Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2014/06/25/cloud_comms/
3CX WebMeeting reviewed: Youthful, but full of promise
Video-conferencing made easy
3CX has released its newest WebMeeting videoconferencing solution. As I still had the virtual machines from my testing of its software PBX rattling around my lab, trying this latest offering seemed like a good plan.
After some fits and starts it tested out well, better than I had expect from a 1.0 product.
Unified communications is a space in which I have been investing a lot of time. The big players seem to be Microsoft (Lync and Skype) and Cisco (CallManager and WebEx).
There also are any number of smaller players, from the nearby SIP provider I use (Planet Telecom) up to mid-sized organisations with great customer lists, like 3CX itself.
I am both a full-time sysadmin and a full-time writer and I need a proper communications infrastructure to support my endeavours. I spend a lot of time on the phone in briefings and doing interviews. I do a lot of web meeting demos and live and breathe this stuff when I am doing tech support.
In my searches, I have tried many webinar products from different companies. Some, such as ClickWebinar, were unmitigated disasters, with a broken product and even worse support. Others, like WebEx, just work – but to call them a little on the pricey side is being a little generous.
What I want is the simplicity and cost effectiveness of my (very accommodating) SIP provider, the unshakeable public-facing webinar reliability of WebEx*, the technical support capabilities of TeamViewer and the global contact list capabilities of Skype – and all from a company I can trust.
Does 3CX offer this magical combination? No – but it comes the closest among products I have worked with so far.
WebMeeting has two components. The first is integration with your 3CX Phone System server. This allows staff who are running the 3CX softphones to launch a web meeting with a few simple clicks.
The second component lives in Microsoft Azure and is where most of the real heavy lifting takes place.
First you go to the conference tab. Next you "create a web meeting". (Click to enlarge screenshots.)
Don't forget to tell everyone what the meeting is about
Select the options you require and upload any documents that you want attendees to have to hand. (A slide deck, perhaps, or a pre-briefing they should read.)
The options are few but clear
Select any participants internal to your organisation (those who have accounts on the 3CX server that your instance of WebMeeting is tied to) and then add any external participants you wish to invite by entering names and email addresses.
Invite your Robotic Overlord
The Azure component of the exercise will then email everyone involved (all messages appears to pass through a Symantec messaging gateway on its way to participants). The email will include a calendar invite and a link to join the meeting. The emails sent to the host and the participants are almost identical.
If you don't have the 3CX client installed then clicking on the link in the email will prompt you to install it. You then need to go back to the link in the email and click a link on the webpage to join the meeting.
Unfortunately, if you are using a properly defended browser, the web page can't sense that you have the application installed, so you get a great big "download client" button and a small, barely noticeable "click here to join the meeting" link. This needs to be bigger.
After that, the software launches and it waits for the host to start the meeting.
The meeting software itself is… meeting software. Meeting software really hasn't changed much in about two decades.
Taken as a whole, 3CX has a shockingly good universal communications lineup. Its phone system is great and its softphones are coming along nicely.
WebMeeting really rounds out the offering by providing a visual communications capability that the phone system was sorely lacking, as well as whiteboard, desktop sharing, virtual classroom and basic remote support capabilities.
Taken as a whole, 3CX has a good product lineup, with each piece complementing the next. Good, but not great: an issue present with all offerings throughout the industry.
3CX's weak spot is that WebMeeting is very young. It isn't nearly so feature-rich as its competitors, and I expect a lot of people will want an all-star cast of someone else to go through the proverbial minefield ahead of them.
In a departure from the "you can run this all on your own infrastructure" aspect of 3CX's phone system, WebMeeting relies on Microsoft's Azure cloud to work.
For small businesses this is probably a great move; Azure is likely to be more reliable than hosting the system themselves. For something like webinars, which you conduct with people outside your organisation, that is a good thing.
Unfortunately, running in Azure means you are not only losing control over a key component of your telecoms, you are handing it to the American government on a silver platter. That could be an issue for some companies – but for those folks, WebEx and other services are out too.
Stay away from the cloud
Given my natural inclination towards worrying about privacy issues, it is easy to focus on the interdependence with the Azure-hosted component.
The truth is that there is a strong case to be made for taking 3CX up on its all-hosted offering. Like all hybrid cloud telecommunications software, 3CX WebMeeting has a certain fragility to it.
One of 3CX's biggest selling points is that you can run its phone system on your own infrastructure. You are in control.
Of course, that also means you are in a position to screw things up. I fought WebMeeting for the better part of two weeks trying to get it to work only to realise the source of my errors was my own DNS system.
The primary DNS server in my test lab is not an authoritative server. It uses a series of forwarders and secondary zones in large part because I am constantly creating and destroying domains in my lab.
The primary DNS forwarder on my DNS server was down. It had been removed for maintenance a month earlier and I had forgotten to take it out of the forwarder sequence for the lab server.
What this meant was that the first DNS request for something simply wouldn't go through. It would time out and then the DNS server would switch to asking the secondary server.
For a month, nothing else gave me any grief about this; WebMeeting didn't like it one bit. It blew up and cried about a DNS error, but of course when I looked up the DNS item in question it was there: my DNS server had just cached it. Fix the DNS server and bam, the whole system works like a charm.
This brings me to the point about 3CX as a cloud service. Sane sysadmins won't run into this problem in production because they will run their telecommunications on dedicated infrastructure.
From the external IP address right through to the database it should all be dedicated gear, and change-managed to the hilt. You don't mess with phones.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there who will be tempted to run their phone systems as part of their private cloud, where it will be exposed to regular change.
To be honest, I don't think 3CX WebMeeting is ready for that. It is a 1.0 product and all the interesting ways it can fail have obviously not yet been discovered.
Depending on how often people in your organisation use WebMeeting, a change that eventually breaks everything could go unnoticed for days or weeks at a time. Dedicated infrastructure would solve that, but so would using 3CX's hosted offering.
While 3CX's WebMeeting product doesn't come with an iOS or Android client yet, it does have something that nobody else does: a WebRTC client with which you can launch web meeting on your Android devices.
This means that WebMeeting can be run from a downloadable client or from a WebRTC compatible browser.
The look and feel of the WebMeeting RTC client is more or less the same as the desktop client. That is to say, it is a WebMeeting client, the same as all the others. If you have ever used WebEx, you will have zero problems using WebMeeting, in either incarnation of the client.
The WebRTC client emerged in the middle of the review as part of Service Pack 6 for 3CX Phone System. This also carried with it a "younger, hipper crew" version of the phone system and its associated web interface.
This UI overhaul is supposedly "designed in the Metro style", but is actually a pretty minor change. Mostly the icons got redone. It may be the only usable Metro interface I have ever worked with.
In all, WebMeeting should be seen as a young product, still evolving. 3CX is growing client support, but it is still a 1.0 under the hood, no matter how fast the company iterates the version numbers.
It is, however, quite obviously the focus of major development at 3CX. WebMeeting is critical to the company's ability to remain competitive, and if the product available at launch is any indication it intends to remain so for some time to come.
The suspicious sysadmin
All of my queasies with 3CX really boil down to paranoia. As a sysadmin I am trained to avoid 1.0 products on general principle.
I am also leery of anything that puts any part of my telecoms data into the hands of the Americans, and I do consider webinar software to be part of that group.
The amazing thing is that this is really the sum total of my gripes. Once you get it working, 3CX's software – from the phone system to the web meeting – really does "just work".
It does the job and it does it well; the only bits left are features I would like to add.
As a sysadmin, I would like 3CX basically to graft TeamViewer into WebMeeting. I don't care about the presence information of people so much as the presence information of the devices they use.
I like the TeamViewer option of viewing things on a per-device basis and the rich suite of tools its 9.0 software has to offer the sysadmin.
I realise it is unfair to hold a unified communications package to Teamviewer's standard for desktop support. Nobody else has that level of oomph.
What drives me with 3CX, however, is that it seems like a company that just might be convinced to do it anyway. It need differentiators, and I am still hunting that truly unified communications dream. ®
* Phones can go down. I don't care. There are at least three cell phones, two SIP phones and a landline in my house that I can use as backups. Webinars absolutely positively must work, every single time, no exceptions. The company's brand image depends on it.