Thursday, June 3, 2010

Virtual Worlds for Business. Its not Playing. Its Work.

I was recently invited to join a Virtual Spaces discussion through the Thinkbalm™ Innovation Community on LinkedIn™. They arranged a conference via SecondLife®. It sounded fun – we’d each choose an avatar and participate as if attending a real life conference.

Admittedly, this wasn’t an entirely new idea for me. I started playing with Avaya’s inherited web.alive service (http://www.avayalive.com) almost as soon as it joined Avaya via the Nortel Acquisition. Yep, “playing”. After all, it isn’t often you can legitimately play PC games while at the office. And this thing is undeniably fun.

Disclaimer: Marketing cautioned me not to over-emphasize the word “play” as it might give readers the impression that this isn’t a serious business tool. So if you have that impression, wherever you see the word “play”, please substitute: “engaging in an intuitive environment that encourages exploration and interaction with people both within and outside of my company”.
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Sure, there’s truth to that. Nic Sauriol who leads this project observes that there are real benefits to using virtual spaces vs just a regular audio conference call. For example, sidebar conversations and virtual eye contact drive people to stay engaged rather than multitask. For this habitual multitasker, after joining several meetings in web.alive, I’d have to agree. Yet it’s still fun.

Anyway, back to the LinkedIn virtual conference. I downloaded the 23Mb SecondLife file and tried to use it only then discovering that I would need to work with our corporate IT to assure access. While in many cases it can be straightforward to unblock a specific URL and port for firewall traversal, SecondLife is a bit tougher on firewalls than typical enterprise applications. This is a known problem, and SecondLife provides engineering guidelines online (the SecondLife’s configuration guide).

Since I was new to the Immersive Internet, I assumed that the complexity was inherent in Virtual Spaces. But then it dawned on me that I had joined lots of meetings in web.alive without encountering the traversal problem – even with folks outside of the firewall. So I asked the experts.

The folks on LinkedIn offered a variety of answers (you can find the discussion by joining the Thinkbalm community here) that salved the firewall challenges of SecondLife. Darius Lahoutifard CEO at Altydyn™, observed that SecondLife and other virtual spaces started out as consumer games, and proxies/firewalls weren’t as much of an issue. Several folks suggested system integrators that will design and realize a virtual world solution – including firewall traversal. Another approach for vendors is to build a custom SecondLife client based on an open source platform, such as Snowglobe, that will point to a cloud-based proxy which incorporates simplified port management and would have an easier time traversing corporate firewalls. Another vendor, nTeams, partnered with the ALCUS virtual world design firm to provide a corporate customized collaboration platform based on SecondLife and will engineer traversal approaches.

New solutions such as Avaya’s web.alive have been designed from the bottom up for corporate use. In addition to ours, I was pointed to Altydyn™’s, for example. And David Gardner, CEO of Venuegen observes that it’s VoIP that typically has a problem with firewalls (e.g., observe in the table above that most of those listed are VoIP related ports) so his company permits telephony dial-in as a fallback.

While that LinkedIn conversation confirmed that there is a common issue around NAT/firewalls for virtual spaces, it only fueled my curiosity. Why didn’t I run across this problem with web.alive? It turns out that this is an inherently complicated problem and was the focus of considerable investment in designing web.alive 2.0 released last fall.

Coming from a vendor familiar with VoIP as well as data networking, they engineered the solution to reduce the number of ports required to just a few, (the exact number changes based on the enterprise environment). Part of their answer was the acquisition of DiamondWare who lent this program 3D spatial audio: a client is fed the audio stream via RTP, and 3DVoice properties controlling spatial presentation are sent via a second port consolidating the audio requirement to just a couple of ports. Additionally, using their data networking experience the web.alive solution automatically analyzes typical port configurations – for example http and/or https tunneling through port 80 when they can, or automatically testing connections as administered within corporate-approved browser settings. If there was just one browser, proxy method, operating system, and firewall in the world this would be simple. But the myriad of combinations, incompatibilities, and even browser software bugs made this difficult. I have to hand it to the web.alive team in tracking down and mitigating the problems so the program is friendly for corporate IT use.

So while enterprise firewalls can inhibit adoption for some legacy virtual worlds, vendors mitigate this via integration services for IT departments. Meanwhile, more recent Virtual Collaboration solutions such as our web.alive were developed specifically for businesses and can ease adoption. They’re designed to be firewall/NAT friendly, and more-and-more people should be able to join these conferences without first consulting with their IT org. So the odds are improving that one day we’ll meet while playing with these new serious business tools.

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