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There is no question about it; video and audio-conferencing solutions have seen a tremendous increase in demand since the beginning of this year. Businesses are now using video conferencing tools for face-to-face meetings that simply cannot be carried out in person due to the pandemic and restrictions imposed by social distancing.
There are many popular commercial options, such as Zoom, Skype, and Microsoft Teams, to name a few. However, what about free, open-source solutions? In this post, we look at BigBlueButton and see how this free video conferencing software stacks up against paid solutions like Zoom and others.
What is BigBlueButton?
BigBlueButton is an open-source web conferencing solution started by university developers in 2007. The developers were determined to create a successful open-source project that allowed effectively and efficiently teaching students in a "synchronous" learning environment.
While the stated purpose of the solution revolves around the realm of education, BigBlueButton is available to all, even those outside of an education setting. Since the pandemic started at the beginning of this year, BigBlueButton has seen tremendous interest and use as a video conferencing platform.
Features of BigBlueButton
BigBlueButton is designed as an HTML5 web application. You won't find mobile apps available for download for either Android or IOS because BigBlueButton is designed to simply run in a web browser across all platforms, both desktops and mobile.
Are you required to download a plugin to allow your desktop or mobile browser to display the conference session? No. The beauty of the BigBlueButton solution is that it is built on modern browsers' built-in support for web real-time communication (WebRTC) libraries.
The behavior that you get with Zoom, WebEx, and others that prompt installing a plugin or downloading an app will not be seen with the BigBlueButton solution. This is a really great advantage that the solution has over commercially available products, IMHO.
Some people prefer having a fully featured app to take advantage of additional features and functionality outside of a browser session. This may be a personal preference between different end users and use cases. However, I think that to cover the wide range of users the solution targets, building it without the need for an app download or plugin is an advantage.
Let's take a look at the features of the BigBlueButton platform. What are its capabilities? You will notice that many of the features are consistent with features found in commercial solutions like Zoom.
- Chat: The chat features built into the platform allow sending both public and private chat messages to participants in the session.
- Webcams: Video conferencing is easily possible using the solution.
- Audio: High-quality audio is available for communication.
- Emojis: Not necessarily a high-demand item; however, you can make use of emojis with your chat communication.
- Breakout rooms: This is a feature that many utilize with pay solutions such as Zoom. This allows the creation of sub-level rooms aside from the main conference so that smaller groups of end users can collaborate and communicate.
- Polling: Create polls for those joined to your meeting rooms.
- Screen sharing: Screen sharing allows sharing content of the presenter's screen. This may include web pages, documents, slide presentations, and any content that can be viewed on screen.
- Multi-user whiteboard: Users are able to collaborate on the same whiteboard. This is a great feature for teams as well as teachers and students.
Compared to similar conferencing solutions, BigBlueButton also allows for different user types, including a viewer and a moderator.
What are the differences between these two different user types?
- A viewer can chat, send/receive audio and video, respond to polls, display emojis, and participate in breakout sessions.
- The moderator has all the privileges of the viewer and, in addition, can mute/unmute other viewers, lock down viewers, and make anyone a presenter. BigBlueButton allows for multiple moderators in a session.
The architecture of BigBlueButton makes use of another frontend application called Greenlight, specifically Greenlight 2.0. This application is written in Ruby on Rails and provides a simple interface to interact with the underlying BigBlueButton server. It allows creating rooms, starting meetings, and managing recordings for your sessions.
Demoing and installing BigBlueButton
So how do you actually use BigBlueButton? There are a couple of options:
- Using the Demo Server
- Installing the solution on your own server
The demo server is publicly available and free for use by any who wants to try the solution or even use it for quick meetings.
You can try out the demo server here:
As you can see from the screenshot below, BigBlueButton has disabled recordings on the demo server as it has simply been unable to keep up with the demand since the start of the pandemic. Additionally, meetings are limited to 60 minutes.
Signing up for BigBlueButton
To take advantage of the demo server, you have to sign up using an existing account or create a new account with your email address. After creating the account, log in.
Signup and login
Once you are signed up for the service using an email address or simply using your Twitter, Google, or Microsoft 365 credentials, you can immediately take advantage of the demo server to host a meeting. The interface is fairly simple. You can start a meeting, create new rooms for hosting meetings, and copy the link to invite others to your meeting. Click the Start button to start your meeting. You'll see a simple Copy button that enables you to copy the demo meeting room's URL so you can send it to others who want to join the meeting. You can also create new rooms, which we will look at below.
Logged into BigBlueButton and ready to start a meeting, create a room or send an invitation
When you start a meeting, you will be prompted to decide how you want to connect the audio. You can simply join in listen only mode or choose to use your microphone to participate. I didn't see a way to change the audio input or select from a list of inputs; however, BigBlueButton looks to simply use the default devices assigned on your device for both audio and video.
Choosing audio options for your BigBlueButton meeting
The interface to the solution is nice and clean. The default layout allows you to see many types of information right from the start. This includes chat messages, users connected, and presentations displayed. In the screenshot, I am not sending video, so you do not see the video tile; however, this displays above the presentation. You can also minimize or close the presentation.
The BigBlueButton interface
All in all, the demo server worked really well. I was able to start a new session without issue and play around with the settings, send video and audio, and use it without issue. As noted above, you will not be able to use the record feature on the quick demo server since this was disabled due to the high demand with the pandemic.
You can also create a new room aside from the default meeting room that allows you to start a meeting as soon as you signup. Below are the options for creating a new meeting room:
- Mute users when they join
- Require moderator approval before joining (like a waiting room)
- Allow any user to start the meeting
- All users join as moderators
- Automatically join me in the room
Creating a new room and room options
The demo server is not really meant for production environments that are looking to make full use of the solution. You can, however, install BigBlueButton on your own server. This allows running the solution from your own datacenter or the cloud environment of your choosing.
Interestingly, BigBlueButton recommends installing the solution on a physical bare metal server because the architecture uses FreeSWITCH for processing audio packets, which does not play well inside a VM.
Requirements for the server include the following:
- Ubuntu 16.04 64-bit OS running Linux kernel 4.x
- 8 GB of memory with swap enabled (16 GB of memory is better)
- 4 CPU cores (8 is better)
- TCP ports 80 and 443 must be accessible
- UDP ports 16384-32768 must be accessible
- Port 80 must not be in use by another application
For a server intended for production, we additionally recommend:
- 500 G of free disk space (or more) for recordings
- 250 Mbits/sec bandwidth (symmetrical) or more
- Dedicated (bare metal) hardware
- A hostname (such as bbb.example.com) for setup of an SSL certificate
- IPV4 and IPV6 address
There are three options for installing the components on your hardware. These include:
- A setup script they refer to as bbb-install.sh
- Ansible: Noted as best for large-scale deployments
- Step-by-step manual installation: Best for becoming familiar with the solution and the required components
After finishing the installation using one of the three methods, you will have a server that looks like the demo server, running in your own address space and on your own hardware.
Final thoughts and overall impressions
BigBlueButton looks like an extremely interesting alternative to popular commercial offerings such as Zoom and others. It has some unique advantages, such as not requiring a plugin or app install. The solution runs entirely from an HTML5 browser session on any device.
To truly take advantage of the solution, you must run this on your own hardware. Here, "hardware" actually means a bare metal server to follow the recommendations from BigBlueButton.
You can use the demo server for quick meetings if you do not need to record the meeting or if it will be under 60 minutes. The demo server is limited on both fronts.
All in all, I think BigBlueButton looks to be a great solution for those who may want to have their own conferencing solution that they control on their own hardware with no software cost. The feature set is basic, but it will most likely work for the majority of environments that simply need a way to video conference effectively.
Check out more information on BigBlueButton here.