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Unified Communications – a work in progress

Ian McMurray explores how close we are to a complete connectivity solution that would enable all kinds of devices to communicate.

Unified communications promises a utopian ideal of all kinds of communication between all kinds of devices. But how close is that ideal, and what needs to happen before it becomes a reality? Ian McMurray reports

Way back in 1971 in the UK, an iconic TV commercial for Martini appeared to suggest to enraptured male viewers that its seductive star was available “any time, any place, anywhere”. It was, of course, no more than a dream for those viewers (who happily overlooked the fact that the slogan sounded great but didn’t stand up to linguistic scrutiny). “Any time, any place, anywhere” is also the dream – or at least, part of it – of unified communications (UC). But what are its chances of becoming a reality?

‘Unified communications’ is, of course, one of those concepts that seems self-explanatory – but its definition is, for good reason, sometimes difficult to articulate with precision.

“There is no common definition of unified communications: someone even tried to sell me a UC-enabled refrigerator the other day,” laughs Andy Nolan, UK & Ireland general manager for Radvision. “But seriously: it is widely accepted that UC is an evolving concept whereby individuals have access to many types of communication including voice, presence, videoconferencing and IM/chat, and integrating this with data collaboration and access to company databases. UC is not a single product, but a set of products that provides a consistent unified user interface and user experience across multiple devices and media types.”

“The beauty of UC is that it can be as simple or as complex as a business requires,” adds Chris Barrow, advanced technologies marketing manager at Avaya. “It can range from having your desk phone and mobile linked through a single number, to deploying the full suite of enterprise communications and collaboration tools, from voice, videoconferencing, IM and e-mail, to productivity-boosting features such as visual voicemail, multi-party conferencing and integrated presence.”

“By definition, unified communications brings together a host of existing communication channels,” says Michael Stephens, general manager, UK & Ireland at LifeSize Communications. “As a result, the key technologies that drive unified communications are the ones that deliver the ‘unification’ aspect. This includes the likes of Microsoft SharePoint and similar platforms that provide a central repository that stores all the available contact information and channels for a user. The second key technology is the underlying protocols, such as SIP [Session Initiation Protocol], that enable unified communications to take place across devices, platforms and channels. The final technological piece to the UC puzzle is that of ‘presence’ – the ability to know the status of an individual, and hence the best approach for contact is a key aspect of a solid UC delivery.”

“Typically, large organisations face challenges dealing with legacy platforms and investments, and in the current financial climate there is no room for ‘rip and replace’ strategies,” points out Simon Farr, head of marketing, unified communications and collaboration at BT Global Services. “Fundamentally, we see the cornerstone of a UC solution as voice, and consolidating voice infrastructure is a key start point on the journey. Video is also a key driver, as HD adoption has demonstrated, and the adoption of video on the desktop is set to grow. Readying the IP infrastructure is crucial, and web collaboration, messaging and mobility are also key capabilities.”

One of the reasons that defining unified communications can be challenging is that, inevitably, what it is and what it can be are continually redefined by emerging technologies. Prior to January 2010 – when the original iPad was launched – for example, who could have foreseen the influence of tablets?

“Tablets and mobile solutions are having a large impact,” notes Mike Chapman, director of product management at VBrick. “People expect that anything they can do on their desktop, they can do on their tablet. Any video asset they can search for, access, and watch on their desktop, they should be able to interact with in the same way from their tablet. The UC vendors are working hard to roll out clients that function well on tablets and are developing their base capabilities so that their products are compatible.”

“Business has moved beyond the desktop,” says Andy Chew, senior director, collaboration at Cisco UK & Ireland. “The PC is just one of many collaboration environments. With the rise of mobility and BYOD [Bring Your Own Device], collaboration solutions should incorporate mobile devices as extensions of the corporate network so mobile workers can be productive anywhere.”

Daniel Weisbeck, vice president of EMEA marketing at Polycom, has an alternative perspective. “Rather than iPads and Android tablets having an impact on the UC market, it is better to say that UC is impacting tablets,” he says. “Tablet makers know that the mobile experience will always be pushed by consumer and business demand for easy-to-use tools, easy-to-find content and access to anyone at any time on any device. Consumers expect more and more from the mobile experience and UC, especially videoconferencing, is the obvious service which consumers expect to have.”

Stephens notes that it’s not only tablets, but also smartphones, that have helped spur a new push in unified communications, with Farr pointing out the challenges of application support and data security that these new devices bring.

It’s not just the advent of tablets. As in so many other areas of the audiovisual market, the Cloud is becoming an increasingly significant factor – but as with tablets, it seems as if the Cloud enables new types of capability on the one hand, while on the other adding new issues of complexity and incompatibility.

“The biggest changes we will see will be with regard to the deployment model,” says Fraser Dean, sales director at Vidyo UK. “As with all other enterprise applications, the market will demand that UC services be delivered as virtualised applications from either private data centres or Cloud computing service providers.”

“There are two parts of the whole solution that are still evolving: mobile capabilities and Cloud-based/hybrid services,” says Chapman. “But for Cloud-based services, there are some mismatches when compared to on-premise. As an example: in Lync, conference recording wasn’t initially offered on Office 365 [Microsoft’s cloud-based hosted offering] – but it was offered on-premise. Another example is SharePoint: a SharePoint page may have additional third-party capabilities embedded on it and single sign-on is a key requirement. This can be a challenge in deployments that combine Cloud services and on-premise products.”

The integration of tablets will unquestionably help the dream of unified communications become a reality – but, today, it appears that the market is, if not in its infancy, then certainly in its adolescent phase.

“Many multinational corporations are piloting advanced solutions from the likes of Microsoft and Cisco, but the reality is there is a lot of fragmentation and a huge legacy to deal with,” notes Farr. “In a greenfield-site environment, some of these solutions are fantastic – but in our market there is a lot of integration and engineering needed to truly unify communications.”

Nolan echoes his thoughts. “UC solutions remain fragmented,” he says, “but are improving and evolving rapidly. Today, we do not have a definitive set of solutions that provides a truly unified user interface to communicate across multiple devices and media types.”

“Deployments are migrating from trials and proofs of concept to key business processes,” adds Chapman. “The market is definitely past the point of “What does unified communications do?”. Customers are now asking more specific questions like “What is the best solution?”, “How does it fit within my infrastructure?”, “What is the business case?” and “How can the capabilities be expanded?”

There is, then, work still to be done – and more new technologies to look forward to.

“In 2012, we will see an even greater demand for high-end collaboration tools,” says Barrow. “IDC forecasts that by 2015 there will be 1.3 billion mobile workers – a massive mobile workforce for businesses to accommodate. As a result of this, we’ll see an increasing number of businesses moving towards the UC ideal as they try to equip people to work as efficiently from home and on the move as they would in the office.”

For these mobile workers, 4G/LTE will bring comprehensive, secure, higher-bandwidth, all-IP based mobile broadband – substantially adding to the attraction of tablets and smartphones within the UC environment.

“We are at an apex of ubiquitous video, and 2012 will see a lot of exciting developments which will result in video being used on a scale never seen before,” says Polycom’s Weisbeck. “We expect continued growth of immersive rooms, and growth of emerging markets for video solutions on mobile devices, in social media business tools and through cloud hosted video and platform services. 2012 will also see the first true open standards business-to-business video exchange across the world’s leading service providers via the OVCC.” (See box, Operability standards.)

The road ahead for UC is not a straightforward one for many reasons: not least among them is that a massive proliferation of end devices does not sit well with the data integrity and security so vital to the ability of corporate IT managers to sleep well at night. That’s not without its own challenges, as Chew points out.

“A comprehensive strategy for security is essential to any business looking to achieve their collaboration goals, especially given the trends toward mobility, consumer devices, and social software,” he says. “At the same time, the value of a UC solution increases with wider participation and information sharing, and too restrictive a security policy will limit user adoption. What is needed is a flexible balance between control and access that protects enterprise resources while encouraging open communication.”

Against a general background of enthusiasm about what the future will bring, however, Dean sounds a note of caution, pointing out that the UC industry still has much to do if it is to truly fulfil its potential. “I think it is important to identify what unified communications actually should be and where the real benefit is from the user’s perspective,” he says. “Unified communications should not mean settling for a bundle of mediocre services from a single vendor for the purpose of making it easy to access all of the services through one client. Unified communications is about integrating the various communication modalities with workflow for a given user and application in a way that makes them more productive than if the communication tool existed on its own with no relation to other tools in the users environment. One size does not fit all. Quality should not be sacrificed for the sake of convenience. Rather, unified communications should be the bringing together of best-of-breed communications tools, irrespective of vendor, and making them easily accessible where and when the user needs to access them in the course of normal workflow.”

“‘Any time, any place, anywhere’ communications exists today,” he concludes. “What is missing is ‘any way’. No single tool today delivers on this promise for all modalities, which is why a flexible, software-based platform is required to enable the integration of the best-of-breed tools for each of the modalities.”

It would seem that unified communications is something of a moving target. By the end of this year, it will be very different from how it looked at the end of 2009, with new technologies allowing organisations to envisage new communications paradigms – but with the downside of delaying deployment while those new technologies are assimilated by the key vendors. It also brings with it significant challenges in deployment, given the complexity of most organisations’ existing communications infrastructure, given its potentially pivotal role within an organisation – and given that 100% interoperability has not yet quite been achieved.

Unified communications is unquestionably now far more than a dream. It is, for the most part, not yet the reality that it will become – but it is becoming more of a reality with each passing month.

And: the reality that unified communications can – will – become is an exciting one. As Polycom’s Weisbeck succinctly points out: “We are witnessing the next revolution of technology on human interactions.”