VQ Conference Manager’s “get out of jail” dial-plan tooling

VQ Conference Manager’s dial-plan tooling and functionality has been driven by customer requests for help to ensure that the Call Ids and URIs generated by VQ fit within the dial-plan of the hosting organization.

The initial requests were simple: can we make it possible to configure the prefix that’s used for each auto-generated Call Id.

That was followed by the “Auto-Increment” keyword that allowed URI and Call Id values to be generated during the LDAP Import process; some systems didn’t have LDAP/Active Directory attributes that could be used to import these values from and the delivery team were not able to get the LDAP/AD schema changed (a not uncommon situation with these types of request). The auto-increment values were of defined length; they could be prefixed or post-fixed with values which we were able to identify and therefore allow customers to change the prefixes but maintain the auto-increment values – this particular ability saved one large bank with a mid-service update to their dial-plan.

More recent ones have been more sophisticated; we added a Secondary Call Id field on the LDAP Configuration page to allow “short” Call Ids to be defined. The particular customer in question had a large user base and very high call volumes. Audio Conferencing users were complaining that the Call Id format that had been designed into the solution was user-unfriendly and they were having to enter Call Ids that were too long. We added a secondary Call id that consisted of last 5 digits of the Call Id (via an LDAP attribute transform); the change retained compatibility and also allowed users to use the short Call Ids when joining calls.

The latest change available in 3.1 (coming very soon) is another really cool one (it’s actually several):

We’ve taken the Auto-Increment concept from the LDAP Config page (to generated Call Id and URI values) and added support for it to the Space Template page. The Space Template page also supports a new Call-Id/URI Generator called “Random” that, as the name suggests, enables the generation of less easily guessed values (auto-increment always generates a value of the previous value plus one). Where this gets really cool (and massively user-friendly) is when a user comes to generate a new Call or Space based on the Space Template, the Call Id and URI values are automatically inserted. Because the auto-increment and Random keywords can be prefixed and post-fixed with additional information, the administrator can define the exact URI values that will be generated. The URIs will never clash and the user will never have to think of the value to use. VQCM will also delete the Space (and URI) after the call completes.

Moving forward, we expect to add more Generator keywords to perform specific tasks.

Introducing Elastic Stack (formerly Elastic X-Pack)

For those of you who may not know, here at VQ Communications we are really pleased to announce that we are now an OEM partner of Elastic. This means that you can now buy Elastic Stack (formerly called X-Pack) from VQ to work with your VQCM solution. This means that not only do you get the richness Elastic Search offers but also benefit from additional options including, amongst others, reporting, setting threshold values of specific data, running SQL queries against Elastic Search and more.

Mike Horsley, CEO at VQ Communications outlines why VQ made the strategic decision for the VQCM 3 platform to move all logging and data capture into the Elastic Search database and provide Visualisation via Elastic’s Kibana tooling; what this means for you and why Elastic Stack’s additional optional functionality may be of importance to you.

Read on to find out more.

We made the strategic decision for the VQ Conference Manager 3 platform to move all logging and data capture into the Elasticsearch database and provide visualization via Elastic’s Kibana tooling.

We’re now about 6 months into having VQ Conference Manager 3 deployed in the field and I’m incredibly pleased (and relieved) by the massively positive feedback on the decision; I have been amazed how many customers (and potential customers) have said they’re already using Elasticsearch and Kibana within their organization.

Our initial goal with moving to Elasticsearch and Kibana was to use best of breed, industry standard, tooling to capture and enable the visualization of logging and reporting data coming out of VQ Conference Manager 3. We are so committed on the decision to include Elastic as part of VQ Conference Manager that we signed up to become an OEM partner of Elastic; this involved a fairly substantial $ spend over the next three years – it does mean, however, we get support from their support teams and have been able to resolve problems quickly.

I have to admit though that there were times during the VQ Conference Manager 3 development process I worried we’d made a mistake when we were fighting with a whole raft of issues and nothing seemed to be working; there was a (quite long) period where we seemed to go backwards more than we moved forwards. However, as things started to stabilize and I started to understand how Elastic worked (and we had updated the VQ Conference Manager core to start generating the appropriate data), we started to put queries, visualizations and dashboards together that yielded results that were way in excess of our expectations, providing analysis and insight into issues that would have required huge amounts of manual work in previous versions of the product. We were able to reduce complex (and apparently random) issues down to easily digestible graphs; the problems became defined, well understood and from that, resolvable. From that point on, I was a fully paid-up member of the “Elasticsearch and Kibana is awesome society”.

Building in that experience, we moved forward (at this point, VQ Conference Manager 3 was starting to work reliably – again, I’m sure you can imagine this but that was quite a relief. I started sleeping again) and expanded out the set of Dashboards available in 3.0; as with the internal analysis, the insight we gathered into calling patterns, what the system was doing etc. was way beyond what we’d been able to do in previous versions of Acano Manager. Love blossomed.

VQ Conference Manager 3 is based on a really powerful set of technologies – Kubernetes and a concept called “Containers”. Containers are the things that contain the software components that do the work; Kubernetes is the thing that makes them all together (the so-called orchestration layer). So, in VQ Conference Manager 3, we have a whole bunch of containers – some containing our VQ Conference Manager software and others containing things like the database, Elasticsearch and Kibana. The brilliance is that we can take off the shelf Containers and host them with the VQ Conference Manager service orchestrated by Kubernetes. Each container is, essentially, its own lightweight virtual machine (see:https://techterms.com/definition/container and https://www.docker.com/resources/what-container); we can, therefore, run different Containers and not have to worry that different component dependencies interfere with each other resulting in obscure system failures. Each container is isolated and runs as a well-defined black-box.

So, to summarize the ramble so far: VQ Conference Manager uses state of the art open source technology (Containers and Kubernetes) to allow us to package software into a solution. The VQ Conference Manager 3 solution contains Elasticsearch and Kibana.

The guys and gals at Elastic pay for all of their brilliance by cleverly separating out the functionality that customers value and making them available as an optional extra; the optional extras used to be called X-Pack and are now called “Elastic Stack”.

As an Elastic OEM partner, you can buy Elastic Stack from VQ to work with your VQ Conference Manager solution.

The following is the list of things it enables that we think are appropriate and useful at the moment:

✔ Reporting

  • The ability to export the data from reports as a csv
  • PDF export of reports (see attached example)

✔ Watch

  • The ability to set threshold values of specific data values within the data and send emails, post messages to Slack or inject data/messages into Elastic

✔ Elastic SQL

  • Run SQL queries against Elasticsearch

✔ From Elastic 6.5 (VQ Conference Manager 3.1 will run at Elastic 6.4)

  • Cross-Cluster replication (beta). This will become a really powerful tool – it’ll allow, for example, data from one Elastic Cluster to be replicated to another. Usage scenarios include backing up data or have dedicated “analysis” hosts with extra capacity.
  • As VQ Conference Manager 3 based systems become bigger, this will become invaluable.

✔ Other features enabled include:

  • Graph – the ability to establish relationships between data (example use cases include fraud detection and malicious system access)
  • Machine Learning – a whole bunch of coolness
  • Canvas – a next-generation visualization tool

What is striking about Elastic and Kibana is the velocity of innovation; new releases are frequent and rate of great new functionality being added is amazing.

We are very pleased to have added Elastic and Kibana into the VQ Conference Manager solution.

The process of buying Elastic Stack is straightforward; talk to VQ sales and raise a PO. We’ll issue you a license key which you upload into Elastic; job done.

Mike Horsley

VQ Conference Manager status update (Nov 2018)

We’ve been busy here at VQ Towers working on some pretty cool things…..

  1. The initial VQCM 3.0 version shipped in June and we released 3.0.2 early October for use on production services. Adoption has been excellent and 3.0.2 is working really well in the field.
  2. Work on 3.1 is progressing well; we’re in the process of wrapping up development and focusing now on testing. The big change in 3.1 is Single Sign On (“SSO”). This is looking really good and provides Windows Authentication, SAML 2 and conventional AD/LDAP authentication. There are other changes to Analytics 2 which we think you’ll love but we’ll give more details of that closer to release. VQCM 3.1 is targeted to Beta around the end of November and release early in the new year.
  3. We’ve added some really awesome new functionality to enable Random URI and Call Ids to be created; it’s now possible to define Space Templates and automatically generate the URIs and Call Ids when new Calls or Spaces are created. Look out for this in 2.4.1 (due late November) and 3.1.
  4. We’ve added secondary Call Ids; this has made at least one customer very happy and enabled their users to join calls using ‘short dials’. Look out for this in 2.4.1 and 3.1
  5. Cisco Certification testing; tick. VQCM 3.0 has been through the Cisco certification process and passed with flying colors.
  6.  We are now a Preferred Cisco Partner. How cool is that?

Mike Horsley (CEO)

VQ Conference Manager 3.0 – enable users to make more calls

  • Increased scaling and resilience
  • Multi-node clusters
  • More end user control through Outlook & iOS
  • Skype for Business redirector
  • Analytics 2 (Elasticsearch)

VQ Conference Manager 3.0 (“CM3”) was publicly shown for the first time 10 days ago at the Cisco Live event in Florida.

CM3 has been under development for the last 18 months and builds on the success of Acano Manager 2. Many things have changed, not least the name; we’ve reverted from Acano Manager back to VQ Conference Manager.

The objective with CM3 was to update the AM 2.x architecture to enable scaling, resilience and to provide user tooling and applications that would enable users to have more control of their conferencing experience and as a result of that, make more calls. In short, we want to enable the next generation of big systems and to drive up usage to further increase the return on investment customers are achieving on their Cisco Meeting Servers.

The internal architecture of CM3 has had a major rework and can be run as a multi-node cluster. Initially, this will be limited to a two VM node cluster which will then be increased over the next couple of releases. The cluster approach solves two problems: scalability and resilience. If components in the cluster fail, the system will detect the failure and restart the failing component. In the first versions of CM3, the database is not replicated and therefore represents a potential point of failure; as with the cluster size limitation, this will change in a future release. Another change for a future release will to support “replica master nodes” so that if the current master node fails, a replica master node takes over the role and the system continues running. In terms of scaling, it’ll also be possible to “scale-up” or “scale-down” the system to add, for example, more instances of the web-server to handle larger numbers of users using either the web user interface or the API based applications.

In terms of enabling end users to have more control over their conferencing, we’ve added a range of new applications: An Outlook Add-in that works on Office 2016 and Office 365 which allows users to see activity on their Spaces from within Outlook. Not only that, they can drill down into active calls, see who’s in the call and perform actions like change layout, mutes, set importance or remove people from the call. And create new Spaces or update/delete existing ones – for example, changing passcodes. Select a Space and Inject HTML details into Outlook Emails and Calendar invites to make it easy for other’s to “click to join” into calls. All from within Outlook and no requirement to go to an external website. The Add-in works on Windows, Mac and Office for Web applications.

We’ve also got an iOS Phone app that delivers essentially the same functionality as the Add-In.

There’s also an updated version of the current Outlook plugin for users on older versions of Outlook who can’t move to the Add-in.

And the final new app we will be releasing is a “Skype for Business redirector” plugin. This plugin runs silently within Outlook and replaces the default text injected when a user clicks on the Outlook “Skype for Business” button with details for the user’s CMS based Space.

The Scripting engine architecture and ‘scripting language’ have been replaced and are significantly improved. We’ve rationalized the available set of alerts and provide a wider set of “out of the box” HTML templates that include logos and icons.

The Analytics functionality we added in AM 2.x was OK but was a bit clunky and had limitations. We, therefore, decided to offer “Analytics 2” based on an amazing Open Source project called “Elasticsearch” and its visualization engine called “Kibana”  (also known as “ELK”). Analytics 1 will remain in the product for the foreseeable future but we envisage it eventually being removed. All Analytics data is copied into a separate Analytics 2 database (Elasticsearch) and, in addition, all the dashboard data for CMS licensing and bandwidth consumption is also now available historically (from the point in time you start using CM3).

Outside the new Applications and Analytics 2, functionality is essentially the same as AM 2.3 MR7. The UI, however, is much faster and the LDAP Importer pages have been improved and allow you to select historic log files to check what happened. You no longer lose the data if you leave the Importer page.

In terms of the system requirements and upgrade process:

  • CM3 requires a new VM (or two) with a minimum spec of 4 cores, 16GB of memory and 200GB of disk space per VM.
  • An update upgrade will be available for AM 2.3; install this and export the data. This copies out all the database and certificate data. Import this onto the new 3.0 VM. The process includes all audit and analytic data; this is then copied into the new Elasticsearch database. Historic CMS and bandwidth consumption data is not available in AM 2.3 and therefore cannot be carried forward so will start from the time the CM3 system was installed.

In terms of costs, there is no charge to upgrade from AM 2.x to CM 3.0 on a “like for like” basis. New functionality such as the Outlook Add-in is licensed separately. Analytics 2 in its base form is included as part of the package with an upgrade option available for customers who need to export data, set and mail alarms on threshold values. The objective is to enable you with masses of data and powerful visualization tools. VQ is now an OEM partner of Elasticsearch and can supply X-Pack license upgrades. There are no additional charges for multi-node configurations of CM3 (note: large clusters with multi-node Elasticsearch who have purchased X-Pack do require additional X-pack licenses for clustered Elasticsearch).

Windows customers will, I’m afraid, have to wait for the Windows world to catch-up with what is happening in the Open Source and Cloud worlds. CM3 is based on a Cloud technology from Google called “Kubernetes”; Windows Server 2019 will be available later this year and supports Kubernetes and Containers. Certifying CM3 against Windows Server 2019 is something we will do once it becomes available. We expect to offer Windows (and other) forms of Single Sign-On (“SSO”) relatively quickly; our recommended path for the majority of customers who use Windows because they need SSO will be to switch to the VM based version of CM3 that supports SSO (including Windows Authentication).

CM3 is the next step on the VQ journey; we’re very excited about the solutions it’ll enable and the problems we can help solve. We hope you like it too.

Availability is targeted for somewhere around July 16th 2018.

The path to big

Mike Horsley

CEO VQ Communications

Hi, Mike again from VQ,

In my last post, I mentioned we’d been involved with Microsoft to produce a case study on how we used their new, cross platform, version of .Net. Here’s the article.

We were really pleased to have been asked, to say the least and think it reads really well.

Why is this new version of .Net so important for us? Here goes on trying to explain that…..

We get the obvious benefits of only needing to work with a single runtime; pre Acano Manager 2.2, we had the Windows version of .Net and the open source equivalent called Mono. From 2.2 onwards, we only have .Net Core. It’s from Microsoft and has been massively tested; it’s robust and fast.

In addition to that, we also get all the benefits of .Net Core being licensed under the MIT open source license. This is a bold and, I think, incredible, move by Microsoft. It means that companies like us can use the software from Microsoft in almost any manner we please; we can modify it or redistribute it. All at zero cost.

“the path to big”

The question, though is still, so what?

It increases the rate at which we can innovate and solve the problems faced by our customers. Our journey to adopting Open Source components started several years ago when we started using a JavaScript library (jQuery) in our user interface. That led us to use a package called Knockout; it enabled us to make the “Calls In Progress” page in our Conference Manager product dynamic and extremely responsive. The success of that drove our design requirements for the Acano Manager 2 User Interface. We ended up selecting Google’s Angular library (and that process pulled through a raft of other libraries and packages). We also started hiring Open Source expertise and have moved our development process onto the model used by the Open Source communities.

As Acano Manager 2.0 proceeded down the development path, eventually released and has had 12 months of further development, our adoption of Open Source technologies and ideas has continued. One of the key ones we’ve adopted is Docker. Docker is amazing although it took me months to get my head around it and fully understand what I was being told. Fortunately for me (and VQ), the idea to use it came from within the team (my contribution was to say “yes”). Initially, we used it as part of our test infrastructure and it enabled us to quickly spin up, test and then collapse test environments. Over the last 24 months, our adoption has increased and we now use it across the board.

 

In fact, we’re working on future versions of Acano Manager that use Docker to provide a multi-node, scalable, resilient architecture that can host really large workloads (2+ million minutes per day; 40+ million call minutes/month) with large numbers of users using the self-service portal.

“…multi-node, scalable, resilient architecture that can host really large workloads (2+ million minutes per day; 40+ million call minutes/month)”

Coming back to the original question, why is .Net Core such a big deal for us? The answer is simple: it provides the base upon which we can innovate at a speed which was previously inconceivable or completely unaffordable. We will use it and other state of the art components to deliver the big systems our customers are going to need as they grow.

regards

Mike

 

 

 

jQuery: https://jquery.com/

Knockout: http://knockoutjs.com/

Angular: https://angular.io/

AngularJS: https://angularjs.org/

Docker: https://www.docker.com

Microsoft Net Core: https://github.com/dotnet/core

Introducing 2.1 Analytics…

I’ve been giving demonstrations of analytics for a while now and I thought I’d share some of my experiences with you.

Analytics in Acano Manager 2.1 was a long time coming; reporting and analytics were dropped from our 2.0 release because we were late and needed to avoid being even later.

Our objective with the Acano Manager 2.x platform was to address some of the issues we’d learned in earlier versions of Acano Manager and VQ Conference Manager.

Analytics uses some of the same techniques used elsewhere in Acano Manager 2; users are given the flexibility to select the data they want to report on, what processing should be applied to the data and then how it is to be presented (both in tabular and graph form).

It’s been really encouraging to see how well Analytics has been received. One particular report generates particular interest; it’s shows how well calls are performing and shows the calls that have alerts associated with them such as packet loss, jitter or round trip time.

One of the things that has surprised us during the years we’ve been doing this is how many people delivering video conferencing services don’t know how their service is performing. It’s less ‘data driven’ and more ‘hope driven’.

VQ Conference Manager provided previous generations of our customers with reporting tools which helped our customers avoid ‘flying blind’; we’re now really pleased that we’ve added a more flexible and extensive version, Analytics, into Acano Manager 2.

Acano Manager 2.1 is now available for all of our users, please log into the members area of vqcomms.com and download your 90 day free trial. Email licensing@vqcomms.com to get your 2.1 license needed for the download.

 

Giles

Acano Manager 2.1 Released

We’re really pleased to announce that Acano Manager 2.1 can now be downloaded from the membership area of the VQ portal.

2.1 features:

  • Full set of video layouts
  • Analytics
  • Licensing
  • Major performance improvements
  • Usability refinements – the principal one being that the activity page now displays up to 50 active coSpaces (Spaces) and end users don’t have to search to find their coSpaces before they can see them.

We’ve also made a video which takes you through the VM Installation process (the VM bit can be skipped for users installing on Windows); it takes you through the process of connecting to Call Bridges, setting up LDAP and what to look for if things don’t appear to be working.

We tried to make it useful; it’s not a marketing fluff video – at each of the major steps, we cover possible states, what is going on behind the scene so you have a better understanding of the complete solution.

The website has also had a fairly major refresh with the objective of increasing the information available on the site; we’ll continue to add more content and have hired new members into the team to reduce some of the bottlenecks. Expect to see more ‘how to’ videos.

Also, some great news for our Windows users!

A Windows Installer is available for 2.1 and automates the installation process on Windows; not only does it do all the file copies, it also handles the certificate binding to HTTPS ports.

Enjoy,