The real world problems with Skype Room System (SRS)

When Microsoft announced Project Rigel and the new generation of meeting room devices about 2 years ago they all but declared the end of unreliable, non-user friendly, unintuitive meeting room systems. They said they were going to “simplify a meeting room with just one push of a button”.

Microsoft are a software company, and from this point of view I actually think they’ve achieved their aim. However, there are many other aspects of a meeting room which need to be considered before you select or invest in a solution and it’s these aspects that make me think twice before recommending the Skype Room System (SRS).

Whilst I don’t think anyone at this point can rival Microsoft’s UI skills on the SRS, I have three main issues with using it as an Enterprise level meeting room system. I’m talking the type of enterprise where you might have hundreds or maybe even thousands of rooms.

Maintenance & Management

Can you imagine having anything more cumbersome than a Windows machine acting as a VC endpoint in a meeting room? No, neither can I? I mean, first you have to build the thing (probably using an approved image or scripted install from your Desktop or Infrastructure team). Then you have to put the company antivirus software on it and whatever else is mandated. Next you have to work out a patching schedule and pray they don’t apply patches that bring down your endpoint. There’s already a precedent here.

Then you have to work out how you’re going to keep track of these endpoints. How are you going to monitor uptime, status and make sure the mic, speakers and camera are all plugged in and operational? How are you going to manage the settings across hundreds/thousands of SRS endpoints. Sure, you can use OMS, but tell me that doesn’t look as complex as hell and scare the crap out of you. At least Polycom have Resource Manager (admittedly with it’s foibles) and StarLeaf give you Maestro (admittedly still very young).

Moving the endpoint to the table?

In most cases the SRS is a Surface Pro in a dock that sits on the table in the meeting room. This differs from a traditional VC room where the endpoint or codec traditionally sits under or behind the screen(s) at the front of the room.

There are a range of options for SRS

The advantage of the traditional position of the endpoint is that you can hide cables in the wall/ceiling/floor etc. An endpoint typically has a lot of cables going to to it; power, network, camera(s), speakers, microphone(s), HDMI cables, content sharing cable etc. Move that to the middle of the table and what have you got? A cabling nightmare.

Move that to the middle of the table and what have you got? A cabling nightmare.
Lots of cables. Pic from Matt Landis’ site here

Not only is this a mess but it can cause reliability issues. Whilst cable issues are not unheard of when it’s located at the front of the room, moving it to the table only increases the chance of someone playing around with it or trying to steal the cables for something else. Polycom and Logitech have tried various techniques to get over this. Polycom clamp the cables into the dock to stop people playing. Logitech have developed some kind of CAT6 extension for $800 (which sounds fairly promising to be fair).

Too much on the table?

The next issue with moving the endpoint to the table is the amount of kit that ends up on the table. Think about a solution with either a Polycom or Logitech dock with either a Polycom Trio or a Logitech Group for audio. That type of solution is suitable for a small room (medium at a stretch) and even then that’s a lot of the table taken up with VC kit.

Microphones

Lets put it out there, having mics on the table absolutely sucks. Ever seen people pass the mic around the table as someone else starts to speak? I’ve even seen someone pass a Polycom Trio around.

Ever been on the receiving end of a loud keyboard typist, or a table tapper. It’s annoying and exasperated by a table mic. Then there’s the common scenario of people talking from behind a laptop with the mic sitting behind the screen. It’s not ideal.

Lets put it out there, having mics on the table absolutely sucks.

Ceiling mics provide the best experience. It’s a much more elegant solution too. If this is done properly all you have to leave on the table is some kind of control panel.

The problem we have with SRS is that it’s connectivity is predominantly USB based. USB ceiling mics are few and far between and tend to be fiendishly expensive. Then you have the issues with USB extensions. The maximum length a USB 2.0 cable can be is around 10m. USB 3.0 is even shorter. Try getting that from the ceiling, down the wall, under the floor to the desk. It isn’t going to happen. The only solution is to go with one of the established brands for ceiling mics and somehow get them to terminate this to USB. Shure do this unit at about $700 for example.

I know Microsoft are working with some traditional audio vendors to bring some certified solutions to the SRS. Time will tell if this helps this issue.

Conclusion

The only reason I would attempt to deploy SRS on a grand scale is because of the UI and user experience. It’s just better than everything else out there. After all, it’s a native client and we all know this is pretty much always a preferred option.

In my opinion the SRS was a good idea but executed quite poorly on the hardware side. I still think something like an Intel NUC at the front of the room or behind the TV and then an iPad or Android tablet running the control panel on the table would have been a better (and cheaper) option. Plus it would have been easier to setup in rooms and wouldn’t have needed the type of dock extension solutions Logitech have had to develop to get over the issue of moving the endpoint to the table.

If you’re going to put a VC solution in hundreds of rooms, it needs to be pretty much bombproof. It needs a robust management and monitoring platform, as well as something that is physically easy to implement and adapt to different rooms.

Unfortunately, I don’t think SRS is quite there yet.

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