Replace Hangouts and Co

Date of publication

Trade data for free services. Those who are fine with that don't need to read the article. However, if you hold your own data sacred, you might want to build a comparable setup with free software and get back sovereignty over your own data in return. Today, the concept is called digital sovereignty.

Admittedly, it is convenient: open the browser - alternatively open the app on the smartphone - open the URL and off you go. These free services such as Hangouts, Skype video calls and the like (usually) work immediately. You can almost always find the person you want to talk to straight away, and the others often don't have to install any extra software.

But as convenient as these tools are, you also pay a price for them - typically data. As I explained in my post Strictly Confidential.

In our company, we live by the motto: use and (further) development of free open source software and operation of the same on server infrastructure in German data centres. For this reason, too, Hangout and Co are not an option.

There are only a fairly manageable number of open source solutions that claim to be good for video conferencing. With the emergence of WebRTC, a standard for real-time communication, a few more software solutions suddenly appeared. Mostly, however, the mixed operation of Mac, Windows and Linux operating systems with the corresponding Android and IOS smartphones failed. If you're going to go for it, go for it.

Remote-Videoconferencing

Of course, the solution should also work stably for more than ten simultaneous users. After all, we are talking about conferences.

I'll spare us a long list of failures and just present our current setup here.

  • "Hardware": Virtualised Debian 9.x with 4 GB RAM at one core.
  • Connection: 1 GBit
  • Software: Jitsi Meet

The Jitsi team (specifically BlueJimp) was bought by Atlassian some time ago. Instead of Jira, we use Redmine and have some reservations about Atlassian in terms of data protection, but our colleagues are doing a good job here. In our opinion, the software is not developing into a cheat pack and it is well maintained.

The mixed mode works. Every now and then we have to swap Chrome for Firefox so that picture and sound work lip-sync. We have not yet penetrated the phenomenon well. We have had good experience with the IOS app from Atlassian. When the opportunity arises, we will take a closer look at the code and brush up on our build skills for IOS apps.

Plus: Conference room (for real now)

A special feature was the requirement that a conference room situation be created in our office. We dreamed of solutions like those from Sennheiser or Polycom. The dream failed, as so often in life, because of the necessary investment sum.

But also often in life, chance helps to set me on the right path: I had bought a Mackie console cheaply for my musical excursions, and so suddenly a Tascam USB audio interface was left over. Together with a Mac-Mini connected to a 49″ monitor and some cables with Røde microphones, we had quickly produced a suitable and inexpensive solution for our conference room in the office.

Supplemented by a surplus stereo system with matching speakers and the right cabling, we can now hold conferences with our distributed locations entirely via free software (hosted in a data centre located in Germany). Admittedly, some of it is manual work. For example, the conference room has to be muted when colleagues take over remotely. Ugly feedback is otherwise the order of the day. Instructions on the order in which which components must be started and the recommended procedure in the event of problems also had to be written. And yes, also read!

All in all, the initial pain was worth it. Today, we can neither comprehend the hundreds of simultaneous users that Jitsi addresses in a demo, nor can we claim that everything can always be answered with "let's go". But the solution has become a regular companion to our internal communication.

I wrote this summary because Frank Holldorf, a colleague from the Drupal community, asked me to. For us, open source and knowledge sharing belong closely together. Therefore, not only Frank, but all others may feel cordially invited to study the details and copy our solution the next time they visit us.

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DeepL is a deep learning company that develops AI systems for languages. The company, based in Cologne, Germany, was founded in 2009 as Linguee, and introduced the first internet search engine for translations. Linguee has answered over 10 billion queries from more than 1 billion users.

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Stephan Luckow

Stephan is an open source evangelist and constantly curious about technologies. Thematically, his blog posts can best be summarised as "curiosity satisfied".