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Unified communications

The concept of unified communications has been around for close to two decades – yet real deployments don’t seem to have matched the hype. Ian McMurray asks why that might be the case.

The concept of unified communications has been around for close to two decades – yet real deployments don’t seem to have matched the hype. Ian McMurray asks why that might be the case.

Ever since Alexander Graham Bell said, “Mr Watson, come here – I want to see you” to his assistant, and thus proved that using the telephone was always going to be quicker and more convenient than walking to the office next door, business has been looking for better, more efficient ways to communicate.

For the past few years, the focus has been on unified communications (UC).

It seems well placed to succeed. After all, the technologies involved are mostly very mature. “The technologies are in place,” says Ian Vickerage, managing director of video communications specialist Imago Group. “They could be improved, but they are there.”

“I think that, at a high level, all the technologies needed to supply a good UC experience exist today, but the main issue is the integration of these solutions,” agrees JP Carney, CEO of Revolabs.

“All the technologies to make unified communications a reality already exist and have been deployed in the field,” adds Allan Mendelsohn, marketing director, unified communications at Avaya. “Having said that, unified communications is constantly evolving to address a broader set of communication and collaboration challenges, hence new technologies and capabilities are being brought into the fold.”

And yet… Implementation of UC does not seem to have been as widespread as might have been expected, given that, as a concept, it has been around since the 1990s, the required technologies exist and the business benefits are, it would appear, incontrovertible.

A moving target
But many agree with Mendelsohn that UC is a moving target that will continue to absorb and leverage new technologies such as handheld devices.

“The technology we have right now can deliver an outstanding level of unified communications,” says Andreas Wienold, vice president of EMEA at LifeSize, a division of Logitech. “However, the way unified communications is developing, there will be further advancements on the horizon that we can’t currently foresee.”

“I would argue that unified communications is currently a reality,” he smiles, “but in 10 years, the next generation may look back at our quaint ways and laugh.”

Therein lies, perhaps, one of the problems: the problem of perception. What UC was five years ago is perhaps not what UC is today – and almost certainly not what UC will be in five years’ time. As such, can any company ever be said to have implemented UC, given that the definition of UC is constantly changing?

The problem is compounded by the wide range of user requirements and use cases – a point made by David Willie, unified business communications manager at UK integrator Saville Audio Visual.

“The UC space is so wide and varied that it is difficult to confirm that everything is in place for every organisation,” he points out. “One of the most challenging factors within the UC space is the wide variation in requirements placed on any given UC deployment. Every organisation has a different need or mix of technologies but still requires the common goal of interconnectivity between businesses. Many organisations have deployed UC solutions but may not have fully implemented every aspect of the solution, preferring to concentrate on a single core function that meets a current business need.”

But while telephony, videoconferencing, document sharing, audioconferencing and so on all exist as technologies, the goal of UC is to see them united into a common and highly integrated communications capability. Therein lies a problem that is perhaps more about reality than perception, according to Carney. I-centricity“Unfortunately, these technologies are disparate systems,” he says. “While there has been a more consistent message from many of the vendors about packaging these solutions to create a working ecosystem, the reality is that most of the large players are very ‘I’ centric and are trying to position their own technology at the forefront to maximise their return instead of looking at what the best solutions are for the users.”

He’s not the only one who sees the issue. “There are some big companies out there who promise that if you buy the entire solution from them, you will be happy with your system,” notes Vickerage, “but this holds the user to ransom because they can charge what they want, when they want and a user has little choice but to accept. There’s also no guarantee that all applications will work to a consistent quality with that platform.”

“If a user selects Microsoft Lync as the platform, they can then choose whichever compatible solution they want,” he continues. “For videoconferencing, for example, Polycom, Lifesize, Vidyo and Radvision solutions all work well with Lync.”

Vickerage has a supporter in JP Carney. “Interoperability is perhaps the single biggest reason why UC hasn’t yet been as widely implemented as it should,” he says. “Unfortunately, vendors are in business to make money. The more of their own intellectual property they can put in the mix, the larger their position is in the market. The more options a user has to build the solution, the more any one vendor is marginalised. So, really, you have a Catch-22 situation where what is in the best interest of the vendor isn’t always in the best interest of the customer.”

‘Pick and mix’ vs single vendor
He is, however, positive about the outlook. “Where the technology is today, the path with the least risk is to stay with a single ‘system’ provider and, if possible, use applications that have been developed specifically for this system,” he adds. “As the market moves towards maturity, the interoperability will significantly improve and the risk of ‘picking and mixing’ will decrease dramatically.”

Ray McGroarty, director for enterprise and Cloud market development at Polycom, warms to the theme. “While the idea of building a single-vendor network to simplify operations might sound appealing, those who ‘pick and mix’ normally win in the long run,” he believes. “For example, Gartner found that introducing a second networking vendor into an enterprise infrastructure reduces total cost of ownership for most organisations by at least 15% to 25% over five years.”

“Multiple vendors create challenges in any industry,” he goes on, “but they also create best-of-breed products. At Polycom, we believe it’s important to give customers the freedom to choose the best solutions with assurance that they will seamlessly interoperate, and be backwards-compatible with legacy investments and forward-compatible with new systems and protocols. With the Polycom RealPresence Platform this is already a reality, and in the future more companies that are serious about succeeding in the UC market will be forced to provide open standards solutions.”But even if a potential end user prioritises interoperability in his selection, it’s not quite as straightforward as it might seem, according to Wienold.

“We believe strongly that for end-users to have the very best experience, true interoperability is key,” he says. “That’s a huge motivating factor for why LifeSize was one of the founding members of the Unified Communications Interoperability Forum. From our side, we try to incorporate as much interoperability as possible into our products, which is why we just announced a new Microsoft Lync solution that brings the familiar Lync unified communication experience to the meeting room.”

“So, yes, it’s definitely possible for potential users to take a ‘pick and mix’ approach,” he continues. “However, there’s an important caveat: this must be done with good planning as not all vendors take the same approach to interoperability and the wrong choice could still limit options down the road.”

Legacy systems: slowing things down?
In discussing interoperability, McGroarty mentions the often-thorny issue of legacy investments by potential UC customers, going on to note that “legacy IT infrastructure is part of the reason why the uptake of UC, especially in the mid-to-large enterprise market, has been slower than expected”.

Carney is with him. “I believe this is a very real issue that is slowing the progress of UC adoption,” he says. “Replacing or upgrading an infrastructure is very expensive and time consuming and most companies are not financially in a position to make such a major investment. Unfortunately, the larger the company, the larger the barrier is for upgrading its infrastructure. For UC to become widely adopted, larger companies need to help drive the momentum.”

Willie, however, is not entirely in agreement: “In many cases, investment in legacy systems is an issue, but as most clients deploy UC solutions in a staged, planned, strategic way, replacing or upgrading legacy solutions can be factored in as part of the deployment plan. There is often a solution that would negate any reluctance to migrate but this inevitably is heavily influenced by cost and time. A given solution may have to be deployed over a long timescale to allow the different elements to achieve synergy at an investment level that is attainable. That said, a well-structured deployment will have tangible levels of improvement and benefit throughout the timeline.”

Wienold is also an advocate of the ‘step by step’ approach. “We’re tackling this issue by investing heavily in virtualisation that allows for far greater flexibility,” he says, “and it’s paying off. It’s simple maths: a smaller initial investment in infrastructure that easily scales and is flexible enough to incorporate new technologies is always going to make economic sense over a large and rigid system.”

Ongoing journey
The fact that, in technology terms, UC is perhaps a journey rather than a destination is one possible reason why UC cannot claim to have ‘arrived’. Another, potentially, is the paralysis that overcomes potential customers who are torn between the apparent security but possible compromises of a single-vendor solution – and the concern about whether a multi-vendor solution will truly prove to be interoperable. Yet another is the reluctance to engage in what can be perceived to be a major dislocation of existing infrastructure.

But perhaps the biggest is that, just possibly, unified communications is big and scary and its benefits inadequately understood. “The biggest issue is that the end customers don’t know what their final UC solution is going to look like,” claims Carney, “so they are nervous to make too big an investment in equipment that may be wasted when they finalise their UC path.”

So: are vendors doing themselves a disservice in the way they market and sell UC?“Lack of deployment of UC is largely a result of competing budget priorities and/or weak business cases,” claims Mendelsohn. “Some capabilities in UC are easy to rationalise, such as using videoconferencing to reduce travel, and shifting from subscription-based audio and web conferencing to customer owned with unlimited usage. However when the full range of UC capabilities is sold internally on the basis of soft productivity savings, it is a tough sale.

“What we should be doing,” he continues, “is talking about how UC accelerates business processes by removing latency, how it improves customer experience, how it increases supply chain performance, and how it accelerates time-to-market, time-to-cash, time-to-problem-resolution and so on.”

That need to focus on real, tangible benefits and to keep the message simple is one that McGroarty also sees. “While improved interoperability is driving more and more companies to make fuller adoption of the systems, UC is still often seen as quite complicated,” he says. “Decision makers may still worry about backward and forward compatibility, and be unaware of all the benefits UC could bring to the business. As with all significant changes in marketplace trends, there is always a delay between the early adopters and the laggards. Our job, with help from our channel partners, is to close that gap by educating businesses.”

KISS: keep it simple, stupid
Vickerage takes things a step further. “The biggest problem with unified communications is the name itself,” he says. “Who knows what it really means? If you talk to customers in simpler terms – about voice over IP or videoconferencing, for example – they know what these mean, and as a result the benefits are easier to prove. We don’t talk about unified communications. We talk about cheaper phone calls, face-to-face meetings over video and so on. When we talk the customer’s language, we invariably make good progress.”

In other words: selling UC solutions is no different from selling any other kind of AV solution. It’s about understanding the customer’s needs, and being able to articulate the benefits in terms the customer can relate to. Yes, there is an extent to which potential customers have real, valid concerns about the potential scale and disruption of an undertaking the end of which can be difficult to see; the possibility of finding themselves in a technology dead end; and the size of an investment in legacy infrastructure which may be invalidated.

UC can appear amorphous, elusive, intimidating, even. But there is an extent to which the industry would do well to remember that no-one ever bought Alexander Graham Bell’s invention: they bought a quicker, easier way to communicate. In the same way, business has never bought, and never will buy, unified communications: what it has bought, and will buy, is a solution to a problem which, when solved, will generate a tangible return on investment.