The need for safe, reliable, and easy-to-use communications tools has given rise to unified communications (UC), a strategy that integrates multiple communications modalities under a single management and security umbrella. The result is more effective communication, improved collaboration, and a boost to security and regulatory policies. Now that mobility is the primary networking vehicle for end users, it’s time for IT departments to make mobile unified communications (MUC) a priority.
The most important benefit of MUC is the ability of organizations to finally leave behind the uncontrolled, untracked mish-mash of consumer-centric, carrier, and third-party communications tools traditionally applied over the years. Communications are a critical organizational resource; MUC is a much easier vehicle to manage and scale, and MUC offers the visibility and control that’s essential to enterprise IT deployments. These advantages will enable MUC to become the dominant provisioning strategy and mechanism for organizational communications over the next five to 10 years.
What is mobile unified communications?
The “unified” part of MUC implies that all modalities available in contemporary organizational communications, along with associated analytics and reporting, are provisioned within a single management and security umbrella. Key required functionality includes:
- Messaging. This is analogous to the common carrier-provisioned texting (SMS/EMS/MMS) services and similar public services (Facebook Messenger, Linkedin Messaging, etc.) and also includes instant messaging (IM) and chat services. The clear advantage for MUC here is in security and record-keeping; public services are clearly lacking in these dimensions.
- E-Mail. E-Mail can and, in most cases, should be integrated into MUC for easy tracking of communications with outside parties, but it is fair to consider that MUC can – and likely will – replace e-mail for all intra-organization communications over time, with e-mail as we know it today reserved for lowest-common-denominator external communications.
- Voice. Voice telephony (over IP) is a key core constituent function within UC and must include both one-to-one and conferencing (many-to-many) capabilities, and, of course, voicemail.
- Files. All documents required by productivity applications, images (and fax if still required), streaming video, and recordings of conferencing (including video) must be retained and made easily searchable and accessible to authorized users. Media conversion between domains (for example, an automatically generated transcript of a voice conversation) is also a desirable feature. Also essential are backup, archiving, encryption, and support for any required regulatory and policy compliance (HIPAA, for example).
- Management. As with most IT capabilities today, a console application must include policy definition, configuration, identity management, onboarding, workgroup definition and management (including implementing multiple and even overlapping ad hoc closed user groups as may be required), integrity management (via failover), and usage monitoring, including cost control for carrier communications services.
The addition of mobility to UC also introduces new considerations, as follows.
While desktop UC often centers on purpose-built desksets, most MUC implementations are based on apps running on Android and iOS. It’s therefore important to make sure that organizational BYOD policies, which specify the allowed device/mobile-OS pairs, also indicate the requirement for these apps. MUC brings location independence and dynamic mobility to UC, and MUC is based on pure IP – there’s really no need to use or even know the phone number of a given device. We even foresee the day when MUC motivates the sale of handsets with only a data plan, with all other communications services provisioned by MUC.
With the power and utility of mobile devices now equal to those of PCs, the envelope of MUC is becoming much larger via the functional roll-up of other workgroup-centric capabilities previously restricted to PCs and often implemented as point products. MUC’s key advantage here is the fluid flow of information across an improving degree of collaborative functionality essential to group productivity. Capabilities can include not only familiar group productivity applications such as document processing and spreadsheets but also shared calendars, project management capabilities, and presentations, including shared and multi-user “whiteboards” for sketching and annotating ideas in real time.
Some MUC implementations also include personal information management functions such as contacts and notes, essentially integrating all individual and group workflow within the MUC security and management framework. And some MUC implementations implement what is effectively private social media capabilities, although specific feature sets do vary widely.
While the modalities integrated by MUC evolved separately and can, of course, still be used as such, the central appeal of MUC is in the closed-user-group privacy, anytime/anywhere reachability (and temporally-delayed access as well), and management visibility essential to contemporary organizational communications. Depending upon a given organization’s particular CRM strategies, MUC may even add value in outbound telemarketing, customer service and support, and the availability of key staff anytime/anywhere a customer needs attention, as many of the above capabilities can be translated quite easily in many cases into customer-facing advantages.
MUC deployment options
There are three broad possibilities for MUC deployment:
- Products. MUC products require no hardware beyond a server and mobile client devices. The server is often located on the organization’s premises, and can usually be hosted on a virtual machine, minimizing expense.
- Cloud services. Increasingly, MUC is provisioned as a cloud-based service. The cloud approach simplifies deployment, scaling over time, and enhances reliability, often with a lower overall operating expense. Some vendors offer MUC as a service (MUCaaS), which applies the managed-services strategy already at work in many other elements of IT and networking today. With the MUC management console in the cloud, MUC as a service offers total mobility, with no additional local infrastructure of any form required.
- Do-it-yourself integration. If a more limited set of MUC functionality is the goal (as might be the case if an IT shop wishes to retain the e-mail and calendaring of Outlook, for example), a variety of point-product capabilities are available. A popular choice is the open-source Asterisk IP-PBX, used with appropriate SIP clients. The disjointed management of functionality implemented via this approach is a less-than-desirable element, however.
A small sampling of key suppliers in the MUC space include:
- Cisco offers a range of MUC products, including UC as a service, and a variety of Webex capabilities, including collaboration via Webex Teams.
- Digium offers a hosted MUC capability that integrates with many other communications capabilities and services.
- Microsoft delivers MUC via Office 365 and Skype for Business.
- Mitel, a long-term player in business phone systems, offers a broad range of MUC functionality thanks to its acquisition of ShoreTel.
- RingCentral – another long-term player in the MUC space – offers mobile clients for iOS and Android.
- Whatsapp delivers a public service that emphasizes voice, messaging, and security via end-to-end encryption.
We are also expecting that many if not most collaboration and messaging vendors will eventually enter the MUC space via feature roll-ups or even acquisitions as customers begin to demand more integrated one-stop shopping. As we’ve seen with enterprise mobility management, innovations that begin as point products often do not achieve broad application until such a roll-up occurs.
Strategies for effective MUC
There are four key elements in a successful MUC deployment:
- Needs analysis. This includes a look at current, future, and growth scenarios, including geographic (and even global) expansion and overall network traffic demand including capacity analysis to assure sufficient headroom for isochronous traffic like voice. A similar analysis of network latency is required. A pilot deployment is always advisable in advance of a volume rollout. Edge servers may be a consideration for cloud-based deployment if latency is found to be an issue.
- Supplier capabilities. These include required feature sets for all modalities; range of device support (apps); reliability/availability/ease of use; service, support, help desk, consulting, and customization offerings; agreements, pricing, and terms; and APIs for extensibility. Again, MUC feature sets and implementations vary widely today.
- Usage policies and user relations. These include written communications policies, which are similar in nature to acceptable-use and BYOD policies, and can in some cases be incorporated into these. Note that while unlimited texting and voice are now common in cellular-service plans, unlimited data is not, so adjustments to BYOD reimbursement policies may be required. Also important are internal marketing, education, training, support, and feedback gathering. Note that user privacy is increasingly an issue; it’s best to treat this concern in a manner similar to the “sandboxing” of mobile content management solutions – organizational communications are separate and distinct from those in the purely-personal domain, with MUC constituting a form of dual- (or even multi-) persona communications services.
- Operational and management requirements. These include the usual, such as console functionality, ease-of-use, visibility functions, alerts and alarms, and analytics.
Finally, given the mission-critical nature of MUC, its deployment might be a good time to consider SD-WAN as a path to enhancing overall network reliability, in this case via ensuring access via multiple ISPs.
As stated before, we believe MUC will become the dominant provisioning strategy and mechanism for organizational communications over the next five to 10 years. We also expect to see, aided in no small part by BYOD-centric communications, the final merging of networks and telecom. Yes, there may be accompanying political and staffing issues here, but we can all agree that the twisted-pair phone line and traditional PBX are completely obsolete. Moreover, MUC is fully compatible with both WLAN and cellular services and will fit quite nicely with all-IP 5G services as these become common over the next five years.
We recommend that organizational IT departments begin exploring MUC alternatives if they’ve not already done so. The field will continue to evolve, especially via the roll-up of additional functionality, but the MUC solutions available today are already hard at work in organizations of all sizes and missions.
Disclosure: Farpoint Group does not use any of the products or services mentioned in this article, other than some of our voice communications are based upon an implementation of the open-source of Asterisk framework via the Zoiper SIP client. Some of the companies mentioned in this article may be present or past clients of Farpoint Group.