Converged networks that handle data, voice, and video and that allow for collaboration and videoconferencing are the Holy Grail for networking administrators. The benefits of such networks and applications are substantial, ranging from significant cost reductions by eliminating redundant voice networks, to increased productivity due to collaboration and videoconferencing technologies.

But preparing a network to handle demanding collaboration and videoconferencing applications is not as simple as adding some extra bandwidth and plugging in a few video cameras and IP phones. It may require network reconfiguration, as well as a change in the way companies do business. Unless the network is prepared properly, conferencing and collaboration can become a time and money sink, rather than a benefit.

To help network administrators prepare their networks, experts and administrators who have been through the process were asked how they made it work. Here's the advice they offer.

Profile your network and match it to your applications
The first step toward preparing your network is to profile it and get a baseline understanding of its performance, including bandwidth demands, application usage, latency, and packet loss, said Manickam Sridhar, chief technology officer of Converged Access, a provider of WAN traffic management technology in Massachusetts.

"Ninety-nine percent of those who install collaboration and videoconferencing have little knowledge of what is going on in their networks," Sridhar said.

Armed with such a profile, you should compare your network's capabilities to the technical needs of the collaborative and conferencing applications you'll install, and then tune your network for the applications, he said.

Key to doing this is understanding that conferencing and collaboration do not behave like simple data applications such as Web browsing. Collaborative applications, such as workgroup and application-sharing, suffer when there is too much network latency, so latency should be minimised before installing them. Even more demanding are videoconferencing and VoIP, Sridhar said, which both become unusable when there is packet loss. So networks that will use those applications need to be tuned to eliminate as much packet loss as possible.

Redesign your network -- and consider outsourcing
Collaboration and conferencing applications put serious demand on networks, and so in some cases, a network redesign may be required. Sridhar recommended creating a VLAN for the conferencing and collaboration applications as a way to shield desktop users on the rest of the network from being bogged down when collaboration and conferencing is used.

He also said that network switches must be configured to provide high priority for videoconferencing over other uses, as a way to ensure that video looks as lifelike as possible.

Administrators should also take into account the different levels of quality available for videoconferencing, because higher quality requires higher bandwidth, which translates into higher network and bandwidth costs. So you need to determine for what purposes the video will be used, and then determine if you can get by with lower bandwidth.

For example, for simple training purposes, which primarily feature a "talking head" instructor, 512kbit/s-quality video is perfectly adequate. But if the conferencing system will be used for medical purposes, which require high-quality video, 1.5-Mbit/s video is a much better bet.

After doing a network analysis, administrators may find that it's less costly and more time-efficient, to outsource videoconferencing or collaboration, rather than tune the network for the application or buy additional bandwidth.

That's what Subaru of America did when it deployed WebEx collaboration and videoconferencing. Darryl Draper, Subaru's National Customer Relationships and Loyalty Training Manager, chose to outsource videoconferencing via WebEx's MediaTone Network.

"We have serious bandwidth issues, even without videoconferencing," Draper said. "We're a sales organisation and have a tremendous amount of activity on our network because of our internal reporting requirements at the end of every 10-day period - and it's horrendous at the end of the month."

Subaru uses WebEx for training its 600 dealers, each of whom has from 35 to 50 employees. The bandwidth needs would have been staggering, added on top of what was already a bogged-down network. In addition, Subaru worried about the security implications of allowing so many outsiders into its network. So it chose to outsource.

Pay attention to the details
Sometimes it's the minor, pre-deployment details that can lead to headaches if they are not taken care of properly. For example, Draper said that even though Subaru outsourced videoconferencing, its internal staff was unable to participate in videoconferencing at first because their administrative rights weren't initially set properly. Once the rights were set, videoconferencing worked fine.

Firewalls also need to be taken into account. Yvel Guelce, network administrator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, said the museum uses the LifeSize videoconferencing system for outreach and distance learning. All he needed to do to prepare his network for videoconferencing, he said, was open the proper port on the firewall to let the application through.

Consider the implications of conferencing
Also key to successfully deploying conferencing on your network is recognising how the system will be used by employees and how it fits into the way your company does business, and then adjusting the network and your business processes accordingly.

So said Reid Carr, president of Red Door Interactive, an Internet consulting company. Red Door installed Microsoft's SharePoint collaboration system several years ago.

"Pay attention to your storage needs before deploying," he advised. "Your storage demands are going to grow exponentially, and you have to be prepared for that."

Just as important as making sure there is enough storage is putting together a logical server storage plan, he said, one that will allow people to easily navigate through the storage system to find shared data quickly. That means creating a logical directory structure. Red Door sent the proposed structure to all staff members before it was put into place in order to get feedback. That way, the most effective structure was put into place, and employees bought into the design as well, because they had a hand in designing it.

"Even if I've never worked in a project before, I can now find the data associated with it, because of how easy our directories are to navigate," he said..

Get your staff ready
Finally, and in some ways most important, Reid said, is to prepare your staff and your organisation, not just your network, for collaboration and conferencing. This means far more than training. Collaboration and conferencing tools must be matched to the company's business processes, specifically how work will flow through the organisation, and who "owns" certain documents and has final sign-off on them.

Collaboration can be a productivity booster because it allows people to remotely work together on documents and applications. But if it is unclear who has final sign-off, then all a company is left with are documents with multiple markups and comments, and no clear path to approval.

Reid said his company spent a significant amount of time before the deployment establishing workflows and sign-offs. In fact, the company probably spent more time on that than on the network infrastructure itself.

"We spent a lot of opportunity costs and money on SharePoint," he said. "We have our clients and vendors work on the same infrastructure as well. It represented a very serious investment for us. But we prepared for it properly, and we've found that the payback has been tremendous."