In-depth: Unified communications - step by step

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In-depth: Unified communications - step by step

Cath Everett

Although organisations are purchasing elements of the unified communications (UC) vision to boost staff productivity in difficult economic times, few beyond the largest are buying into the full dream. Instead, the sustained hype around the concept is putting small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) off and distracting them from going down the convergence route.

UC involves integrating real-time communications services, such as instant messaging, presence information and video-conferencing, with non real-time communication services, such as voicemail, e-mail and faxes.

This broad set of products is accessed via a single user interface and enables users to send messages or undertake transactions on one medium and receive them on another. For example, a call made to a landline may be redirected in real-time to an individual's mobile phone or a voicemail message and subsequently accessed in e-mail form, depending on the user's circumstances. These circumstances can be anticipated and prescribed in advance using presence applications.

The problem is that different vendors tend to provide their own definition of what UC comprises depending on their focus and what they are selling. But this state of affairs has only served to confuse the market.

Ian Kilpatrick, chairman of value-added distributor Wick Hill, says, "There is the dream of what unified communications is, and then there is the reality. The dream will be achieved at some point, especially in large companies. Convergence is important in getting there, but the unified communications hype has distracted people from going down this route so it has damaged the market."

This convergence can take the form of either a standard IP network running voice, or fixed and mobile convergence to enable users to cut costs. In the latter scenario, customers employ their mobile phones at standard rates when on the road, but pay landline rates when using the devices in the office.

Complex concept

But an already problematic situation has been made worse by the complexity and breadth of the vision being put forward. This has led smaller organisations to believe that UC is out of their league and to worry that if they make a tactical purchase now, the technology may become obsolete in a few years' time.

Surveys by Wick Hill show that there is a lot of interest in convergence, but concerns are inhibiting the market, says Kilpatrick. "It is a pick-and-mix proposition rather than just a box that runs, so the issue is about education. People need to understand that they can take the first step, get comfortable with it, and the rest leads in. So if what is installed does what they need now, they can grow it later and move forward."

Alex Donnelly, portfolio manager at reseller Damovo, agrees. He believes that there is no one-size-fits-all for organisations in UC terms and therefore, no single "killer app". This means that customers tend to opt for different elements based on business requirements, which can provide them with a clear return on investment - a consideration that is particularly important in the middle of a recession.

"The major vendors are hyping this and telling all kinds of wonderful stories about what can be gained from it. And there are potential gains, but they are not across the board in all sectors. So most customers are not taking a big bang approach with whole solutions, but are introducing component parts. They play with certain aspects, recognise the benefits and add more as those benefits are realised," he says.

Technical issues

Other concerns of a more technical nature, however, relate to security, network suitability and product interoperability. On the security side, for example, if the decision is taken to run voice applications on a converged IP network, organisations must ensure that it is adequately protected against activity such as denial of service attacks or they risk losing both their voice and data connections.

Another widely publicised issue is PBX hacking, which enables malicious individuals to use company lines to make phone calls. "Due to the way the session initiation protocol is set up, when you try to make a call, there is a kind of handshake in the network to determine which communications port you can use. The problem is that if you don't shut all of the other ports down, they can sit open and someone else can use them, route calls out and charge you for it," explains Kilpatrick.

The session initiation protocol (SIP) is a signalling protocol used to control multimedia-based communication activity such as voice, video-conferencing and instant messaging over IP networks.

SIP trunking services are not yet uniformly available across the country. Such services are provided by telcos such as BT to enable organisations to connect to a traditional PSTN voice network without having to introduce pricey additional gateways or other interfaces. The current scenario means that the basic foundation for running UC is not in place in some areas.

Kilpatrick says that claims of unified communications sales going through the roof have no substance. "You cannot run unified communications without SIP services, so you cannot have huge market growth across the UK when, depending on where you are, you cannot access them."

Quality of service

Another consideration in the voice context relates to quality of service. As a general rule, it is crucial to give voice traffic priority over data traffic, otherwise degradation in sound quality could make the voice system unusable. While upgrading to a higher-bandwidth broadband network may suffice for some organisations, others find that they must invest in an expensive MPLS network to guarantee the performance of their voice and video services.

A further challenge relates to the current lack of interoperability between rival vendors' UC products. This means that, if customers wish to use, for example, a Cisco IP-based-phone system with Microsoft's Office Communications Server to access presence or other applications, the two offerings will need to be manually integrated.

Simon Kentish, chairman of network integrator Fabric Technologies, says, "These systems are not open. They will not work with each other and it will probably be another two to three years before they do."

He says that while it is possible to create gateways, doing so requires technical resources and a level of expertise.

Similar work is also required in other areas. For example, it may be necessary to integrate legacy infrastructure such as hybrid IP-enabled PBXs into the new environment rather than engage in an expensive rip-and-replace strategy, or to integrate voice services into CRM applications so that the relevant customer record pops up when they call.

"Money is not made on the equipment these days - the money is made in integration and other services such as maintenance and support. You need highly certified engineers to get UC systems working well, which is a big investment for resellers. But it can be worth it if you get it right," Kentish says.

Damovo's Donnelly agrees, but indicates that being able to provide consultancy services, education and training is just as important. "Many organisations do not realise the cultural change that is required when implementing this technology," he says. "It requires people to alter the way they work. If they do not adapt, they will not get any benefits, so it is about explaining to the customer what the technology can do, exploring the potential benefits for their particular organisation and then providing training programmes based on different user profiles."

There are generally between three and four different groups of users in each company, including home workers, road warriors and predominantly office-based staff. "They may use a combination of the same tools but work in a slightly different way, so their requirements will vary," Donnelly says.

But he warns that some personnel may be reluctant to use the new technology as they - and their managers in some instances - see it as a monitoring tool for keeping tabs on them. "There is a fear factor, and it takes time to settle down. But if managers do choose to use the tools in a Big Brother sense, staff simply won't log on, which defeats the object," Donnelly says.

Channel reservations

The complexity in the market can be off-putting not only for customers, but also for channel members. Wick Hill's Kilpatrick indicates that years of over-hype have led to a certain amount of "channel fatigue" with the topic. This is not least because once partners start exploring UC, they often find that it is "considerably more complex than claimed" by vendors, particularly as the area straddles both the traditional voice and data worlds.

But even before they start, many are simply turned off by the jargon. "Whether you are a traditional voice or data reseller, there are 25 buzzwords sitting on the other side of the fence," Kilpatrick says.

This means that while the market may offer good opportunities for people with the right skills and proper training, there is a "classic scenario of perceived complexity". He says this situation leads to an awareness gap where people say, it just looks too complex to get in to', which acts as a further inhibitor to the market.

The transition is often easier for data resellers than their voice equivalents because they are familiar with IP-based infrastructure and applications. This expertise must be combined with an awareness of the potential pitfalls related to voice systems, such as quality of service, or partners risk coming unstuck.

IT resellers also generally have the advantage of having developed long-term relationships with their customers through providing maintenance and support services. The same is not necessarily true of the voice world, however, which can result in the need to effect cultural change in the latter instance.

Wayne Gratton, director of UC for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at value-added distributor Avnet Technology Solutions, indicates that partners on both side of the fence often need a lot of support when making the move.

"We spend a lot of time consultatively talking through a UC strategy with our partners," he says. "So rather than say ‘do everything at once', we develop a roadmap and encourage them to take one step at a time by gradually adding more products and skills in order to reach a 100% expanded portfolio."

The organisation has learned from experience that if partners simply sign up to UC and hope for the best, it will not work.

Begin with basics

Nonetheless, the upside of the UC hype is that customers are both aware of and attracted by the concept if they can understand how it might be applied to their own organisation. So while justifying it in hard return on investment rather than on softer productivity and efficiency terms can be tricky, it can also be used to open up a fruitful conversation with decision-makers.

"We invariably use UC to get a foothold because there is so much buzz around it," says Damovo's Donnelly. "Customers invariably buy something else, such as an upgraded network or contact centre, but the hype means that a lot of organisations are interested in talking about it as a starting point."

Once they have replaced their legacy PBX with a voice-over-IP or IP telephony system, it becomes relatively cost-effective for most organisations to simply add new UC applications to the IP network. After the benefits from these packages have been realised, there is a tendency to add more.

"Once organisations have deployed something, they tend to come back quite quickly and talk about other areas. Once they understand the benefits, you end up with further dialogue and there is often scope creep. People invariably start with the component parts and then often move towards expansion to cover their whole environment," Donnelly says.

As to where adoption is at the moment, Fabric's Kentish indicates that the market has now gone through its childhood phase and is "in its teens" - despite the fact that the technology first hit the market in around 1997.

"It may be a small market now, but it will flourish over the next few years. The credit crunch put a stopper on it, but over the past month or two, people have started spending money again," he says.

Wick Hill's Kilpatrick agrees that the market has a lot of future potential. While the sector may still be at the early adopter stage, with no more than 10% penetration at best, he predicts, "As clarity hits the market, there will be huge growth rates from a currently low base."

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