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Imagine taking every one of the hundreds of thousands of residents of a medium-sized British city – say Brighton, Cardiff or Middlesbrough – and setting each one up with a unified communications and collaboration (UCC) service. When even the very largest telcos cannot provide universal broadband services to everyone, it might feel like a big ask – but for the world’s very largest multinational enterprises, this is the reality of IT procurement.
More specifically, this is the reality for engineering business Siemens AG, one of Germany’s most prominent enterprises, with specialisms ranging from power and energy, industrial automation, water treatment, railway rolling stock and medical technology to business services such as finance and project engineering.
With a headcount of about 379,000 (as of the end of its last fiscal year), Siemens is a diverse, distributed business with distinct and critical internal communications needs. From the perspective of Rainer Karcher, Siemens’ service CEO of real-time communication, IT infrastructure services, by 2017 the company’s eight-year-old communications system was verging on the obsolete.
“From a generational perspective, the challenge of mobile use, applications for smartphones, document sharing and screen sharing – we had no ability to address it on a permanent basis,” he says.
Alongside this were the myriad technical issues presented by any ageing hardware installation, such as broken hardware, missing cables and adaptors.
Siemens’ five requirements for UCC
Karcher was briefed to meet five key requirements in replacing Siemens’ legacy UCC system: to modernise and standardise the communications infrastructure; to enable quick and easy integration in its existing processes and tools; to address a need for scalability across all the business’ many divisions; to explore the possibility of integrating existing and future infrastructure components, such as PBX or video room systems; and to support Siemens’ internal One Phone initiative, a programme that seeks to minimise the number of users of fixed-line telephony within the business.
Based on the need for scalability, flexibility in integrating further applications and interfaces, and quick integration, Karcher was drawn to Unify’s Circuit cloud UCC platform, which is based on the WebRTC open communications standard.
Formerly a Siemens business unit itself – Unify went by the name of Siemens Enterprise Communications before a 2013 rebrand – its prior knowledge and experience of the wider Siemens organisation was not a factor in Karcher’s selection of it, but clearly many Siemens employees knew the business well, and with an overwhelming UCC market share in Germany (between 70% and 80% by some measures), its presence was hard to ignore.
Unify, which has been owned by French IT consultancy Atos since 2015, went through a multi-stage tender process and lengthy testing in a proof-of-concept phase, during which its cloud-based infrastructure supported video, audio and screen-sharing sessions for up to 1,000 simultaneous users.
The Circuit solution dovetailed “seamlessly” into Siemens’ existing ICT landscape, in part thanks to its zero-footprint cloud strategy, says Karcher.
Testing and roll-out
The team then moved forward with a number of further stress tests to prove Circuit could scale to the size Siemens would need. During simulations, the application successfully ran 350,000 users without a problem, while live tests with 15,000 users – many of them in the business’ various IT departments – gave Karcher confidence that the user interface was sufficiently intuitive to be accessible to the largest possible number of people.
The full deployment began in 2017, using Atos’ private cloud network and multiple datacentre implementations to handle data and communications traffic as the backbone of the infrastructure.
A joint project team across Atos, Unify and Siemens accomplished the global client roll-out in just six weeks, running in parallel with the old system for a period, until that was finally switched off in January 2018, says Karcher. This was particularly noteworthy given that the global nature of Siemens’ business introduced a lot of variables in terms of compliance and security, he adds.
“The benefit of being in a big company is that we have a lot of experts on legal, ethical and security concerns to support us,” he says. “There was a huge effort up-front to spread that to end-users.”
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Educating the company’s vast workforce on the Circuit system was also a big part of the job, says Karcher. “Older employees and those working for Siemens for a long time needed more attention, and different attention, to those coming up from university who are more used to collaboration,” he notes.
“We tried to establish a lot of different types of education and training materials, not just standardised documentation. We had video tutorials, online training, and communities within the intranet. We have a social media platform, the Siemens Social Network, which is used by 35,000-40,000 people on a daily basis. We tried to reach as many users as we could across different channels, and adjust the training to the needs of the end-users.”
The full Circuit solution incorporates: standard communication and collaboration channels; scalability for voice, screen- and video-sharing sessions based on WebRTC; worldwide managed services and technical support from both Atos and Unify; integration into Siemens existing phone infrastructure using a feature called the Circuit Advanced Telephony Connector; use of Circuit APIs to integrate into existing applications used at Siemens, such as enterprise file-sharing service Syncplicity; and an agile product development process that includes automatic monthly updates, which means Karcher’s team no longer has to chase down unpatched devices.
Consistent experience is the key to success
Crucial to the success of the deployment, says Karcher, has been the ability to introduce consistency of experience and communications processes across the company.
One of the most noticeable impacts to date has been the ability to bring together all strands of communication across the business in one application, instead of having to host separate products for chat, telephone, video-conferencing, and screen and file-sharing, that has a consistent look and feel, whether it is being used on a smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop, and can seamlessly transition modes of communication between devices.
As a most basic example, Siemens staff can now begin calls on a smartphone while walking into the office, transfer them to a desktop-based softphone via a headset on arrival, or share the call with colleagues in a conference room setting.
“I think that’s the major difference,” says Karcher. “Users can switch on their smartphone and, with one click, connect to an active conversation, or share their screen or video.”
Standardisation has had other effects for the business, for example by making it easier to integrate new joiners into the corporate ecosystem and enabling workers to collaborate in between teams and business units across country borders.
This meets a vital requirement for Siemens, as its disparate business units depend on international cooperation to serve and support the organisation’s customers and partners, wherever they may be.
File-sharing features built into Circuit are now being used to swap more than 1.8TB of data every 24 hours, while over the same period, an average of 1.2 million instant messages are sent across the system.
As previously explored by Computer Weekly, UCC systems are beginning to come into their own as a means by which enterprises can at least attempt to mitigate the effects of climate change.
One, often underappreciated, aspect of climate change is that it is not merely causing average temperatures to rise, but is also influencing global weather patterns, with the result that many parts of the world are already experiencing extreme weather conditions more frequently.
With this in mind, at the beginning of 2019, central Europe was blanketed by severe snowfall – over a metre deep in parts of Austria – which brought cities such as Munich, which is generally well prepared for normal winter weather, to a standstill.
“Without doubt, two years ago I would have had huge issues working from home, but now being able to do that with only an internet connection meant I spent three days at home, without needing to drive through Munich,” says Karcher.
“Work-life balance is very important within Siemens, and it is more fulfilled by this type of solution.”
Beyond helping Siemens to adapt to extreme weather conditions better, Karcher says he hopes the Circuit deployment will have a wider impact in the fight against climate change by helping the organisation to mitigate its carbon emissions.
With this in mind, last year the business launched an initiative to slash its travel costs by a quarter, and this has been the biggest driver behind a greatly increased use of Circuit as a real-time communications tool – it now logs 87 million minutes of calls a month.
“Working globally, we have nearshoring and offshoring in place within the IT environment, so I have colleagues spread worldwide,” says Karcher. “Parts of the Circuit core team work in the US, and in Lisbon too, so this is one very beneficial way to reduce our carbon footprint.”