Videoconferencing

The general GWDG offer for videoconferencing is the DFNconf service. It is operated by the DFN-Verein, of which the GWDG, MPG, and the University of Göttingen are members.

Currently, however, there are performance bottlenecks due to the strongly increased usage, so that the DFNconf service is not available in the usual stable manner. More information, also regarding the utilization of the service due to the current COVID-19 situation, can be found on web pages of the the DFN-Verein: https://www.conf.dfn.de.

The GWDG has therefore decided to include alternative offers in its portfolio in order to bridge this phase for customers and provide suitable solutions. These are commercial, payed cloud offers where the information leaves our own jurisdiction. We can therefore not guarantee data protection and these services are not permitted for sensitive and/or personal data. We ask you to take this into account when using them.

Community solutions operated by the GWDG

  • BigBlueButton (operated by the GWDG): After a successful test operation at the GWDG, a new production operation has been setup under https://meet.gwdg.de/; Suitable for groups of up to 100 participants. Currently, telephone dial-in under first test. Higher stability than Jitsi.
  • DFNconf (operated by DFN-Verein): Currently only limited use.
  • Jitsi (operated by GWDG): Open source solution, suitable for videoconferencing with smaller numbers of participants. With more than 10 participants the quality fluctuates. A GWDG hosted version of Jitsi might come back in the future. We currently offer BigBlueButton instead.

Commercial, external platforms

    • Cloud-based, critical in terms of data protection, scales well for larger subscriber numbers.
    • In the USA also used at universities for teaching at larger lectures.
    • Currently free of charge with limited scope (40min, no telephone dial-up) individually usable.
    • GWDG has procured a campus agreement for University and UMG.
    • Cloud-based, critical in terms of data protection, scales relatively well, less comfort/stable than zoom in recent days.
    • Conditionally suitable for teaching.
    • Currently free of charge with limited functionality; a license agreement will be required later.
    • Cloud-based, critical in terms of data protection, scales well, telephone dial-up.
    • In Australia and Canada used at universities for teaching purposes.
    • Currently free of charge, a license agreement will be required later.

For the commercial platforms, please note that these are not operated by the GWDG in Göttingen and are therefore problematic in terms of data protection. According to the current state of the art, they are not suitable for particularly sensitive and personal data. The solutions are not free of charge, even though there are currently free offers for a transitional period. However, the GWDG offers access to these solutions and can provide licenses in some cases.

Evaluation and recommendations especially for the University of Göttingen

Currently, the Conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs has decided, that the summer semester 2020 will take place. The summer semester started on April 20 with virtual, digital teaching. It is clear that many teachers are looking for suitable tools and need support. The GWDG provides technical options and services for this. The selection and recommendation for teaching at the Georg-August-University will be made elsewhere. There is support and advice for teaching, especially at the University's Department of Studies and Teaching. Student and Academic Services.

The GWDG works closely with the Department of Studies and Teaching and the Digital Learning and Teaching TeamTeam Digital Learning and Teaching . We regularly coordinate with each other on current developments.

Nevertheless, we would like to give an overview of our current evaluation of the services in order to provide as much transparency as possible in the current situation. The above mentioned solutions all offer support for video conferencing. However, the performance varies in detail and the services are suitable for lectures to varying degrees:

  • DFNconf with Pexip is well established for years. However, the service was not designed for a large increase in the number of users, so its use is currently limited. It will probably not be suitable for broad-based courses in the summer semester. It is also to be expected that the DFN service Adobe Connect, which is frequently used for teaching, will reach its limits at the beginning of the summer semester and will not be available in a stable manner.
  • BigBlueButton: This system is new for Göttingen and was set up at short notice by the GWDG in cooperation with the Digital Learning and Teaching Team. The first experiences with it were good. The solution has been used as a video conferencing and teaching platform at other university locations for quite some time. There is the possibility of integration into Stud.IP. However, it is not yet clear how scalable the platform really is. It is estimated that BigBlueButton is good for courses with up to 80-100 participants.
  • Jitsi: Jitsi: The system was also newly installed and evaluated at the GWDG at short notice. However, it showed qualitative weaknesses for groups of 10 or more participants and was therefore put on the back burner compared to BigBlueButton. It is not recommended to use it for teaching.
  • Zoom:It is a commercial, externally hosted cloud platform. Thus it is to be viewed critically with regard to data protection and personnel law. The platform has been used for teaching at large universities in the USA for some time. It is known that the platform scales well and is also suitable for events with over 1000 participants. A contract for Zoom would still have to be negotiated and concluded. An overarching contract by DFN-Verein has been provisionally rejected by the company.
  • Cisco WebEx: This is a commercial, externally hosted cloud platform. It is therefore to be viewed critically with regard to data protection and personnel law. The platform works well for videoconferencing, but has problems with larger numbers of participants. It is not a typical platform for online teaching at universities. Cisco-WebEx is currently free of charge for a limited period of time due to the Corona crisis. A contract for Cisco WebEx would still have to be negotiated and concluded.
  • Microsoft Teams: This is a commercial, externally hosted cloud platform. This means that it must be viewed critically with regard to data protection and personnel law. The platform works well for video conferencing and includes other collaboration tools. It is also used abroad, e.g. in Australia and Canada, at universities for teaching with larger events. Microsoft Teams is also temporarily free of charge due to the Corona crisis. The exact follow-up costs are also to be determined here.

Assessment for courses

Overall, the videoconferencing services present a picture with various potential solutions. The expectation is high that with BigBlueButton we now have a functioning web conferencing solution on campus that is also suitable for teaching. However, it will probably only be usable for group sizes of up to 80-120 people. The GWDG upgraded its hardware for April 20, so that about 2000 parallel participants* are possible. However, there is no empirical data on how many participants there will be at the same time during the summer semester. A further expansion of capacities by the GWDG is possible.

The stability of BigBlueButton cannot yet be finally evaluated. The system was introduced at short notice in March and will be migrated to a larger hardware infrastructure in April. The GWDG is making every effort to ensure secure operation, but there is no longer any experience or history of this. Therefore, it cannot be excluded that unexpected restrictions may occur during the summer semester.

BigBlueButton is therefore currently the preferred and recommended solution for the Göttingen Campus with a maximum of 80-120 participants* (currently without telephone support).

Alternatives

In the current situation, it seems sensible to continue to have a commercial platform in the portfolio in addition to the preferred in-house solution BigBlueButton, in order to be prepared for any eventualities and to be able to react on short notice. According to the current status, this alternative platform can only be a commercial platform from the set of evaluated offers. A further, alternative Open Source solution in own operation is not realizable in the time available and currently no suitable product is known. There are also few indications that alternative commercial solutions such as WebToGo, BlueJeans etc. would offer further advantages.

Based on the positive experiences, Zoom seems to be a reasonable choice as a supplement to BigBlueButton.

Alternatively, Microsoft teams is also being considered and discussions are underway to implement it. WebEx has not proven itself internationally for lectures. This impression is also strengthened by the fact that a majority of universities in Germany and internationally seem to be using Zoom. Also the DFN-Verein had announced that due to the lack of perspectives they would like to negotiate a zoom contract with their own offer DFNConf to offer this. However, this goal has been shattered, as Zoom does not want to conclude such national contracts at the moment and is instead looking for individual contracts with universities.The GWDG has therefore negotiated a campus agreement for Zoom for the University and Medical Centre Göttingen. In principle, Zoom also offers the option that the servers used are in Germany or are operated on-premise at the customer's premises. These options are naturally preferred and pursued by the GWDG. However,these options could not be realised in the short term for the summer semester 2020. The Zoom company is currently in negotiations with many universities and cannot meet individual requirements.

Microsoft Teams

The preference when using a commercial solution is with Zoom. However, it is not clear how the contract negotiations and the costs called for will develop. It therefore makes sense to continue to pursue alternatives for scenarios that BigBlueButtom cannot meet.

The GWDG has therefore created the technical basis for Microsoft teams to be used. Here, too, most of the statements made for Zoom are correct. It is an external cloud platform from Microsoft outside our direct control. In terms of data protection law, the use of Microsoft's offerings is problematic (e.g. evaluated by several state data protection officers). On the one hand, the conformity to the DSGVO of the corresponding offers is questioned. In addition, Microsoft is known for unilateral changes to the contractual and usage conditions of its services, which can change the basis of use of the cloud services in a very short time without coordination with the customers. The follow-up and examination of these changes by the locally responsible data protection officer is a challenge and can hardly be afforded in a timely manner.

Limitations and challenges

It should be noted that the following questions and problems remain open and need to be clarified:

  • Data protection law assessment of the use of a commercial solution as well as the need for a contract for commissioned data processing and the examination of the legal basis for the transfer of data.
  • Security evaluation of the use of a commercial solution by the Information Security Officer.
  • Evaluation under personnel law, with the involvement of the Staff Council, of whether employees are allowed or required to use an external cloud solution.
  • Legal anchoring or examination under which conditions students can be obliged to use an external offer.

These points can hardly be conclusively clarified for the summer semester. Nevertheless, they are essential for the use of such a service if it is mandatory. At some universities, Zoom is already being used or its use is planned under the current pressure to act. Prior to deployment, the foundations must be laid or temporary special regulations must be discussed and, if necessary, decisions made.

Furthermore, it should be noted that various points of criticism or problems have arisen from the Internet or from the press on the subject of data protection by Zoom. Furthermore, the GWDG is of the opinion that Zoom's data protection conditions are in principle better suited than those of Cisco WebEx and Microsoft. Nevertheless, the reports should be taken seriously and the assessments should be reviewed. We will continue to inform our users on the respective websites.

Media server of the GWDG

The media server of the GWDG is suitable for delivering recorded videos and has been in use for many years. However, it is not clear whether the GWDG's media server is sufficiently dimensioned for increased use. We are currently analysing whether it can be extended or whether an alternative service should be introduced at short notice.

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