Harmonic Convergence

With the hype machine cranked to max volume, businesses large and small are tuning into the promise of unified communications (UC) and how they might use this sleek new technology to put a presence-enabled portal on their desktops for click-to-call, click-to-conference, click-to-read your voice mail, click-to-Web cam, click-to you name it.

Sounds good. Maybe a little too good. For dealers, it takes some telephony circuit-bending to get UC remix just right. Its not easy to design, implement or manage, despite what the vendors might say.

Investment in management, design and planning will be the difference between success and failure with a UC solution, says Dave Hart, CTO with Presidio Networked Solutions, a distributor and integrator, which just earned the master certification for unified communications from Cisco Systems Inc. The devil is in the details. This is not something you just deploy out and leave it at that. Theres much more to it.

For instance, one detail is making sure the network is ready to handle converged traffic, beyond IP voice. A network assessment is the starting point, taking into account the current applications and how they integrate with present and future functionalities, such as video conferencing; data center requirements for backup, storage and recovery; and general bandwidth allocation and QoS management. You also need a redundancy plan. You can never underestimate the sensitivity of voice-related requirements, says Hart. As data guys, typical VARs tend to think in terms of: The networks down, so well get it up in four hours. That doesnt fly with voice, and especially when all your communications are tied to this one network.

Also, todays unified communications environments often are a mix of applications, each having its own characteristics. Many companies require that the Cisco solution integrate with Yahoo! Instant Messenger, or that Avaya Inc.s UC platform sync up with Microsoft Exchange. Then, there also may be a requirement to use a video solution from one company and a mobile extension platform from another. And, ERP, sales management and other applications may need to be integrated. Today, each app is really a siloed application, explains François Depayras, vice president of sales and marketing at Ensim Corp. They all work separately from each other and have their own complex user requirements. So, if you have three, four, five different applications, the complexity can be overwhelming to integrate and manage on an ongoing basis. To solve that, Ensim recently introduced an integrated management solution for unified communications. The software application, appropriately dubbed Unify, enables automated provisioning, delegated administration, device and client configuration, and provides a simplified Web portal for managing applications, users and devices.

UC management also means device management. Windows Mobile can take an afternoon and a Ph.D. to configure, says Depayras. You have to find a way to easily create, activate and configure users with a template process. If you do anything manually, youll have mistakes.

Questions for the Client

Unified communications means better productivity and efficiency, and the ability to do cool things like monitor the bosss whereabouts. But not every business needs the same set of applications. A pre-implementation discussion to develop a unified communications strategy almost is mandatory for delivering client satisfaction.

Siemens Grace Tiscareno-Sato

Understand exactly who in any given organization brings in the results that keep the enterprise competitive and differentiated, says Grace Tiscareno-Sato, global marketing manager for unified communications at Siemens Communications Inc.

To ferret that out, consider asking the following:

  1. Who are the users? Who needs which capabilities within all thats available in a UC portfolio? Why do they need it?
  2. Who are your highest-value employees and teams? Who generates the most revenue? Innovation? Knowledge? Patents? Customer service? Patient care?
  3. Which technologies do you need to best compete in our globalized information economy?
  4. How intuitive will it be for these teams of key users to learn how to use their new communications tools?

Once key user communities are identified, the costs associated with their individual and team productivity must be quantified, [in order to clearly see the pain points], Tiscareno-Sato says.

Here are a few questions to help quantify that cost:

  1. How much money is being spent on mobile communications costs?
  2. How much money is being spent on travel for team meetings?
  3. How much money is being spent on audio, Web and video conferencing?
  4. What workflow, vertical or custom applications do these user communities use daily?
  5. Are users able to leverage all current communications technologies in an integrated way or are they forced to work with disparate applications and systems?

And, no UC environment will be pure. UC deployments will inevitably be hybrid: This means that they will be a mixture of vendors and a mixture of traditional telephony, IP telephony and UC functionality, says Mike Hollier at Psytechnics, which offers the Experience Manager product for performance management, which looks at the IP network, applications, endpoints and third-party service providers. Key to success is the selection of management and monitoring tools that can span these delivery technologies to detect and diagnose service-affecting issues. In particular, it is essential that both the IP network performance and the application performance can be measured. For example, with a voice service, the IP networks impact on performance should be watched (packet loss and jitter), along with monitoring for any problems with volume levels, noise, speech distortion or echo.

Options, Options

As these issues have become more apparent with the interest surrounding UC, management software and managed services have begun to make their way to the market. A VAR either can offer these solutions to the end customers IT department, or use them itself on behalf of the client, as a value-add.

For years, weve been trying to blend in multimedia to the enterprise and SMB mix, says Ernie Wallerstein at Zeacom Ltd., which offers a management application within its unified contact center that feeds out portal-based views for call center agents, receptionists, executives and knowledge workers to track communications from various applications and perform call control functions. Now that we have true UC in a horizontal way not just unified messaging its clear that people will resist adoption unless its a simplified interface and even simpler management.

Siemens OpenScape integrates with so that multimedia presence and UC capabilities are built right in.

To that end, there are products like Ensims Unify, which offers a three-step wizard for users to self-configure a range of devices and e-mail clients. As for the applications, the platform has connectors to the APIs of various applications, bringing them into a centralized portal so operations (e.g., application of security rules, or services set up moves, or adds and changes) can be handled in a simple, graphical way that masks a lot of the complexity. It also has an option to allow employees to self-manage their communications.

For its part, Presidio offers a managed service to its clients, where it remotely connects to the infrastructure for ongoing management, like hot fixes, security patching, moves, adds and changes and so on. This way, they dont have to hire a group of people to manage the UC environment, says Hart. For a monthly fixed fee, theyre paying a fraction of what an in-house persons salary would be, and they get all of our expertise. Presidio also has a hosted UC solution that Hart compares to a Vonage model, where the client buys IP phones and an Internet connection, and Presidio takes care of everything else.

Some vendors are striving to eliminate the management requirements as well. The best UC user interface is the one already familiar to the user, right? says Grace Tiscareno-Sato, global marketing manager for unified communications at Siemens Communications Inc., maker of OpenScape UC platform. For example, with OpenScape, the user continues to use their company desk phone, mobile phone, home office phone or VoIP software-based client on a laptop just as they do today.

OpenScapes UC capabilities are embedded into a users workflow application or e-mail client. When people communicate and collaborate, they want to do this from within their business processes and their business applications, she adds. They shouldnt have to come out of that application and then route to separate applications or devices to invoke that communication.

ShoreTel Inc., meanwhile, offers a UC-in-a-box type of solution that provides a single management interface via Web browser for performing moves, adds and changes; managing extensions; setting up voice mail; programming an auto-attendant and more. Individual end users get a desktop client the Personal Call Manager to control their call routing. While Ciscos handbook is like the Manhattan white pages, our system is wizard-driven and basically idiot-proof, says Steve Timmerman, ShoreTels vice president of marketing. Its also a flexible system that can adapt to business processes, so VARs can easily integrate in third-party applications, and theres increasingly a requirement to do so.

Speaking of integration, theres also been interoperability activity in the industry, which will make integrating various applications that much easier over time. SIP has been anointed the de facto standard protocol for multimedia communications, but virtually everyone has implemented it a bit differently, says Bud Walder, enterprise marketing manager at Dialogic, which provides open systems platforms for the converged communications market. So, paying attention to vendor initiatives in the area is important. The Avaya Devconnect program has a focus on SIP interoperability with third-party solutions. It is a good program that appears to be gaining momentum and building a resulting ecosystem around Avayas IP PBX infrastructure, Walder adds.

Knowing the Landscape

Tools are one thing, but old-fashioned expertise is the secret sauce in successful UC implementations. Theres value in knowing how to link a desktop client with presence, IM, click-to-call and click-tocollaborate to the existing PBX desk phone, as that gives users the option to communicate with the device they feel most comfortable with in any given instance. But decisions like these depend upon the individual companys requirements, and research is an important part of the process (see sidebar, Questions for the Client, above).

VARs will do well to add unified communications desktop, remote and mobile tools to existing infrastructure and do it in a phased approach, says Dialogics Walder. Crawl before you walk and walk before you run. Thats not going to strike anyone as new advice. But with UC, it means implementing things in a controlled progression.

For instance, is there a dated voice mail system in place with end-of-support issues? Great time to implement unified messaging as a VoIP application, and as an extension of your existing e-mail infrastructure, says Walder.

Opening a small remote office? Consider piloting a pure UC client environment as an extension of your HQ or regional facility PBX. Be sure to put local failovers in place to ensure service continuity, even if its just routing calls to mobile devices if the desktop client is inaccessible, he counsels.

You definitely have to approach it through planning, says Presidios Hart. Find the business requirements and match the technical solutions to them. And you know nothing ever goes as planned, so the more expertise you can gather, the better.

Four Best Practices

Nortels Tony Rybczynski

Nortel Networks Tony Rybczynski, whose global services unit is Microsoft Corp.s preferred partner for unified communications integration, offers the following best practices for successful unified communications rollouts:

1. Approach it as a business-driven deployment.

Unified communications can be used to drive personal productivity for mobile users, more effective collaboration across groups, more engaging customer contact and accelerated problem resolution. Its all about speeding time to X, with X being decision, service, revenue or some other key metric.

2. Desktop integration.

Unified communications is about unifying the user experience. Its critical to drive for solutions that target a single client that is tightly integrated with Microsoft Outlook and Office, or IBM LotusNotes. Between them, they represent 90 percent of desktops.

3. Business-optimized networks.

Ensure the data networking infrastructure can support requirements for end-to-end QoS and real-time reliability, so network failures dont impact unified communications sessions, and layered defense. Its all about delivering a consistent user quality of experience.

4. Unified communications partnerships.

Partner with suppliers who not only unify the user experience but also have a roadmap for unification of the IT infrastructure based on a software-centric architecture.

Read More Online

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Our experts point to the big trends in the unified communications market that bear watching going forward.

Microsoft Moves In
Watch for upcoming online coverage of the Microsoft Office Communicator launch.

Avaya Inc.
Cisco Systems Inc.
Ensim Corp.
Microsoft Corp.
Nortel Networks
Presidio Networked Solutions
ShoreTel Inc.
Siemens Communications Inc.
Zeacom Ltd.

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