An agile sprint: crafting a prototype within 24 hours, a well-functioning service within 4 weeks and a stable, scalable video conference solution within 6 weeks.
Everything kicked off in early March with an email from Renato Furter, head of the collaboration team at SWITCH. As a result of coronavirus, all in-person events at universities had been cancelled until the end of the spring semester, with every lecture, every seminar and every tutorial to take place in the virtual realm from then on.
Nobody expected the sudden spike in demand for video conferencing solutions, with SWITCH’s existing products soon swamped. We knew that the French research network RENATER was offering its universities an open-source video conferencing solution based on Jitsi Meet, so Renato mailed me one Thursday afternoon to ask whether we could use Jitsi to build a scalable video conferencing solution on SWITCHengines.
After a couple of hours, I sent him the first trial link. I didn’t sleep much over the next 24 hours; a day later, open.switch.ch/meet was up and running. Renato was delighted, and by Friday afternoon, five universities had already expressed interest in having their own secure servers with AAI integration. By Monday, these institutions had a functioning service (albeit a fledging variant), thanks to the work carried out by a small team.
Next, we expanded SWITCH Online Meetings to include SWITCH conference viewer, streaming and recording. We managed to get a scalable video conferencing solution off the ground in six weeks – and it’s seeing a lot of use.
More than 20 institutions have now had their own servers set up and secured with edu-ID. SWITCH Online Meetings can also be used free of charge via open.meet.switch.ch/, with no need to set up an account.
From the get-go, I was motivated by the fact that this project would enable our small team and the SWITCH Foundation to do our bit during the crisis. And yes, I was proud to see on srf’s TV show 10vor10 that a teacher is using our service for free to ensure that she’s there for her students, even during this period of upheaval. I was also delighted to stumble on a link called ‘Asparagus with Granny’ by chance when looking through the user statistics; all the data tells us is that a three-hour video conference took place between Bern, Berlin and Germany’s Palatinate region via this link.
Our project was demanding from a technical perspective, and we have fed our findings back into the Jitsi open-source community. We’ve published the deployment scripts on GitHub and documented them on the Jitsi forum and in the Wiki articles. As a result, I’ve received enquiries from school and university communities around the world. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been able to help colleagues in universities and schools in Germany, Thailand, Canada and many other countries.
Scalability was the biggest challenge on the technical front. This involves distributing the burden posed by large numbers of video conferences across several ‘videobridges’ behind the scenes. To this end, we built a pool of 32 servers on SWITCHengines that share the videobridges. This enables front-end servers (whether from open.meet.switch.ch or from individual universities) to access video servers on a shared basis, enabling video conferences to run with much greater stability.
This isn’t the first project I’ve executed within a few days and with a small interdisciplinary team during my 25-year career as a software developer, but this sprint may well be the one with the biggest impact. Success or failure often depends on the existing conditions.
We were able to access pre-existing, flexible infrastructure; without SWITCHengines, we’d never have been able to get SWITCH Online Meetings off the ground. It was also just as important, if not more so, that we had the right people in our team, who gave 100% at any time of the day or night. Of course, the crisis itself, or rather, the urgency of the situation, certainly helped, too. An additional factor was that our managers had given us the green light, which enabled us to respond to our community’s new, virtual daily lives during the coronavirus crisis with speed and agility.