Guide to Collaboration

Outlining the technologies that make collaboration tick

By Jason Meserve

Collaboration tools take many forms – from synchronous Web- and videoconferencing systems to asynchronous Web 2.0 tools such as blogs and wikis. Here's a quick primer on how each operates.

Web conferencing
For end users, joining a Web conference usually means clicking on a URL, entering a meeting code and dialing into a standard phone bridge. Some systems are using a built-in VoIP connection to replace the telephone audio, so a microphone is required for those that need two-way voice communication.

While a few Web-conferencing providers are standardizing on Adobe Flash or Java for delivering the application to the browser, many still require specialty components to be downloaded and installed into the browser interface before a user can enter the meeting. Users should plan on entering the conference a few minutes ahead of time to ensure that all the necessary components are downloaded and installed.

On the administrative side, things are relatively simple when using a service provider. Just make sure the appropriate users have the right credentials to log into the system. Most of the configuration with a service provider can be done through a browser.

For internal applications, Web-conferencing systems can come in two formats: Software installed on a standard server or an appliance that includes the necessary hardware and software for running conferences. Many appliances have built-in phone bridges for tying together multiple users.

In both cases, the IT staff must monitor the hardware for any failure (such as power supplies and hard drives) and install any necessary software and operation-system upgrades. Most Web-conferencing applications come with Web-based management interfaces for configuring and tweaking settings. Hardware-based systems can also be tied into larger IT management systems like HP's OpenView.

Also, allocating the appropriate amount of bandwidth and ports can be a concern. How many people are going to be connected to the server at one time? How much bandwidth will each user require? A PowerPoint presentation pushed out to a few viewers does not require much bandwidth. But adding a VoIP connection and application sharing across many users, bandwidth at the server is an issue that needs to be watched.

Some providers, such as WebEx, offer a hybrid option that allows customers to run servers internally for most meetings and use the hosted service for failover or overflow traffic.

Videoconferencing and telepresence applications
These are the most complicated of the three types of collaboration tools as well as the most bandwidth-intensive. Group conferences typically require a set-top videoconferencing unit connected via IP to a similar system on the far end. Standards adhered to by most vendors in this market, such as H.323 for IP communication and H.460 for traversing firewalls, make it easy to connect a Polycom system with a Tandberg, for instance, when using standard videoconferencing. For multiparty video calls, a multipoint control unit (MCU) is required to bridge the users together. Many set-top systems contain small MCUs for connecting up to six endpoints, and larger appliance-based systems are available for IT departments wanting to host internally.

Succeeding at telepresence is a little trickier. Telepresence itself is videoconferencing on steroids. Typically, systems are built into special rooms, as they require multiple large (50 inches or more) screens. Cameras are mounted at eye level to give the feeling that participants are looking each other directly in the eye. Many systems use the same IP or ISDN transports as standard videoconferencing, but given their size and capabilities, most customers must buy them in pairs in order to use them to their fullest potential. They're mostly used for intracompany meetings at large, global organizations.

Wikis and blogs
Both of these collaborative tools are typically hosted on a Web server, with some requiring a back-end database for storing entries. Blogging and wiki software can be hosted on a local server or are offered through third-party service providers. For end users, a Web browser is all that is needed. For IT, Web server, server hardware and database skills are essential.

Wikis are essentially Web pages that anyone with access can edit or add information to. The wiki software tracks revisions to each page and gives administrators the tools to roll back changes, if necessary. Simple wikis run on a Web server (such as Apache) with a wiki engine such as TikiWiki installed. The engine takes the input and creates the HTML pages that comprise the wiki. More complex implementations like the Drupal content management system use an underlying database (such as MySQL) for storing content.

Blogs are run in a similar fashion. A Web server is needed as well as an engine for taking input and publishing HTML. Drupal, Moveable Type and WordPress are a few popular blog software offerings.

For both Wikis and blogs, end users enter data and access them through a browser.

Other key components of collaboration include: 

Conceptual search -- is an important technology for use in large-scale wiki or blog systems. It allows queries to be entered as a natural language string with returned results related to the query but not necessarily containing the query's keywords.
Learning Management System (LMS) is a tool for administering and tracking training courses. Simple systems come with some Web-conferencing offerings that target corporate training groups, while others have built-in hooks to more robust, stand-alone LMS.

RSS -- a technology by which companies push specialized streams of data out to knowledge workers. Users can subscribe to a stream using a reader application (stand-alone, a service such as Google Reader or through a companion application to e-mail).

Screen sharing --  an application for letting a remote user see another screen via a Web browser.

Whiteboarding  -- a technology used in Web conferencing that provides the ability to annotate over an image. Typically, these annotations can be saved as part of the conference proceedings.


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