the unified communications
While the concept of unified communications (UC) is quite simple, the drivers for businesses deploying it have until now been a bit arbitrary. Finding the right application to drive demand for UC has also been a challenge for vendors but there are now clear signs, thanks to SIP, greater vendor cooperation and an increased understanding of business working practices that UC is forging a solid future.
Unified communications, or to give it it's now more progressive title, unified collaborative communications (UCC) is about utilising voice, data, video and web capabilities on the desktop. Eventually this will be extended to integration with existing business applications but for the moment it is collaborative conferencing issues that are playing a key role in making this technology attractive.
Collaborative conferencing takes full advantage of the intelligent management of communications devices and messaging. While UCC is still in its early stages in terms of deployment, building blocks are already being put in place in terms of IP infrastructures and unified messaging applications.
Perhaps the driver that most businesses will understand is cost. According to John Castle, Networks and Systems Practice Head at LogicaCMG Telecoms, cost, along with control is the key driver
Businesses will need to curb a certain degree of apathy from its users with corporate mobile phones and other corporate communications," he warns. "For example mobile phones are consistently chosen to make calls over the cheaper fixed line alternative for reasons of convenience. Users do not necessarily act in the best interests of the company encouraging an "I am not paying for it" attitude that is unnecessarily increasing operating costs for business. Applying unified communications will therefore, significantly reduce communication costs as fixed and mobile devices will be one and the same, leaving no room for users to overspend on behalf of business."
Add to this the savings potential of cutting out non-essential travel through real-time multipoint conferencing from the desktop and promises of increased productivity and suddenly there is a compelling reason to look at UC.
Of course, it will vary with different businesses but it is difficult to see how collaborative conferencing won't catch-on. The ability to see who is available immediately and on what device or application through 'presence' and the ability to communicate immediately through a single mouse click is an attractive proposition.
Nigel Jones, business development manager at Alcatel reckons that the most fundamental advantage is a measurable increase in productivity. He's not alone either. This seems to be the bottom line advantage but with conferencing, it is also the ability to cut out non-essential travel, making another cost saving that any business can see a return on almost immediately.
Of course this has always been the conferencing argument but with UC on the desktop, it is now possible to see this as a reality, a real application with real ROI.
According to Tony Heyworth, Polycom's director of marketing, customer Chubb Insurance saw an ROI almost immediately.
"After just one meeting Chubb worked out that they had paid for the system and this was a meeting room conference system. Imagine what the savings would be like with a UC desktop set-up with collaborative conferencing? And that doesn't even take into consideration any productivity increases either."
Jones at Alcatel, like many other vendors, sees the progression to true UC as a slow migratory one.
"Customers will probably start with some basic IP telephony services, a bit of voicemail and maybe even text to speech features and then move to unified messaging," he says. "Then they will look at the smart routing of calls and use an application such as Outlook for one-click calling on a soft phone, introduce a collaborative layer such as audio conferencing and then add in video and so on. It will take time but the end rewards are great in terms of productivity improvements."
Generally, the vendors see these "productivity improvements" as less time spent looking for contacts and chasing them across a variety of communications mediums. This is the beauty of a true UC system because it will appear seamless in terms of how the communication is made and it won't be intrusive as the users can determine by which mediums they want to be contacted. In theory at least, it should speed up contact and reduce headache-inducing email trails and playing phone tag.
Take a SIP
Of course we have heard it all before. The IT and telecoms industries are always awash with new technologies, promising communications nirvana but they have often failed to deliver. UC is a little different in the sense that it is not a technology in its own right but the bringing together of a variety of technologies in one manageable communications layer. Does this sound a bit of a nightmare? It could be if the vendors continue down proprietary routes. More than ever, UC is a demand for openness, consequently demanding a protocol that can glue both networks devices.
The Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) is proving to be that glue. The SIP Forum already cites a number of SIP-enabled products on its web site (www.sipforum.org) and the list is growing. Companies such as Cisco, Polycom, MCI, Siemens and PingTel are among the more active.
According to Heyworth at Polycom, SIP provides future proofing too as more and more products will be developed as SIP enabled. Therefore anyone wishing to start unifying their communications should look towards SIP-enablement from the start. This doesn't mean that you have to right off any existing investments but in the long run, SIP will prove a key enabler to bringing previously disparate technologies onto the desktop.
This of course will include mobility. As more businesses move to enabling a mobile and increasingly remote workforce with office-standard technology either in the home or on the road, demands for more control of communications and increased accessibility will become more apparent. The need for real time communications on a variety of devices increases and this is where SIP will play a major part.
UC is a technology layer that is changing rapidly and seamless collaborative conferencing, regardless of device or communications medium is a big but achievable goal. With Microsoft working with both Polycom and Alcatel on integrating voice and video capabilities in its Instant Messenger and the company looking forwards to Live Communications Server and Live Meeting merging into one unit, businesses will soon be faced with the next level in UC deployment.
True UC is only around the corner. The question is whether or not you can warrant the initial investment. It may take a bit of arithmetic but the result should provide you with at least one compelling argument to take UC very seriously indeed.
Q. What is Unified Communications (UC)?
Definitions vary but basically it is the next step up from unified messaging, which is simply the ability to consolidate all message types (invariably voicemail, IM and email) into one mailbox on the desktop. UC provides unified messaging but adds the ability to embed call control components into applications and brings in the ability to collaborate and conference though a choice of communications medium. This is appropriately called Unified Collaborative Communications (UCC) and is the latest buzz, enabling users to hold 'virtual' meetings regardless of the location of the participants. These meetings can be with who you want, when you want, using the communications device that you want to use (PSTN phone, mobile phone, VoIP phone, desktop or group video conferencing system) over any network, from the desktop.
Q. What can I do with it?
The most obvious application is quick contact with customers and/or internal colleagues either individually or as a group. Unified Communications systems are being designed to be instantly aware of who is available and which is the preferred communications medium at any given time. The ultimate aim is that from any business application, the user can, from the desktop, choose to email, voice call, video call or IM through one click, without having to leave the application. Polycom is currently working with Microsoft on embedding multimedia communications features into all sorts of applications such as CRM and ERP to enable real time communication, although it claims 2006 is a realistic timescale for this.