The unified communications rollercoaster

Unified Communications is the buzzword of the year, but what's really on offer?

Unified communications (UC) has quickly become the communications buzzword of the moment. If the hype is to be believed, it's no longer sufficient to merely run your telephony and internet connection on the one platform; to keep up with the competition you must now consolidate the entirety of your company's phone, email, IM and voicemail communications into the blah blah blah...

Confused, lost interest or just bored? If so, you're not alone: one buzzword follows another so quickly and with such overlap that they quickly bleed into one another and soon enough you don't know your unified security from your telephony-as-a-service. In fact, a recent IDC webcast saw senior analyst David Cannon scolding vendors for not adequately informing the market of what exactly UC is.

It doesn't help that each vendor has its own lexicon of jargon terms to describe the same concepts, which they eagerly consult before firing off alarmingly regular barrages of claims filled with tech-speak that sound like Martian to the uninitiated.

The core concept behind UC, at least according to Gartner's UC Magic Quadrant report, is its ability to reduce the 'human latency' in business. Once vendor-jargon is dispensed with, it basically boils down to the ability to retrieve a communication; or initiate a conversation regardless of what communications devices are at hand.

As far as messaging goes, this means many products will allow you to receive mobile or desktop voicemails as email attachments, or use the system's text-to-speech capabilities to read out an email through your mobile. Instant messaging- akin to a shorter, snappier version of email - is also often incorporated into UC rollouts.

The flip side - the real-time aspect - is the ability to answer a call on any of your UC-incorporated phones, a feature often referred to as 'single-number reach'. Further functionality includes the integration of telephony into your desktop, so you can click on an icon representing a colleague to call them with your desktop VoIP phone. Such an icon is the embodiment of 'presence': being able to know if someone on your network is available or busy at any given time.

So as you might imagine, the benefits tend to be of convenience rather than purely economic. This sentiment was hinted at in a recent Frost & Sullivan report, regarding UC uptake in the banking, financial and insurance sectors, which said: "The biggest challenge surrounding UC is justifying the ROI."

Going up...

And for some, the ROI does seem to be justified, with numerous real-world cases showing UC benefits making the leap from the theoretical to the practical.

Single-number reach, for one, seems to have garnered positive reviews. The fact that users can receive calls anywhere means they no longer have to spend time listening to and replying to voicemails, freeing up time that can be allocated to other, more important tasks. Also, if you've ever dialled 34 separate numbers in order to track someone down, you'll appreciate how single-number reach eases the task of calling someone on the run, making it more likely the tone of the call will be more positive.

Those who have rolled out VoIP as part of their UC deployment have also commented on the cost savings they've made by getting rid of their landline-based systems, as running your voice and data on a single IP network is generally cheaper than a system for each.

Presence has also proved popular among users, as it stops workers from wasting time tracking down other employees; if they can see someone is not available, they won't bother trying to find them or contact them if unavailable. Often integrated into presence applications, instant messaging has directly reduced the human latency Gartner speaks of, since people typically respond to IMs faster than they do emails.

...and back down

But as with most technologies, UC can be troublesome. According to a recent study by network performance analyst Network General, the network load from unified communications is so great that it detrimentally affects network performance in many organisations.

Almost 40% of the 576 survey respondents claimed that critical enterprise applications had suffered performance problems thanks to the inclusion of communications applications on their IP network.

Of course, this study was undertaken by a vendor looking to sell network performance and management tools, and it also failed to qualify how extreme the 'performance problems' were. That's not to mention the tricky logic behind using those who already had network problems - Network General's customers - as the sole source of participants for a study into the frequency of network problems.

So it wouldn't be overly cynical to be slightly suspicious of the study's findings. Nonetheless, there may be a nugget of truth in these results, and according to Avaya it doesn't hurt to be cautious.

Avaya's senior product manager James Sia, who notes that the company has been in IP telephony for a long time and has seen many deployments, believes many UC or VoIP failures are due to customers and vendors not considering the network before they start.

"At the end of the day, it's about picking the right infrastructure and setting up the network from the outset," Sia said.

He added that he has seen IP telephony deployments with over 10,000 end-points that have had five nines (99.999%) voice reliability and up time, indicating that with adequate preparation the size of the network isn't an issue.

Sia offered the following tips for those considering a UC deployment who were worried about their network:

  1. Make sure you do a proper network analysis.
  2. Understand your network.
  3. Give the company in charge of your deployment network statistics before you begin.


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