Unified communications unveiled

Teleware's Richard Adams offers his take on UC's benefits and pitfalls.

Unified communications (UC) is one of the frequently used terms in the IT industry yet if you were to speak to half a dozen different industry experts you would undoubtedly get half a dozen different definitions. If the industry experts have differing opinions then it is no surprise that Australian businesses are struggling to justify why they should spend money on implementing UC. TeleWare’s Richard Adams details why UC is good for businesses.

One thing that these experts all agree on though is that businesses that embrace UC will gain a competitive advantage over their competition. It makes sense that if you can utilise technology to provide more information to your staff, while at the same time removing any physical/geographical barriers, your business will be more efficient.

We will look at the technical issues around UC in this article but to start with I want to get right back to basics. What is UC supposed to deliver? In my mind the ultimate goal of UC can be split into three simple areas:

  • Happy employees - An effective UC solution should provide your staff with the flexibility to do their job with less stress and in almost any location. The famous work/life balance that we all talk about should be improved. This can also provide a significant improvement in your company’s ability to retain staff as the job market in Australia continues to be extremely tight.
  • Happy customers - Customers should see an improvement in the level of service they receive as your staff can access the information required faster.
  • Happy bottom line  - If implemented effectively, a UC solution will provide a range of efficiencies that will increase productivity in all areas of the business. It will also differentiate your business from your competitors, which will improve your ability to increase your market share.

Feedback

If you talk to many Australian businesses though, the feedback around UC is not as positive as it should be. TeleWare has been providing UC solutions since 1991 and the most common feedback that we have received from enterprises in a range of different industries is:

  • Many of the proposed benefits of UC are actually a result of IP Telephony (eg, lower cost of ownership from merging the voice and data networks or reduced call costs).
  • The expected cost savings from deploying IP telephony have not been achieved and as a result the business case for UC needs a tangible return on investment before they can get sign-off.
  • There is still a misconception that a business needs to upgrade its existing voice infrastructure before it can deploy a UC solution.
  • UC is still a new technology.

As UC requires integration with a number of different devices the actual cost of the UC deployment is often a proportionately small cost in the wider project.

All of these comments are understandable given the mixed messages that are being given to Australian businesses. The last point though is constantly raised as the most common objection to deploying UC and as a result is something that I want to explore in more detail.

It is often said in a range of areas in our lives that the best way to predict future behaviour is to take the time to understand past behaviour.

If you look at what has happened in the telephony industry it is clear that we are going through a very similar cycle to what happened about 10 years ago. Due to the large number of different vendors trying to lock customers into using their solutions, the number of proprietary technologies introduced to the market grew. After a few years this caused an innovation bottleneck as the lack of a common language meant that third-party integrations became arduous.

Standards

The introduction of industry standards such as Q.SIG in Europe and DPNSS in North America were - at least in part - an attempt to provide open standards that would remove the bottleneck. Most vendors initially embraced this new open standards approach. However, because customers could more easily choose solutions beyond those offered by their incumbent vendor, it wasn’t long before many of the vendors started introducing proprietary versions of the new protocols. These forced customers to forgo certain features if they chose a third-party solution and the end result ... customers were back to square one again.

Fast forward to today and there is a very similar behaviour pattern appearing. While the protocols may have different names like H.323 and SIP, they were initially introduced to try and ensure that third-party applications could be easily developed to enhance the telephony architecture. It was the same approach that had led to the development of QSIG and DPNSS and unsurprisingly we are now seeing a range of vendors who are introducing a proprietary version of these new protocols. Whether it is ‘tweaking’ SIP so that they can provide a better presence solution, or offering a more cost-effective licensing option if you deploy their voice solution on top of their data architecture, the result is the same.

What does this actually mean and why should businesses care? The reason is that if you talk to anyone who has been through the headaches associated with the proprietary approach in the pre VoIP days, they will tell you how much time and money was wasted as a result. These same people will tell you with a passion how many of the business cases they submitted (to provide the functionality that the business was asking them for) were rejected because of the disproportionate costs that were added in the line item called ‘mediation engine’ or ‘integration software’. In short, lots of businesses ended up not being able to cost-effectively provide the functionality they needed to make their business more efficient due to the costs associated with using proprietary technologies.

Alliances

Over the past couple of years, major alliances have been formed between many of the large voice and application vendors to demonstrate that they will ensure that their solutions can work together seamlessly. The expected success of Microsoft into the voice space has intensified this and almost every vendor, including TeleWare, is ensuring that their solutions will enhance Microsoft’s solutions.

However, we are already seeing cracks in some alliances. The prediction from many market analysts that whoever owns the application layer will have a significant influence on the customer’s infrastructure choice looks like it will be accurate. We are already seeing many of the major infrastructure vendors starting to panic and look at how they can protect their existing customer base.

What is the easiest way to do that? Make some of the key applications they use only work with a proprietary protocol. Unfortunately, the cycle is sure to repeat.

Understanding the issues

There is no question that UC offers a range of benefits but it is important to ensure that you understand the following issues:

  • Do you need to upgrade your PABX? Why is this such an important point? The reason is that many businesses are adding significant additional costs in upgrading their PABX network, which in many cases is not needed. We are not saying that IP telephony does not provide additional benefits but it is completely untrue that IP telephony is a prerequisite.
  • Try not to lock yourself in to a single vendor, as while there may be many benefits of having a single vendor today, history shows us that putting all your eggs in one basket can cause a lot of pain in the future. The last thing you want to do is to choose a different vendor for every application but there are many benefits in taking a best-of-breed approach if implemented in a controlled manner.
  • Understand the overall costs - This may sound a bit obvious but if you talk to the companies that have already deployed a UC solution, many of them will tell you that their operating costs were significantly impacted by additional costs they had not anticipated, including:
  • Unified communications has been delivering benefits to customers for over 15 years. It is not a new technology, however the move towards IP-based telephony has added new capability, of which some applications are still in the early adoption phase.

The key word to focus on is ‘unified’. Whenever a business is looking to unify two or more technologies, then it is prudent to take the time to understand what the impacts will be across all areas of the company. This should not scare Australian businesses from deploying a UC solution; however, it is worth putting in a small amount of extra time at the planning phase to ensure that there are no surprises after implementation.

Lastly, only choose solutions which are based on open standards. Ensure that the vendor you work with has a history of using open standards and can provide a roadmap to ensure that they will continue to do this in the future. This not only protects your investment but it also ensures you will have the flexibility to work with the best-of-breed solutions in years to come.

Richard Adams is general manager, ANZ for TeleWare.

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