CERN retires proprietary video conferencing system in favor of Vidyo

Tim Smith has some of the best IT end users in the world: the physicists who do research at CERN, which runs the particle physics lab that is home to the Large Hadron Collider, because they need little instruction when it comes to new technology.

Case in point: the swap from a proprietary video conferencing system to Vidyo's commercial version. "We don't have to go with training," says Smith, the leader of Collaboration and Information Services Group at CERN's headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. "They experiment and do it themselves."

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Smith himself a Ph.D.  in High-Energy Physics and a CERN researcher for 10 years before moving to IT says that sometimes commercial products lag behind in capabilities vs. those CERN creates itself, and that included video conferencing. "Quite often what we do is invent our own because of a need we can't meet," he says.

CERN has about 3,000 scientists all over the globe who participate in experiments and review of analyses before results are published. While many institutes that participate in CERN had commercial room-based video systems, there was no Web-based system that allowed individuals or small groups to conference in via PCs, Smith says.

So when CERN needed such a videoconferencing system in 1996 it tapped into a privately developed one created by an outside participating institution (he wouldn't say which one). It remained in use until the start of this year, when the Vidyo system came into full production.

CERN's requirements for its video system are stringent. It must support a range of commercial, room video systems as well as a full range of laptops, desktops and mobile devices.

The proprietary system used until earlier this year had a client that was downloaded to participant's PCs through their browsers and for years outstripped anything that was commercially available. But CERN constantly reviews all its technology, both proprietary and commercial, to decide whether commercial products are good enough and practical enough to adopt, Smith says.

In that vein, CERN piloted Vidyo's conferencing gear roughly in 2009 or 2010, he says, to see whether it could scale to the needs of the organization, which supports 250 conferences per day, with 3,000 individuals participating in those conferences. The largest single conference had more than 250 participants, and overall provided connectivity for 3,000 connections of independent users in a day.

Both the proprietary predecessor and Vidyo are similar in that they require downloading a local client and configuring audio (speakers or headset) and video (laptop camera or video camera) equipment. CERN offers a permanent test meeting room that any eligible participant can connect to ahead of their actual conference in order to make sure the equipment is set up properly, Smith says.

With support for scalable video coding (SVC), the Vidyo equipment can scale down to work well over very poor connections by using a smaller display window, lower resolution or fewer frames per second.

The equipment supports devices running Windows, iOS, Linux and Android. In a pinch participants could use smartphones and they have, but that's a last resort as when a conference participant has to catch a plane and the only option is to conference in from the airport, Smith says. Support for iOS devices was something the proprietary system lacked, he says.

By using Vidyo, CERN is able to bring video conferencing under the direct control of CERN's collaboration group rather than using a service as provided by the participating institution, he says. This allows the service to scale and to standardize support for the system. Smith says individual users barely notice the switch has been made to Vidyo.

CERN still hasn't gone entirely over to Vidyo even though it supplies the basic infrastructure. CERN had created a video management tool called Indico that acts as a central hub for scheduling audio and video conferences, booking rooms and enlisting other conferencing infrastructure such as video room systems. Indico remains in use because it works so well to meet CERN's needs and is familiar to users.

Meanwhile CERN continues its never-ending search for better equipment. For example right now it is standardized on Tandberg gear for room systems, but as part of its constant review of other options, is considering other vendors. "At the moment we're just doing the market assessment for the next round," Smith says. "In IT that's what we do."

Tim Greene covers Microsoft and unified communications for Network World and writes the Mostly Microsoft blog. Reach him at and follow him on Twitter@Tim_Greene.

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