Having Trouble Launching New AV Capabilities?

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The answer may be in going alpha.

Now that audiovisual capabilities are part of the suite of network resources, government AV technology managers have new opportunities, especially to interconnect systems and to extend the reach of AV technologies. But in some ways it is getting more difficult to experiment with new capabilities.

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When AV was off the network, it was relatively simple to add some additional circuits to support new videoconferencing devices or to run more coax and add a modulator to expand a closed circuit television (CCTV) system. Local Area Networks (LANs), Wide Area Networks (WANs), and the public internet have greatly increased the extensibility of AV systems, but have also created new restrictions, limitations, and challenges.

The greatest restrictions, at least for government AV systems, come from security requirements, especially certification and accreditation (C&A) directives and guidance. By far the greatest limitations of the network for AV capabilities are bandwidth and the associated quality of service (QoS) provisions. The challenges are too numerous to mention, but don't lose hope. There may be a way to overcome many of the obstacles to new AV capabilities without all of the pain of endless review cycles and proposal revisions.

I suggest trying out an "alpha" approach. By that I mean standing up new capabilities as online first-level pilots or operational prototypes. This approach is different from a lab pilot in two critical ways. First, alpha capabilities actually run on the enterprise network and, second, they are connected to full-scale operational systems. This approach may not be for everyone, but for some it could prove to be the answer to lingering problems with capability approvals and interoperability testing.

The basic premise is to bring a new capability online without directly impacting existing capabilities, systems, or infrastructure. In some cases this will require redundant equipment and software licenses, but the investment could be easily justified. The justification is that the alpha capability will not directly impact the operational capability. It will, however, allow pilot users and engineers to test capabilities in a real-world environment.

A few examples may help to better illustrate the concept. Let's say you want to explore integrating VoIP telephony and videoconferencing capabilities that currently stand alone. You could build a system in an offline lab prior to making the changes in an operational environment, but lab results are often very different than the results experienced in an operational environment. You could also make the changes directly to the operational systems if you are willing to accept the risk. With either of these approaches, bugs would almost definitely appear and negatively impact the end-user experience.

An alpha capability would allow you to bring the capability online and link it to the current operational capability. This would allow you to open up new features to a select user community. This community could act as your focus group to help identify issues before expanding the capability to the entire organization. A similar approach could help migrate a CCTV system to an IPTV system while integrating with internally generated video content and streaming media. It could also assist with incremental control system programming refinement and graphical user interface (GUI) evolution.

So what does an alpha capability infrastructure look like? An alpha capability infrastructure can include any combination of virtual, logical, and physical connections between compatible servers, call management systems, and infrastructure components. This could be simple cascading videoconferencing bridges or more complicated Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) linkages between separate voice and video infrastructure components.

An alpha capability may not be able to eliminate security concerns, but it can help to identify unforeseen vulnerabilities before systems are expanded to a large user community that increases risk. One of the best potential benefits of an alpha capability is to assess the bandwidth impact of any new AV capability before the user community is increased. This helps to mitigate risk to the network's ability to handle AV traffic and can lead to a phased deployment of the capability as bandwidth is expanded to keep pace with demand. This approach is much more likely to get support from network transport stakeholders than largescale changes and closed pilots that cannot accurately predict network impact.

The challenges of bringing new AV capabilities into an agency are numerous and diverse, but alpha capabilities can eliminate or reduce the impact of several common political and infrastructure challenges. On the political side, it is much easier to get buy in on a limited capability for a small user group than to get agreement on massive changes to the network. It is also easier to justify a project that has not been thoroughly planned and validated since the alpha capability is lower cost than an enterprise solution and can reveal valuable project information, including realistic costs and impacts that often cannot be accurately predicted by the best project plans.

Alpha capabilities also eliminate the infrastructure risks associated with standing up new capabilities in an operational environment. Lower cost means some more risk can be taken, but, more important, you and your engineers can take the time to refine the system and get it working properly before taking it to the masses. With the understanding that they will not have full capabilities and there will be issues, the alpha user community can contribute to capability refinement by sharing their finding with the AV team through user community wikis and blogs. This makes the users part of the solution and development process, and turns their focus from complaints to constructive feedback.

This approach can also work between agencies, and could be transferred from government to industry. By associating alpha capability infrastructures, many of the risks that create internal resistance to external connections can be reduced. Smaller scale alpha testing can be the answer to walking the fine line between interconnectivity desired by many agencies and the need to protect internal systems from corruption or outages.

Your AV and IT consultants, contractors, integrators, and equipment manufacturers can provide some of the best supporting materials and ideas to help you identify opportunities for alpha capabilities. In fact, the idea to use alpha capability pilots connected to real operational capabilities was recently mentioned to me by a manufacturing partner's engineer during a technology exchange meeting. While the concept of alpha capabilities is nothing new, the application of alpha capabilities to overcome the challenges of integrating AV capabilities on IP networks may be new to some of us. Nonetheless, a lot of smart people are already using alpha environments to test and refine capabilities. I'm not suggesting that it is the only or even the best way to bring new AV capabilities onto your agency's network. I do however, suggest, that alpha capabilities should be considered as another option to help you find the solutions that will meet your agency's unique mission requirements.

Gary L. Hall, CTS-D, CTS-I, is a program management execution officer at the National- Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) in Bethesda, MD. He is also an adjunct instructor at the InfoComm Academy and can be reached at garylhall@gmail.com. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are in no way officially endorsed by NGA, and do not necessarily represent the views of the United States.

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