With the COVID-19 pandemic affecting every aspect of life across every population and industry around the globe, numerous conferences, events, and meetings have been canceled or postponed. The Linux Foundation events team has been working in overdrive negotiating to cancel or postpone events that were or are impossible to operate this year safely. The health and safety of our communities and staff is our top concern.
The good news is that for those events that can no longer safely take place in person, virtual events still offer the opportunity to connect within our communities to share valuable information and collaborate. While not as powerful as a face-to-face gathering, a variety of virtual event platforms available today offer a plethora of features that can get us as close as possible to those invaluable in-person experiences. Thanks to our community members, we’ve received suggestions for platforms and services that the events team has spent the past several weeks evaluating.
After researching a large number of possibilities over the last few weeks, the Linux Foundation has identified three virtual event platforms (and a small-scale developer meeting tool) that could serve the variety of needs within our diverse project communities. Our goal was to determine the best options that capture as much of the real-world experience as we can in a virtual environment for virtual gatherings ranging from large to small. After evaluating 86 virtual event platforms, and in the spirit of contributing back, we thought we would share what we learned.
Below is the shortlist of platforms we’ve identified for our potential use, based on which offered features that best replicate our in-person events of different sizes. We’re sharing our findings because these learnings might be a good fit for others in our community, or perhaps save you time looking at options. If you’re evaluating any platform, be prepared to spend a few weeks getting conversations started with salespeople, viewing demos, obtaining pricing, and negotiating features.
Why we chose the platforms listed
There are many virtual conferencing solutions offered in the market today. Each solution varies on price, features, scalability, and technology integration points. The list of every single platform and software solution we looked at, including open source-based solutions, can be viewed here. One of these other solutions might be a better fit for your organization’s needs.
Finding a virtual event platform, however, is also just one piece of the virtual event puzzle. How you plan, structure, and execute the virtual event will be critical to achieving a successful community engagement. We stumbled across this great Guide to Best Practices for Virtual Conferences put together by the ACM Presidential Task Force, which we thought provided some great practitioner tips for communities running virtual events.
Our goal was to find solutions for our events team that met the following three requirements:
- The ability to deliver the required content
- The ability for attendees to network and collaborate with each other
- The ability to deliver sponsor benefits in the platform for those companies supporting these events financially
Due to these requirements, we did not focus as much on web conference solutions, such as the now popular Zoom. However, if you are looking for a simple web solution, many of the typical web conferencing platforms are easy, quick options to set up a small virtual gathering. In many cases, you might not need all the features of the virtual events platforms.
There are even some wonderful open source options out there including:
- Jitsi Meet, which has some very useful features like streaming, screen sharing tabs, sharing videos, and more that are not found in other solutions.
- Open Broadcaster Software if you’re looking to record and stream session content, which can also be usefully paired with conferencing tools.
- EtherPad, which many of our communities use and it’s exciting to see that there’s also video support to connect and talk while editing.
- Big Blue Button that’s designed for teachers and students, but open source for anyone to use (and we know many of you have kids at home and might find this useful).
Linux Foundation virtual event platform shortlist
These tools are designed for medium to large events with multiple concurrent tracks, in-depth attendee networking and collaboration needs, and robust sponsor requirements. The pricing for each of these will depend on the specific event details, such as number of conference tracks, the number of chat rooms/attendee collaboration spaces, length of the event, number of attendees, and number of sponsor booths.
All of these event platforms (with the exception of QiQo Chat) have all the following standard functionality:
- Web-based (HTML5) supporting Linux desktops/browsers (and also Windows and Mac)
- Registration integrations that will comply with GDPR and privacy regulation requirements
- Webhooks or REST APIs to integrate with security systems like SSO (Auth0) and SFDC.
- Can be white labeled for your community’s event branding
- Speaker Q&A chat available within sessions
- Attendee networking capabilities
- Integrated scheduling tools and agenda builder
- Attendee analytics: booths visited, session attendance, etc.
- Gamification options to drive attendee engagement
- Pop-up notifications throughout the platform (‘Keynotes starting in 5 minutes!’, ‘Visit [Sponsor’s] booth’)
- Guaranteed uptime, redundancies and autoscaling
Best for large events with high budgets requiring a virtual conference experience with few compromises.
InXpo Intrado has robust hosting capabilities and uses hyper-scale cloud providers for its infrastructure to provide highly reliable and resilient performance. The company uses its own platform for session broadcast and integrates with third-party CRM and registration platforms. It offers 3D virtual environments throughout the platform as well as robust attendee networking options and sponsor benefits, including virtual booths.
- Extremely customizable, very immersive event experience. 3D environments & virtual booths (VR representation of physical world exhibit hall that looks like a video game)
- A good user interface for attendees to access all content
- No limit on concurrent sessions or live sessions so you will not have to worry about maxing out session/attendee capacities on this platform
- The solution provider uses its own network infrastructure backbone that is fault-tolerant enough to support 98% of 911 call centers in the US
- Real-time translation and closed captioning capabilities without requiring third-party platforms or plugins
- Works from within China — used by Chinese companies to run in-country virtual events
- Extra layer of attendee privacy protection with optional ‘pop up’ message for attendees to confirm before sponsors can gather any information about the attendee
- One of the most expensive platforms we evaluated
- Potential longer turnaround time needed for event onboarding and setup
- Sponsor booth templates are customizable for a fee
- Does not allow you to plug in your own open source video streaming/video conferencing solution
Best for any size event where attendee networking tools are a priority and sponsor ‘booths’ aren’t required.
This platform can accommodate events of all sizes but does not have a 3D virtual exhibit hall/booth capability. That said, the sponsor benefits built into this platform are robust, and they have excellent attendee networking capabilities. You can use Meeting Play’s own integrated video conferencing solution for content delivery, or use your own.
- Heavy focus on “attendee” experience
- AI-driven content, chat room and attendee suggestions — based on initial questions you can customize and ask of all participants
- Allow for gated content with in-app registration upgrade options (freemium model) similar to offering a free “hall pass” and then requiring a higher registration to attend sessions
- Sponsor pages are very robust offering sponsors the ability to chat 1:1 with attendees, show videos/demos, sharing resources, and more
- Option to use MeetingPlay integrated video streaming solution, or the one of your choice via your own account
- Works from within China — they support a number of customers in China and have virtual machines in-country that they use to test before going live for an event
- No 3D virtual exhibit hall or booth — sponsors receive a dynamic page that allows for real-time chat with attendees, downloadable resources, and a video player for demos or welcome videos
- Looks more like a website rather than a virtual event
- Only 2 concurrent live sessions at a time w/out additional fee. They recommend pre-recording most sessions and playing “simulive” (meaning it is played at a specific time, and speakers join real-time to do a text-based Q&A.) The platform has a limit of 8 concurrent live sessions at any one time
- Collaboration spaces (used for sponsor booths, attendee ‘meeting rooms’ and any live sessions that have multiple speakers or require a two-way communication) are charged by the hour and by the number of attendees, which makes using these freely a bit difficult
QiQo is best for smaller technical gatherings that don’t need all the bells and whistles of an industry event focus. This is a great option for a focus on small group collaboration, such as developer meetings and hackathons.
QiQo acts as a Zoom wrapper for attendees collaboration and session broadcasting and is ideally suited for smaller events that have a more narrow focus, where communication and collaboration needs are more back and forth, versus one-way delivery. One unique feature of QiQo is it offers the ability to collaborate on Google Docs and Etherpad as both are both integrated into QiQo’s interface.
- An affordable option for small meetings that only need an elevated video conferencing option for collaboration. Each live event on Qiqo comes with 10 Zoom breakout rooms by default
- Great for small group collaboration in multiple workspaces – as a Zoom wrapper, it creates more of a virtual environment around an event with multiple breakout rooms for discussions
- Includes a large number of built-in integrated tools for collaboration and productivity: Slack, Google Calendar, Google Docs, and Etherpad
- While Zoom is their default, their support team will work with you to set this up with Jitsi or another video conferencing solution of your choice
- Works from within China depending on webcasting platform availability
- Simple Zoom wrapper to add collaboration features on top of Zoom – can be used with other video conferencing tools as well
- Very limited sponsor elements
- A little more challenging interface and workflow than other options — a lot of options, but definitely let ‘out of the box’
- Minimalistic approach for collaboration
Conferencing platform feature comparison
With over 40 events remaining this year under the Linux Foundation umbrella of events, we have several conferences that might go virtual. Each of these will have different requirements, so to support our diverse communities, we needed a range of options and features. We do think that this portfolio of options together meets most of our various community needs, and we hope you find value in us sharing them, along with the list of all the other platforms we examined.