The worlds of telephony and business applications have collided at some speed. Nortel and Microsoft's recent alliance is one indication of this union, representing a telephony and an applications supplier working together on products that bridge the two worlds.
There is now a raft of products that are now available to knit together the two sides, such as online team collaboration tools, dual handsets that can access a single set of contacts and diaries and, of course, voice and video over IP.
This union of telephony and business applications has given birth to "unified communications", a term that encompasses the ability to use a single mobile handset and a single universal inbox to unite diverse types of communication.
"Unified communications has become the inclusive name for a converging set of voice, data and video infrastructure services that integrate with common business applications to reduce typical communication bottlenecks," says Elizabeth Herrell, vice- president at Forrester Research.
Forrester Research defines unified communications as linked communication technologies - for example voice, with collaboration services, such as e-mail, calendaring, instant messaging and presence - that improve workers' ability to interact with co-workers more quickly and effortlessly.
There are two angles from which an IT manager can approach unified communications. One is from the telephony side, where the analogue telephony server - generally a fridge-sized piece of hardware - is replaced with a new IP- enabled public branch exchange (PBX) server from a networking and telecoms supplier such as Cisco, Nortel, BT or Avaya.
The other is to implement a software applications platform from the likes of Microsoft or IBM, the two main suppliers in this field. These platforms allow the user to add layers of unified communications applications as they are required.
However, most users go for a combination of both, and Microsoft and IBM both partner with the PBX software providers to give users advanced IP telephony systems. Among the most popular telephony- centric unified communications platforms are Cisco Unified (CU), which includes CU Callmanager, Cisco Unity Unified Messaging, CU Presence Server, and CU Meetingplace.
Based around core application servers, the platforms centre on a converged IP network infrastructure which has the ability to carry both voice and data traffic. These Cisco products support advanced desktop call facilities and can integrate multimedia messages, allowing them to be accessed by fixed and mobile devices.
Support for and enhancements to Cisco's presence, collaboration, and instant messaging capabilities is in the pipeline for future releases. Cisco partners with both IBM and Microsoft for asynchronous collaboration capabilities, a term which refers to things like instant messaging and e-mail.
Nortel's Multimedia Communication Server 5100 is another popular platform that offers integrated audio, video and web conferencing capabilities and advanced telephony. Nortel's unified communications system integrates into the Nortel Communication Server 1000 and allows desktop users to use presence-based services through the use of session initiation protocol (Sip).
Sip is a key technology in unified communications that helps to facilitate services like presence, which can tell all users of the system the location and status of each member. Sip can also be used to facilitate integrated messaging, conferencing systems that use different types of interfaces, and collaboration applications.
Alcatel Omnitouch UC is another platform that runs on an IP-enabled PBX, and is integrated into Alcatel's Omni PCX Enterprise suite. Like the other competitive products, Omnitouch offers messaging, fixed and mobile device support, and web and videoconferencing integration. The software also integrates with both Lotus Notes and Domino, and Microsoft Outlook and Exchange to enable instant messaging. Alcatel plans to add advanced presence functions in a future release of the software.
Other popular unified communications systems, offering a range of applications and functions, include Mitel Live Business Gateway, Avaya's one-X and Multivantage, Oracle Communications and Mobility Server and Oracle Collaboration Suite, and Siemens Hipath Openscape.
On the software platform side two suppliers lead the market. These are IBM, with Lotus Notes and Domino, and Microsoft, with Exchange Server and Outlook.
The main building blocks of Microsoft's latest unified communications product set are Exchange Server, Office and Live Communications Server - which is soon to be replaced by Office Communications Server 2007 (OCS 2007). This combination brings together elements of telephony, collaboration, presence and asynchronous communication like e-mail and instant messaging.
OCS 2007 is due to be released in mid-2007, and will provide standalone PC-to-phone and phone-to-PC communication capabilities.
Microsoft is, therefore, touting it as a more cost-effective way to integrate voice over IP (VoIP) into an existing telephony infrastructure, without needing to carry out an expensive network overhaul.
With the new voice server, users will be able to instantly launch a phone call from within Office applications by clicking on another user's name. It also has native support for Sip, so organisations can deploy enterprise-wide presence and secure instant messaging, as well as video and web conferences.
OCS 2007 has a client called the Office Communicator, which will offer real-time collaboration using instant messaging, presence, application sharing, white-boarding, online voting and web conferencing. OCS 2007 can also be used in conjunction with Microsoft Sharepoint for team collaboration and portal capabilities, as well as Microsoft Office, to provide real-time collaboration features from within the Office applications.
One key feature is the ability to route voice calls and other communications into a single "universal" inbox. Mark Deakin, product manager for the unified communications group at Microsoft, says, "By unifying your inbox, you can take voice mails, e-mails and faxes and put them all into one place. For Exchange Server 2007 the next important piece of the jigsaw is on the presence side - knowing if someone is available to speak or not.
"The vision is that whenever you want to collaborate with anyone, all you will need is their name. Unified communications is like DNS for phone numbers. At the most, you should be able to give an e-mail address and a phone number," says Deakin.
Then, whether the client application is Outlook, Microsoft Sharepoint or a customer relationship management (CRM) programme, users should be able to start an instant message, a video communication, a voice call or send e-mail, said Deakin. "You want technology to work for you and not get in the way of the important communication," he says.
In terms of presence, Microsoft is currently working on ways to change the level of presence that a user can exhibit. For example, within an organisation everyone can see that a certain staff member is in a meeting, along with their phone number. But outside the organisation, users can only ascertain that the user is busy.
IBM is working along similar lines with its unified communications products, which centre on the Lotus Notes client and Domino server, and Lotus Sametime 7.5 communications platform.
A new version of the Lotus Sametime instant messaging and collaboration software - 7.5.1 - is due to ship at Easter. "Lotus Sametime provides an open, extensible software platform that integrates rich presence, instant messaging, e-mail, unified messaging, web, voice, video, telephony and business applications across multi-supplier environments," says Bruce Morse, vice-president for Lotus unified communications software.
An important part of IBM's strategy is to integrate Sametime with CRM and enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications as well as mobile clients, which are also projects that Microsoft is working on.
However, IBM uses the open source Eclipse development architecture, and its applications integrate with Microsoft Outlook and Office applications and support Linux servers and Apple Macintosh clients.
IBM's recent Lotusphere user conference has given an indication of where its unified communications strategy was heading.
"Rooted in IBM's Lotus Sametime real-time collaboration platform, major wow factors came from demos involving real-time communications, including VoIP and telephony, instant messaging, presence awareness and web conferencing capabilities," says Jim Murphy, research director at AMR Research.
"IBM's latest unified communications product is not just a discrete, general-purpose productivity product, but a platform and set of services made available to other systems and processes - and not only those governed and managed by IBM products," according to Murphy0.
"This means that companies using partner products, and even competitive products such as Microsoft Office, can avail themselves of real-time collaboration services."
As the Notes and Domino platform gives users access to different modes of communication from a single application or interface, IBM has also been working on ways to manage this recently unified pool of communications.
Lotus Notes 8, the next version of the e-mail and communications platform, will incorporate features that allow users to organise and share e-mail, instant messages, text, video and voice documents, and link them to a particular activity or project. This will bring those communications and documents out of their traditional "silos", says IBM.
The direction that IBM's unified communications strategy is heading in is towards "social software" that allows workers to develop their informal interactions and relationships using the latest technologies, says Gartner research director Nikos Drakos.
At the January Lotusphere conference, IBM announced Lotus Connections, an integrated and extensible set of social-software services designed for businesses, and expected it to be available in the first half of this year. The services include user profiles based on roles and interests, communities, social bookmarks, activities (business projects) and blogs.
It uses Web 2.0 technologies like Ajax and syndication standards RSS and Atom to enable content and communication sharing.
"Given IBM's vulnerable position in the e-mail and calendaring market, Connections could provide it with an opportunity to shift from traditional, e-mail-centred collaboration and communication to new social-software-based community models, which would enable it to appeal to users outside its traditional installed base," says Drakos.
With Connections, IBM is using the leading-edge technology to link communication more deeply into collaboration.
But it remains to be seen whether traditional enterprise users will adopt it, says Drakos. "Younger, web-savvy end-users are already asking for an application like Connections, but some face resistance from senior IT and business managers, who may be hostile to the very idea of social-software deployments," he says.
So, for many organisations, VoIP may be as far as they are willing to go in terms of unified communications - for the time being at least.
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