, and it was just one of the hats I wear in my position. It was clear that the UTK system could provide a front end to our bridge, and if I could demonstrate that we would not only improve functionality, but also reduce the workload on our side, I knew I’d get more support for whatever capital expenditure might be required.

Only it didn’t work out that way. While it was true that we would be able to re-use some of our existing server equipment, essentially by adding new cards to them, the cards and licensing for them would have cost nearly as much as the original equipment itself. Even simply buying the cards to add to UTK’s infrastructure would have cost six figures, and upgrading our own would have cost tens of thousands of dollars more. And here’s the kicker – that pricing was based on absolutely no increase in capacity whatsoever. Six figures to continue to support 6 simultaneous connections (not meetings).

This was so completely outside the realm of possibility, both from a budget standpoint and a logic standpoint, that I ran the numbers on what it would cost to simply host all of our meetings at the $40 per hour per connection rate, and for the cost of upgrading our system we would have been able to fund the entire thing “as a service” for 5 years. That got me to thinking – if we would consider simply converting to “video conferencing as a service” – what were my other options?

This ended up being pretty long, so I’m breaking it into separate posts. You can find part II here.

Posted in Video Conferencing | Tagged | 3 Comments