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Overcoming hurdles to unified communications technology

What is needed to spur unified communications deployment and deliver on the vision of spontaneous collaboration is simple and inexpensive tools that can integrate the existing IT, says Dialcom US's Bob Johnson.
Written by Bob Johnson, Contributor
Commentary--Normally, when Cisco, IBM and Microsoft move into a market, their presence does much to spur adoption. Their involvement might be expected to have a particularly positive impact on unified communications (UC), which industry analysts almost unanimously agree is poised for major growth.

UC can remove the artificial legacy barriers between voice, video, email and messaging communications to support a comprehensive suite of integrated applications. Unfortunately, the UC solutions offered to date by the major technology players have had mostly a negative impact on adoption because their solutions force the IT staff to deal with a morass of complex and expensive hardware and software deployments that lock an organization into specific infrastructures.

What is needed to spur UC deployment and deliver on the vision of spontaneous collaboration is simple and inexpensive tools that can integrate the existing IT, telephony and mobile environment. Such tools are now beginning to appear and they offer the ability to leverage the existing infrastructure, a minimal impact on available bandwidth and simple, straight-forward policy-based administration. This new generation of UC solutions streamlines the task of providing on-demand access to people and information in order to encourage collaboration, accelerate the flow of information and deliver better and faster decision-making at all levels of the organization.

Benefits of UC
There is little disagreement that UC is a technology whose time has come. A recent Forrester Group study stated that: “Unified Communications offers new flexibility and manageability across multimodal applications to deliver unprecedented levels of connection for the distributed workforce. It unravels communications bottlenecks, ties together applications with a simpler user interface, and supports closer collaboration across the enterprise. Unified communications also provides a competitive differentiator by enabling employees to reach others more quickly and eliminate delays caused by the inability to reach key decision-makers.”

Presence, which provides real-time notification of users’ current availability, is the cornerstone UC application. Another key component is instant messaging with the security and privacy that are not offered by public IM services.

Tools like IM enable far-flung colleagues to enter into timely sessions in order to collaborate and resolve issues faster. But now it is necessary to take the ease of IM and move it to new levels, with data, video and information moving between users as easily as emoticons.

Conferencing and collaboration gives participants the ability to view documents and applications while participating in a real-time conference. Integration with mobile devices plays a key role in UC by enabling users to fully collaborate regardless of their location. Finally all of these applications and others as well can be integrated with each other and with business processes to automate and integrate the flow of information throughout the extended enterprise.

Adoption challenges
But despite these compelling advantages, the adoption of UC has proceeded more slowly than would otherwise be expected. A key reason is that the major UC players, particularly Cisco, IBM and Microsoft, each understandably view this new technology primarily as an avenue to create greater demand for their existing products, including hardware, networking equipment, operating systems and applications. Although the major players say they believe in open systems and industry standards, their primary emphasis has been on promoting their existing infrastructure products and proprietary standards. None of the major players have made a major effort to support the wide range of legacy conferencing systems that many organizations have large investments in. Furthermore the major players’ solutions place high demands on the IT infrastructure and typically require substantial upgrades in order to provide a positive user experience.

The enormous potential business benefits of UC help to explain why C-level executives have shown so much enthusiasm for the concept. On the other hand, the high cost and complexity involved in implementing the major players’ vision of UC explains why IT departments have often resisted UC implementations.

The new generation of UC is available as a software application that can be immediately deployed onto a standard server within the corporate network and leverages existing communications infrastructures. This eliminates the need to go through the expense and uncertainty of reconfiguring switches, routers and firewalls to deploy UC. Standard networking protocols are supported to ensure easy participation of users of collaborative meetings. For instance, the standard instant messaging protocols are supported so that users can be notified that a UC session is beginning. This means that instead of replacing older technology with the new, those previous investments can deliver greater returns, or maybe even simply start to deliver the returns that have eluded business managers up to now. The architecture utilizes the investments that organizations have already made in Polycom and Tandberg conference phones, smart phones, personal computers and personal digital assistants.

Working with existing bandwidth
The new generation of UC eliminates the need for expensive networking upgrades by utilizing IT defined controls, user specified adjustments and real-time adaptive bandwidth management to deliver a positive experience on the existing infrastructure. IT defines the maximum operating parameters for all UC sessions to control the impact on bandwidth. Adaptive bandwidth management shields users from the effects of network latencies by sensing changes in network and device performance, adjusting compression and cache algorithms in real-time for optimal performance and managing flow control according to individual response requirements. Adaptive bandwidth management It also constantly monitors communications latency for each user, making adjustments as required within the parameters established by IT to provide users the best possible experience with the highest possible performance. Users have the flexibility to make individual adjustments for voice, video and data according to the unique circumstances of the UC session.

The new generation of UC provides for ease of administration for IT as well as for users. Administration of the UC solution can be performed by end-users with a minimum of training. Users can easily apply predefined profiles to individual users or use the point and click interface to adjust characteristics of the meeting. Individuals initiating a UC session can easily reach out to participants using pre-existing Active Directory or LDAP groups or personal address books. The new generation of UC includes software that can wrap video functionality into a simple click and go user experience. It eliminates the need for a video conference technical expert as is required with today’s complex telepresence rooms. Instead of bringing in someone just to set up a piece of hardware, users can just use the camera built into their laptop or one that plugs into a simple USB port and start working.

Web 2.0 is based upon the recognition that if employees are given simple, inexpensive tools they will figure out how to best use them. An excellent example is the proliferation of consumer solutions such as Skype that deliver IM, blogging and video conferencing. These tools don't require expensive hardware, but instead require only a bit of bandwidth and some software. UC has the potential to be the enterprise version of such tools by delivering unified messaging, advanced IP telephony, audio and video conferencing, instant messaging and pervasive presence management to desktop and mobile devices. Of course, realizing this potential requires easy-to-use tools that can bring together everyone in the organization without a large investment infrastructure. That’s exactly what the new generation of UC tools is all about: by connecting in a connected world.

In summary, UC helps companies provide faster and more flexible access to people and information while offering the potential to reduce business travel expense. Traditional UC solutions from major hardware, software and networking vendors have hindered UC adoption by attempting to force potential implementers into discarding their initial communications and telephone equipment and making expensive upgrades of the existing infrastructure while introducing enormous administration complexities. The new generation of UC has the potential to deliver on the potential espoused by the big players by supporting existing equipment, providing high performance with the current infrastructure and eliminating administrative complexities.

Bob Johnson is president of Dialcom US.

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