Unified communications: revising competitive advantage

Look for best-of-breed with integration options

Few can deny that the financial cost savings and increased network efficiencies of VoIP technology have been impressive.

Communications infrastructure is now simplified, the phone system is scalable and flexible, productivity is improved, and operating costs are reduced.

However, the extent to which VoIP is able to give organizations a competitive edge is now beginning to wane.

Researcher Infonetics, for example, projects that 84 percent of all enterprise voice lines sales will be IP PBX-based by the end of 2007.

This mass-adoption of voice over IP means the chances are that nearly all your competitors have VoIP, and if they don't, they will by year's end.

That means the vast majority of organizations now has to look beyond VoIP for the next communications-based competitive edge.

That edge is here, now, in the form of unified communications - the bringing together of real-time and non-real-time communications across multiple devices onto the one platform.

UC also enables capabilities such as presence - the ability to find the best person available for live contact and assess the state of the receiver so you can choose the best or richest communications mode.

UC will centralize messages allowing for the same quantity of communications to be received, reviewed, and responded to in less time. The technology better organizes information and facilitates greater access to it through being able to retrieve all types of messages via multiple interfaces regardless of how they arrived. To achieve UC and other next-generation benefits, companies must build the right foundation, eliminate the voice silo, and make telephony a seamless part of information technology.

The problem is that UC is a moving target with various vendors using the term in different ways to emphasize a subset of an evolving group of capabilities.

For software vendors UC is about communications-enabling your familiar suite of applications. For hardware vendors, UC is about enhancing your IP network infrastructure.

What users really need is a rich and flexible communications system that meets particular business needs.

Gartner identifies 16 features that comprise a complete UC solution including telephony, unified messaging, desktop client, e-mail, instant messaging, audio conferencing, video conferencing, web conferencing, converged conferencing, notification service, personal assistant, rich presence service, communications-enabled business processes, contact centre, mobile solutions, and collaboration.

All of these UC capabilities cannot possibly come from a single vendor, so to get the full benefits of UC, businesses need to build a UC infrastructure that can integrate the best UC applications into a seamlessly unified UC environment.

After all, what UC is really about is eliminating islands of communication. You need a communications system that integrates completely and easily into your desktop environment and your business processes.

That said, today's businesses are still dealing with these islands through an inefficient mix of voice and data silos.

This stems from a range of different communication modes at a variety of fixed and mobile locations over different devices.

With such a mixed bag of technologies, it is difficult for the communication process to leverage corporate intelligence well, if at all. Similarly, the communication process is largely in the dark about who is available to resolve critical issues quickly.

IP telephony platforms that were not designed with UC in mind are tacking UC capabilities on piecemeal, with all the attendant complexity, cost, and reliability problems that such an approach entails.

So, organizations need to look to a context-sensitive communication system that uses presence and other intelligence to offer a choice among all these types of communication, and do so in a way that is seamless and transparent to the user.

From anywhere, you can see the best way to reach your target at that particular moment. And you can use whichever mode and device is most convenient, without having to hop between communication silos. Such capability greatly increases the probability of achieving communication, and doing so in the most convenient and appropriate mode.

Aligning the infrastructure

Companies that are first to exploit presence and benefit from UC will have a big competitive advantage, so aligning enterprise infrastructure to support them is critical. The phone system is the biggest stumbling block - an unwelcoming environment that has little history as an application development platform. To recast it as such, some vendors have moved the entire phone system to open application servers. However, in large enterprise environments this involves constructing huge server farms and increasing IT staffing to add expertise in server environments.

This problem is compounded by the acquisitions path most IP telephony vendors have taken to build and enhance their voice platforms. VoIP and UC capabilities developed separately by different companies get patched together, often somewhat tenuously. The result is a highly complex amalgamation of discrete, disjointed components that are difficult and expensive to implement, manage, and upgrade. The slideware and Flash demos often look great, but there is no practical way for businesses to experience what they present.

The ideal platform for UC in general is a fully converged IP telephony environment which includes some best-of-breed UC capabilities and can easily incorporate others from third parties.

Tony Warhurst is managing director of ShoreTel's South East Asia operations.

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