From Handshakes To Virtual Hellos

Image credit: iStockphoto/Khosrork

In-person company and industry conferences have certainly taken a hit as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a sector that is dependent on bringing international audiences together in a physical space, the pandemic has forced many to rethink their business models.

The good news is foundational unified communications and collaboration (UCC), and content delivery technologies already existed to make the transition from in-person to online conferences. This means that significant global events such as the 2021 Consumer Electronics Show (@CES), concerts, and local events such as the recent year-end countdown in Singapore can go on virtually or with hybrid participation, allowing for a small group of attendees physically. 

Nonetheless, the shift from in-person to online events has not always been seamless. The digital infrastructure for these virtual venues requires the need to scale communication backbones quickly to support what is turning out to be a new reality for business conferences.

Virtual events are exploding, as is their digital infrastructures

The global virtual events market size was valued by Grand View Research at USD 77.98 billion in 2019 and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 23.2% from 2020 to 2027.

For example, the fifth edition of the Singapore FinTech Festival (SFF) reportedly attracted more than 3.5 million session views on the online event platform and social media. Offering a hybrid experience, the latest edition of SFF facilitated more business and virtual meetings conducted through the event’s technology platform compared to previous years.

As virtual conference platforms experience unprecedented growth, it puts a massive strain on existing IT infrastructures. Virtual events can now extend over multiple days and sometimes weeks and feature different types of online interactions such as live presentations, streaming video, social media, break-out rooms, chat sessions, polls, virtual reality to hold onto attendees’ attention.

In an IDC Virtual Events Survey, published in May 2020, virtual event attendees ranked how they would like to be engaged during a virtual event. No surprise, the more interactive engagement methods, such as chatting with the speakers and participants, downloading presentations, polling, and community discussions, ranked the highest. It is also not a surprise that these are highly digital interactions.

As a result, the amount of additional bandwidth required to successfully deliver the various digital aspects of virtual events without any performance hiccups is continuously increasing. Video quality, for example, can make or break an event. According to the IDC survey, 61% of virtual event attendees felt video quality was similar to social media or home video from a mobile device.

When you do the math, high-definition (HD) video for a large virtual event needs a vast amount of bandwidth. For example, YouTube recommends using 13 Mbps to stream 1080p HD content with other devices streaming on the same network. Now multiply that by thousands of virtual conference participants trying to access that same video. If the video streaming technology is poor or fails during a live online-conference, then you’ll probably never virtually see those attendees again.

There are two types of online business events that both require the same IT infrastructure modernization and optimization to succeed:

  • Private corporate conferences need internal virtual private networks (VPNs) to be literally up-to-speed to securely interconnect thousands of distributed participants. For these types of events, network bandwidth capacity, resiliency, and security are critical factors.
  • Public vendor or industry events, where there is a “rolling thunder” of multiple activities over days or weeks, with participants from all over the world coming in over the public internet, have the same requirements as private corporate conferences. However, these online venues require scalable IP peering among multiple internet service providers to boost bandwidth capacity for user-created content (UCC), digital media providers, and content delivery networks.

To keep private or public virtual event attendees engaged and happy, enterprises and online conference platform providers need to dynamically turn up their infrastructures’ network, redundancy, and security capabilities to meet the burgeoning demand.

Lessons learned from UCC and content providers during the pandemic

The explosive growth of remote business workers over the last year has provided UCC and content providers a proving ground for scaling network bandwidth, peering and security capacity, and ensuring reliability.

According to a panel discussion with Dropbox, Netflix, and Zoom on how network scalability and capacity are empowering businesses’ remote workforces, virtual connections to network and cloud providers have enabled these companies to dynamically, securely, and reliably spin up or down the bandwidth required for their customers to use their services. By increasing the peering capacity among the global internet provider ecosystem, the global capabilities of UCC platforms hosting video conferencing and content distribution networks can scale the streaming of digital media to users worldwide.

Today, Equinix supports over 386,000 physical and virtual interconnections for its global customers, which includes 8,500 net interconnections added in Q3 2020 alone. This growth was mainly driven by video conferencing, streaming, enterprise cloud connectivity, and work-from-home local aggregation. Also, Equinix Internet Exchange experienced peak traffic in Asia-Pacific at 44% CAGR in the last five years, with Singapore taking the lead in influencing this trend (53% CAGR).

New year, new realities

According to the Global Interconnection Index (GXI) Vol. 4, an annual market study by Equinix, 70% of new value created over the next decade will be based on digitally enabled business models. With Singapore ranked as the top Asia-Pacific meeting city on the annual International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) ’s global rankings for 18 consecutive years, physical business meetings and events have always been important for connections, driving business growth and economies forward. However, virtual events have proven to be a viable alternative, and events in the future are likely to incorporate these effective digital experiences into physical events once they return.

Since Oct. 1, 2020, event organizers can apply to pilot MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Exhibitions) events in Singapore, subject to attendance caps and the authorities’ necessary approvals. There are also robust Safe Management Measures (SMM) in place, which event organizers are expected to strictly implement and enforce.

2021 will be the transition year as we welcome the golden age of events — a mix of physical, virtual, and hybrid events. With this in mind, we expect enterprises and online conference platform providers to leverage interconnection services to access thousands of network, cloud, and content providers to successfully host virtual conferences for tens of thousands of participants per event without a hitch.

Yee May Leong, Managing Director, Equinix South Asia, wrote this article.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CDOTrends. Image credit: iStockphoto/Khosrork