by October 11, 2002 0 comments

E-mail is the most used application of the Internet. However, there is a limit to what e-mail can do. There are times when you’d like to hold a conversation with others in your organization and be able to get their ideas immediately. If the individuals are in different locations, it would be difficult to hold a normal meeting without incurring the expenses of travel and lodging.

Even holding a telephonic conference could easily cost a prohibitive sum. And none of the participants would be able to share their ideas visually with anyone too. In our October issue (Corporate Instant Messaging, page 71) we saw another way to collaborate within an organization using Corporate Instant Messaging with Exchange; however that, too, does not solve the problem here.

MS Exchange 2000 Conferencing Server is the solution to this conundrum. If you have an Exchange-based mailing solution in your organization, adding data and video-conferencing abilities to your organization is simple enough. You can read on to see how to do this. It is very important to note, however, that this article assumes you have a perfectly working Exchange 2000-based collaborative solution for your organization already set up. Exchange requires a lot of study, planning and infrastructure set up and enterprises must use experienced and qualified people only to do this. 

Exchange Conferencing Server (Conf Server from now on), is available as a separate package from Microsoft. It requires to be installed in an existing Exchange 2000 domain as it upgrades the Active Directory and installs special mailboxes there.

Installing Conf Server is simple enough. Once the set up starts, you would be required to enter the name of exchange server and domain for the conf Server to install into. 

Once the set up is complete, you will find a new program in the Microsoft Exchange program group in the Start menu. Run the Conference Manager to open the MMC console to configure conferences. There are a few required things to do here before people in your organization can start conferencing with one another. 

The first thing to do is right click on the conferencing server you wish to configure, and select Properties. Go to the Conference Calendar tab in the dialog box that opens and press the “Create…” button. Fill in a name such as Conference Calendar and the other details and save it. This is the mailbox that is used by the Conf Server to store details of conferences and the kind that they are.

The next important thing to do is to set up “resources”. These resources are nothing but more Exchange mailboxes but act in a special way. They can be thought of as “conference rooms” that allow you to do different types of conferences. You can create a data-conferencing resource, a video- conferencing resource or a combination of both. A resource would require being “booked” for use when a conference is set up. The screenshots with this article show you how to set up both data and video-conferencing resources. As you can see, we have called them Data Room and Video Room. It is possible to create as many rooms as you want by naming them differently and assigning different mailboxes to them.

Once this is done, your users are ready to start conferencing. Test this out with a small group first. Open MS Outlook 2000 or XP, login to you exchange mailbox and create a new meeting request, or double-click on a time in the calendar. Turn on the “This is an online meeting” checkbox and select “Microsoft Exchange Conference” from the drop-down. The top of the form will show a new line in yellow marking it as an online meeting. 

Next, click on “Invite Attendees”. This brings up a “To” line. You can type in the names of people you wish to invite for the conference here. There is one more important step that the conference organizer must always do. Click the “To” button to bring up the Global address book and the names of people you selected as shown in the screenshot. Now, select a conference room from the list (either data or video depending on the type of conference you want it to be) and click the “Resources->” button. This step sets the type of conference it is. In case the resource is already booked at the same time, you will be informed about that and you can select a different resource or a different time. This goes for the attendees as well, just like when setting up an appointment using Outlook and Exchange. 

Once back in the meeting request form, you can select whether external attendees are allowed or not and a password. Type in any other information in the form that needs to be sent to the attendees and press Send. The meeting request is immediately sent to all the attendees. 

Attendees get the intimation of the conference via a special e-mail. They can choose to Accept, Reject or Ignore the invitation. In case they do accept, a calendar entry is made for them in Outlook that will remind the user before the conference starts. An e-mail is also sent to the conference organizer about the acceptance of the invitation. The other way also works, that is, the organizer can cancel a conference and choose whether or not all the attendees are automatically informed or not.

There are two ways of attending a conference. You can click the URL given in the invitation to open up IE and go directly to the conference. Or browse to http://<confservername>/conferencing (where <confservername> is the name of the conferencing server) and click on the “Attend a Conference Now!” link. This will show you a list of conferences running, pending or started. Click the name of the conference to join (if you get access into it).

The first time you join a data or video conference, you will be asked to install a couple of small ActiveX controls into the browser. Press “Yes” on the screens to install them and attend the conference. 

The conference window is broken up into two or three frames. The left frame always contains details of the conference, the title, time remaining, the name of the organizer, and the resource being used. If you are the organizer, you can even extend the time the conference runs if you require. 

If you have selected a data conference, the right side frame will contain the names of the attendees along with a few buttons below the names. You can use these buttons to start a chat session with all or one person (just like in MSN Messenger), use a whiteboard to draw concepts and allow others to make their entries on them, send files to one another and even share applications. This is a very useful feature in case you wish to demonstrate how a particular feature in an application works for example. You can even let the others request control for the application and then they can use that application on your
desktop to show you something back!

In a video conference, you would require a Web camera, sound card, speakers and microphone on the computers that the attendees are using to connect. Make sure the Web cameras that you are using are compatible with MS Exchange. I’ve run into trouble with certain brands that do not integrate well and can cause a lot of problems, some of which are not apparent and can lead to a lot of headaches while debugging. 

If you do have everything perfectly set up, the right frame will show you a set of video windows. The first one is your own view, that is, the view that others get of you. The other windows show you the other participants view screens. If you are using an OS less than Win 2000, only the current speaker and you will be visible at any time. On Win 2000 and above, all video feeds are simultaneously visible. Conf Server is also clever enough to detect the bandwidth of the connection for each user and stream the appropriate bit rate to him. This is done by encoding the stream in all available bit rates at the server and sending only the appropriate ones across the wire for each user. So, even if you are on a T3 line and your attendees are on 56K modems, they will receive the video feed appropriately. 

If the type of resource you selected while creating the conference allows both data and video at the same time, the right side frame further gets divided into two areas. The top frame shows the data part and the bottom one shows the video. 

As you can see, Exchange Conferencing Server is a powerful and easy to use collaboration mechanism in today’s corporate world where cost cutting–from travel, boarding and lodging to telephone costs and courier are all prohibitive. Using Exchange 2000 Conferencing Server you can use your existing network infrastructure to hold much more powerful discussions that what you could do otherwise at a fraction of the cost.

Vinod Unny is a Technology Consultant at Enterprise InfoTech

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