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Unified Communications and the Cloud

Guidelines 339Vendor hype has devalued the promise of unified communications and threatens to cause confusion with the move to cloud computing. In the absence of a clear and unambiguous explanation of the benefits of embarking on such projects, end users could be forgiven for thinking that these are technologies without a purpose. However, a revolution is underway, bringing with it real benefits to enterprises and to workers.

Over the last ten years, there has been a rapidly accelerating series of convergences in the communications world. The world of telephony has changed forever… from its roots in traditional TDM voice through convergence with data networks, productivity applications, mobile devices and business applications.

Technology improvements coupled with market and economic pressures have pushed communications onto a common IT network and platform. Initial teething problems have been overcome and the core technologies are proven. Once the initial network infrastructure has been put into place, there are real cost savings to be made. But it would be very easy to stop there, missing a major opportunity to drive further beneficial change.

Historically, communications professionals spoke a completely different language to those in IT. The phone became an essential business tool. The real-time nature of voice coupled with end user intolerance of interrupted or unstable voice communications, kept the IT world at bay.

How things change…. Communications is now an integral part of IT infrastructure and the foundations are in place for new, innovative and disruptive technologies to deliver real productivity benefits to end users and enterprises. In order to maximise the impact of these productivity benefits, enterprises need to free themselves from the constraints of thinking about communications as picking up a handset and dialling a number.

But remember…. Unified Communications is not a product. It’s a philosophy... a state of mind aimed at delivering reduced costs, organisational efficiency and empowered people. It brings together disparate communications methods, business applications and information sources, to facilitate the efficient and timely collaboration between people and to improve accessibility to critical, time-dependent information – regardless of device and location.

10 key points to consider regarding Unified Communications and the Cloud

The following guidance for enterprises is made with the objective of gaining an advantage from deploying Unified Communications in a cloud-centric scenario. It addresses quick-wins but also seeks to prevent costly mistakes with likely technology cul-de-sacs.

  1. Strategy: Include unified communications (the concept, not the products) as a cornerstone of your IT strategy. It is a core component, not a separate island. Failure to do so will increase the challenges for you in aligning communications further downstream.
  2. Network-readiness: IPT requires networks that are voice ready; quality of service must be deployed across all WAN, LAN, WLAN components that will carry real-time voice traffic. Remember that end-users will not tolerate poor or unstable voice quality. Upgrading networks is often a significant investment for the enterprise, but necessary not just for IPT. Use cost-savings of deploying IPT as a factor in the business case for upgrading networks.
  3. Software is the future: Proprietary hardware IPT voice servers and devices are costly and keep telephony at arm’s length from software applications used by the enterprise. As with all developments in IT, hardware always becomes a commodity, with software and services providing the value-add. Investments in proprietary network-centric voice hardware may be short-lived. Software-based IPT servers offer investment protection for the future.
  4. Step-by-step: IPT is not a prerequisite for UC. Remember that UC is a philosophy with a number of components. Some of these can be deployed using UC-enabling desktop applications with traditional TDM PBXs. This may be appropriate in the short-term to gain quick wins. However to gain the full benefit of communications-enabling applications making the transition to software-based IPT is inevitable.
  5. Simplify: Avoid complexity. This is the basis of UC. Building UC infrastructure with gateways, middleware, complex connectivity and other intermediary components may be necessary as a short-term measure, especially for larger enterprises. But the strategic objective must be to simplify. This will facilitate all communications methods being available to be accessed by any application, a prerequisite for the deployment of next generation communications-enabled mashup applications.
  6. Virtualise: In common with other software applications, virtualise UC server and desktop applications to gain cost savings. The centralisation of all of these applications will also facilitate deployment of next generation communications-enabled applications.
  7. Open standards: There is no reason in today’s world to acquire proprietary communications infrastructure. Software-based IPT servers should be capable of running virtualised in commodity server farms. Commodity devices should be capable of being used. Applications should be able to call UC functionality using open web services, facilitating rapid deployment of next generation communications-enabled mashups.
  8. Fixed Mobile Convergence (FMC): One mobile device for each user should be the objective. A mobile smartphone able to handle unified communications applications integrated with other enterprise and productivity applications. There is a place for desk phones for non-mobile workers. But for mobile workers the simplest approach is the most effective… using the mobile smartphone as an enterprise communications device. Consider the two alternative strategies for FMC.
  9. Interoperability is key: Without interoperability, email systems would not function today between enterprises. There would be no ubiquitous electronic communication between you, your customers, suppliers and partners. Architectural plans for UC within the enterprise should target a similar objective. The efficiencies arising from deploying UC within an enterprise will be magnified several fold when extended to the wider business ecosystem.
  10. Communications-as-a-Service (CaaS): UC services deployed from the cloud are a reality. This could be as private cloud services offered within a large enterprise to its subsidiaries. Alternatively replacement of on-premises hardware and software by an outsourced or hosted service on a pay-as-you-go basis may bring significant advantages. Remember that the ability to integrate communications with other business applications will be important moving forward (avoid CaaS offerings that cannot provide this).

Unified Communications – the potential

The business driver of cost reduction in the current economic climate has accelerated the move towards virtualisation and cloud computing. At the same time the cycles of IT and communications convergence provide a platform for change, driving more cost reduction possibilities but potentially so much more…

The concept of ‘unified communications’ is still compelling and valid in today’s fast changing world… the convergence of all methods of communicating between two or more people, from any application, using any device, at any location, via the most appropriate route, enabling effective collaboration with business-grade security.

Unified communications is a concept not a product. Implemented well, it serves as a platform for change, freeing workers from some of the chains of the past. Communications techniques designed many decades ago no longer have a place in the 21st Century.

Centralisation of systems and high-speed networks provide a range of benefits to enterprises and workers. Converged IT and communications applications delivered as a service from the cloud reduce complexity and costs within the enterprise.

Providing workers with next-generation communications-enabled applications, delivered quickly and cost effectively, can significantly improve the efficiency of the organisation’s business processes. At the same time, if these new applications are developed to reflect web 2.0 techniques, they are likely to be accepted quickly by staff as well as providing them with real empowerment. New mashups create real innovation limited only by the imagination.

Adopting cost reduction strategies without considering innovative ways of improving efficiency is a missed strategic opportunity. Enterprises that understand and embrace this will create for themselves real competitive advantage.

NCC Members can download NCC Guidelines 339: Unified Communications and the Cloud (pdf) for free



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