Separating Truth from Hype about Unified Communications

We reveal three facts to keep in mind during any unified communications evaluation.

After so many years of broken promises, unified communications (UC) has taken the spotlight in a huge way. Recent major announcements from industry luminaries, including IBM, Microsoft, and Avaya, have set the marketplace on fire and are leaving many companies scrambling to hop on the bandwagon. By integrating all communications -- voice, video, instant messaging, and presence information -- enterprises will soon simplify and improve communications. In addition, enterprises will be able to embed real-time communications into line-of-business applications to increase operational efficiency and business agility.

However, when the stakes are this high, so is the marketing hype. Enterprises must separate spin from substance when evaluating unified communications.

In this article we reveal three facts you should keep in mind during any UC evaluation.

Reality #1: For UC to be successful, companies must fundamentally change the way they manage their existing voice communication

You may be wondering: "If unified communications is so great, why is it just emerging now? What has changed in the past few years?"

While technological evolution certainly plays a part in unified communications' arrival, technology has notlead to the breakthrough. In fact, the most radical factor that instigated unified communications' tipping point was a change in the way enterprises began managing their VoIP communications.

Compared to other enterprise applications, today's PBXs and even IP PBXs are "islands of communication." No matter how many "solutions" you drop into your enterprise network, it is impossible to realize the expected ROI of unified communications when you route intra-company voice traffic over the TDM network while IM, presence information (status indicators that convey the ability and willingness of a person to communicate), and video traverse the IP network because it adds millions of dollars in unnecessary operating expense. To avoid this pitfall, enterprises must transform VoIP into a managed application on the IP network.

This radical shift in the way enterprises manage their voice communications has three key benefits:

  • Companies can integrate voice onto the wide area network (WAN)
  • Enterprises can uniformly enforce their real-time communications policies
  • Companies can optimize and manage real-time sessions to ensure compliance with service level agreements

Integrating all intra-company real-time traffic onto the WAN lets companies control, secure, and manage multi-vendor VoIP and unified communication environments from a single point in the network. Uniform policy enforcement is absolutely necessary because companies must be able to maintain strict control over users, access, sessions, services, and policies as well as ensure compliance and deliver business results.

Bringing voice communications onto the WAN gives companies a single, centrally managed policy-enforcement system that can control routing, security, monitoring, and interoperability across all locations. This functionality is particularly attractive to large, global corporations that must manage a workforce comprised of many branches, each with its own multi-vendor environments.

Given IT's regulated service level agreements, it is imperative to have complete visibility and span of control to manage real-time applications and services throughout the enterprise.

Reality #2: There is no single compelling application for unified communications -- there are many

Most discussions about unified communications examine the productivity gains in too narrow a context. People need to lose the "magic box" mentality promoted by vendors and look at the benefits of unified communications within the context of a business process instead of looking for bells and whistles. Think about how voice-enabled applications will streamline business processes and improve your customers' experience.

Unified communications will enable organizations to embed a range of powerful, new communications capabilities into existing business applications. For instance, many service-based businesses embed rich multi-modal collaboration applications, such as presence information, into ERP and CRM applications to improve interactions with clients and customers. This feature allows sales agents receiving calls from customers to immediately route them to the appropriate subject-matter experts when necessary. Enterprises can utilize any number of Web services and tools to develop new and creative ways to unlock their proprietary applications' potential.

Reality #3: Enterprises should not wait for vendor-driven standards before deploying unified communications

Vendors argue that companies should wait for standards to be developed before deploying unified communications. The roots of this stance are clear when you consider that these companies effectively blockaded unified communications because they built proprietary systems that were incompatible with their rival's solutions. Instead of waiting for these slow-moving giants to agree upon a standard (a process that could last years), companies should instead look to established telephony standards to lay the foundation to their unified communications strategy.

The IETF standards to integrate real-time communications -- SIP/TLS, RTP/SRTP, SIMPLE, etc. -- are here today and supported by all major vendors. All the major IP PBX and unified communications vendors support these standards on the server if not the line (client). IBM Sametime, Microsoft Office Communications Server, Avaya, Cisco, Nortel, Siemens, and the vast majority of the other IP PBX suppliers can be integrated onto the WAN with nominal to very high interoperability, depending on the capability of their real-time communications infrastructure.

The Bottom Line

Unified communications offer tremendous potential for enterprises as large gains in productivity and the optimization of business operations can be seen clearly on the horizon. Creative IT work flourishes in this environment and smart companies will find ways to improve their internal and external operations with new, integrated enterprise applications.

Successful implementations require companies to not only understand architectural and organizational hurdles, but also think about how to leverage their own expertise with the platform's flexible, innovative potential.

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Rod Hodgman is the vice president of marketing at Covergence. You can reach the author at