Learn what's in store when you launch Microsoft Exchange 2000 Conferencing Server

Exchange 2000 Conferencing Server is a powerful tool that will allow your organization to conduct audio and video conferences. But to use it, you must be able to configure it properly. See what's involved in the process.

Exchange 2000 Server can provide e-mail and instant messaging capabilities, but Exchange 2000 Conferencing Server takes communication up a notch by facilitating audio and video conferences, application sharing, white board discussions, and even file transfers. Here’s how to implement Exchange 2000 Conferencing Server.

System requirements
Microsoft Exchange 2000 Conferencing Server builds on top of your existing Exchange 2000 Server implementation. Although Conferencing Server requires Exchange 2000 Server, you don’t necessarily have to run Conferencing Server on the same box as Exchange 2000. However, the two server platforms must be run within a common domain.

The server that’s hosting the Conferencing Server must be running either Windows 2000 Server or Windows 2000 Advanced Server. Windows NT is not supported. Furthermore, the server that’s running Conferencing Server must be running IIS, which is required because each of the virtual conference rooms exists within a private Web site.

Yet another server requirement is that your network must contain a certificate server. Conferencing Server needs to be able to issue certificates to conference participants. Finally, conferences rely on multicast packets, so your network must support MADCAP (Multicast Address Dynamic Client Allocation Protocol).

At the desktop level, conference participants must be running Windows 2000 Professional or Windows XP. Technically, a participant could also get away with running Windows 2000 Server. Desktop machines must also be running Outlook 2000 or higher (or OWA), Internet Explorer 5.0 or higher, and NetMeeting 3.01 or higher.

Microsoft’s minimum hardware requirements for Microsoft Exchange 2000 Conferencing Server are a 133-MHz Pentium PC with 128 MB of RAM. However, this hardware is seriously inadequate in most situations. According to Microsoft, a 400-MHz Pentium II with 256 MB of RAM can handle about 500 simultaneous conference connections. Independent testing has found this to be inadequate as well though, unless you’re performing a text-only conference.

If you’re planning to host a conference of more than 500 people—even a text-based conference—I recommend that the minimum system requirement for your conference server be an 800-MHz Pentium III with 512 MB of memory. You should also consider using a dedicated server for conferencing if you expect your conference server to see much action.

Desktop hardware requirements vary greatly depending on the type of conference you’re hosting. Most of the time, though, you’ll be able to get away with using desktop machines that are 400-MHz Pentium II machines with 256 MB of RAM for videoconferences. Of course, more power is always better.

One of the more overlooked desktop hardware requirements is a good set of headphones and a microphone. Headphones are greatly preferred over speakers, which can produce feedback through the microphone. In an audio or videoconference, acoustical feedback is not only annoying, it can also drain network bandwidth.

Bandwidth is your most precious resource during a live conference. Ideally, conference participants will exist on the LAN, and plenty of bandwidth will be available. But sometimes, users will have to connect from remote locations. In such situations, desktop machines must at least have a 56-Kbps modem, but ISDN or broadband is preferred. As far as the server’s bandwidth goes, you’re going to need all you can get. Conferencing Server relies on IP multicasting and therefore consumes more bandwidth than most other applications. You’ll also need to verify that all of your routers can handle multicast traffic. (I’ll talk more about this issue in a future article.)

Configuring Exchange 2000 Conferencing Server
Installing Conferencing Server is relatively easy, so we don’t need to go into the details: Just run the Setup Wizard and follow the onscreen instructions. After the installation procedure completes, the real action starts. You can access Conferencing Server by selecting the Conferencing Manager command from the Programs | Microsoft Exchange menu. When the Conferencing Manager loads for the first time, you’ll see a warning message indicating that no conferencing calendar mailbox has been designated. When you're asked whether you want to designate one now, choose Yes.

At this point, you’ll see a screen that displays any available conference calendar mailboxes. If the list is empty, click the Create button to create a new mailbox. You must be logged in as an Administrator to do this.

Creating a conferencing calendar mailbox is simple. Just fill in a little bit of basic information, such as the display name, login name, and password. (See Figure A.)

Figure A
You must either create or select a mailbox to be used as a host for the conference calendar.

After creating the new account, you’ll be returned to the Conference Calendar Mailbox dialog box. This time, the account that you’ve created will appear in the list of available conference calendar mailboxes (See Figure B.) Click Close and the mail Exchange Conferencing Manager console screen appears.

Figure B
When you create an account, it will be added to the list of available conference calendar mailboxes.

How to customize the configuration
When you finally gain access to the main conferencing management console, you’ll probably want to begin by customizing the configuration. To do so, navigate through the console tree to Console Root | Exchange Conferencing | Default First Site Name Conferencing Site (or the conferencing site of your choice if multiple sites are being used).

Now, right-click on Default First Site Name Conferencing Site and select the Properties command to open the Default First Site Name Conferencing Site Properties sheet. This properties sheet has four tabs:

The General tab isn’t too exciting. It simply allows you to change the server that’s acting as the conference host and to change the conference calendar mailbox. You should always use a calendar mailbox that exists on the server that's hosting the conferences. You can get away with using mailboxes that are located elsewhere, but your server’s performance may suffer if you do choose to use separate servers.

The Conference Settings tab allows you to control when users can begin connecting to a conference. The default settings allow users to connect 20 minutes prior to a scheduled conference. You can also use this tab to extend a conference’s end time and to allow or disallow changes to the end time and the resources during a conference.

The Resources tab needs a bit of explanation. When you schedule a meeting in the physical world, you typically have to book a conference room where the meeting will take place. Virtual conferencing is similar, in that you must allocate a virtual conference room for the meeting. If you click the Add button in the Resources tab, you can create these virtual conference rooms.

Initially, setting up a new conference room is a lot like configuring the conference-calendaring mailbox. You must create or designate an account that can be used as the virtual conference room name. You can do this by entering things like the display name, login name, and password. After you click OK, you’ll see the Resource Conference Technology Providers dialog box. Click Add to add a technology provider to the virtual conference room.

By default, there are two technology providers: the Data Conferencing Provider and the Video Conferencing Provider. Make your selection from the list and click OK. Upon doing so, you’ll be asked to configure the technology provider you picked.

Configuring the technology provider isn’t difficult, but it is a critical step. If you choose the Data Conferencing Provider, you just need to designate how many people can be involved in the conference at a given time. By default, the virtual meeting is limited to 20 participants.

If you choose the Video Conferencing Provider, you must configure a few more options. As you can see in Figure C, most of the options are self-explanatory. The two most important things to configure on this screen are the maximum number of participants and the option to enable data provider fallback.

Figure C
There are several options to consider when configuring the Video Conferencing Provider.

Limiting the number of participants is important because video conferencing consumes a lot of bandwidth and server resources. You might have noticed in Figure C that Microsoft sets the default value to a mere eight participants. The option to use data provider fallback means that if something goes wrong with the conference, it will switch to data mode (typed text) rather than simply crashing.

The final tab in the Default First Site Name Conferencing Site Properties sheet is Logging. It allows you to control which conference-related events are logged. For example, you can log things like scheduling or canceling a conference.

We've already established the importance of configuring the maximum number of participants for a conference room. But you also need to consider the total number of participants. For example, let's say that you video-enabled a conference room and gave it a maximum of eight participants. Now, imagine what would happen if you had 10 identical conference rooms, all being used simultaneously. In that event, you would have a possible 80 simultaneous videoconference sessions.

Depending on your hardware, 80 videoconferences could bring the server to its knees and would likely drain every bit of bandwidth that your network had available. It’s therefore important to limit the maximum number of simultaneous participants on a server-wide basis rather than just for a single conference room.

To do so, return to the main Exchange Conferencing Manager screen and expand the Default First Site Name Conferencing Site container to reveal the Data Conferencing Provider and the Video Conferencing Provider beneath it. Right-clicking on either one of these providers and selecting the Properties command will bring up a dialog box that allows you to configure the maximum number of participants for that conference provider.

For example, suppose that you had 10 video-enabled chat rooms with a maximum of eight participants in each. If you set the Video Conferencing Provider to a maximum of 64 participants, there’s no way that 80 people can slam your server at the same time. In fact, only eight of the 10 conference rooms could be booked for videoconferences during that time. If someone wanted to book a ninth video conference, they would have to do it at a time when seven or fewer conference rooms were already scheduled.

Configuring Outlook Clients
Once you’ve configured the Conferencing Server, you must perform a little bit of configuration on the clients. First, create a text file named O2KCONFSVC.REG that contains the following case-sensitive text:

Now, place the text file in a location where it will be distributed by either a login script or a group policy. The text file configures the clients with the necessary registry information. Outlook 2002 and higher clients don’t need this registry entry. Users can also run this file manually if necessary.

To schedule a meeting, open Outlook and perform a meeting request in the usual manner. When you do, you’ll notice that you have a few more options than before. You now have the option of telling Outlook that this is an online meeting. When you invite others to an online meeting, the people you invite will receive the typical meeting request e-mail. It’s up to them to accept or to decline the meeting.

What happens after a user accepts a meeting request depends on how you’ve configured Conferencing Server. The user could receive an e-mail invitation to the virtual meeting, with a link to the Web site that’s hosting the meeting. (Remember that IIS was a requirement for Conferencing Server.) If the current time is within the amount of time users are allowed to connect to the conference room, the user will be logged into the conference after clicking the link. If it isn’t time to log in yet, when the user clicks on the link, the user will see a clock counting down the minutes until the conference is scheduled to start.

You can also configure the system to generate a meeting reminder and then open NetMeeting automatically. If the meeting participant has never used NetMeeting before, Windows will launch the NetMeeting Configuration Wizard, which will help to configure NetMeeting for the conference that is about to take place.


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