Enterprises have committed to IP telephony, and completing the conversion to VoIP is just a matter of time and money. VoIP equipment sales surpassed TDM in 2003, and Infonetics projects that 89% of worldwide enterprise voice lines will be IP-PBX based for calendar year 2008. However, while IP telephony is moving into its second decade with enormous momentum, most users are still waiting for full convergence and voice-enabled applications. Increased network efficiencies have been the primary benefit of IP telephony to date as enterprises struggle with infrastructure and organizational issues. These first-generation benefits have been considerable, but the focus is now shifting to converged applications, with the initial spotlight on Unified Communications (UC).
To achieve UC and other next-generation benefits, companies must build the right foundation, eliminate the voice silo, and make telephony a seamless part of information technology.
UC is a moving target right now, with various vendors using the term in different ways to emphasize a subset of an evolving group of capabilities.
- To Microsoft®, UC is about communicationsenabling your familiar Office suite of applications
- To Cisco®, UC is about enhancing your IP network infrastructure
- To IBM®, UC is about communicationsenabling the Notes suite of applications
- To Google™, UC is about ad clicks
- To Jabber®, UC is an instant messaging server
- To Avaya™, UC is a PBX enhancement
While vendors naturally see UC from the perspective of their own product portfolios, what users really want is a rich and flexible communications system that meets particular business needs. They should be able to sample from a complete palette of UC capabilities, and not be restricted to a mere subset designed to enhance a particular vendor’s existing products.
Just what is this full palette? According to Gartner, there are 16 features that comprise a complete UC solution: (1) Telephony, (2) Unified Messaging, (3) Desktop Client, (4) e-mail, (5) Instant Messaging, (6) Audio Conferencing, (7) Video Conferencing, (8) Web Conferencing, (9) Converged Conferencing, (10) Notification Service, (11) Personal Assistant, (12) Rich Presence Service, (13) Communications-Enabled Business Processes, (14) Contact Center, (15) Mobile Solutions, and (16) Collaboration.
And as Gartner points out, all of these UC capabilities cannot possibly come from a single vendor — not in any form today, and never in a best-of-breed collection. To get the full benefits of UC, businesses need to build a UC infrastructure that can integrate the best UC applications into a seamlessly unified UC environment. After all, what UC is really about is eliminating islands of communication. You need a communications system that integrates completely and easily into your desktop environment and your business processes.
UC from the user’s perspective
Users have been nibbling around the edges of UC, driven by the needs of their particular businesses and constrained by the context of their particular vendor environments. These early ventures into UC capabilities include CPE-based videoconferencing, CPE-based web conferencing, secure enterprise IM, and IM with integrated chat and voice. Ultimately, though, a complete, converged, and vendorindependent UC environment is about making you a smarter, more informed person.
For example, say you need certain information for an important bid. With presence-enabled communications, you can locate and communicate with an expert who has that particular piece of information — even while that individual is engaged in a meeting or some other activity. You can not only reach the person, but do so using a communication mode that makes the interruption less disruptive. To take it a step farther, you cannot only determine that the receiver is available for a voice conversation, but also establish that the individual is online with full display capability. Then you can drag and drop visual information into the call, basically transforming it into a collaborative web conference.
Hitachi Consulting, which is basically in the business of selling expertise, has for years been exploiting ShoreTel’s distributed architecture to engage its widely dispersed experts on demand. The IT specialist has go-to-market teams of salespeople and consultants who are constantly looking for new business, and who must leverage the knowledge and experience of experts working with existing clients. When a prospective client is targeted, people across the globe can be pulled into impromptu virtual meetings at the drop of a hat, based on their knowledge about a particular industry application and their current availability.
Today’s businesses are still dealing with an inefficient mix of voice and data mini-silos. Errors get introduced as communications move among them, and a lot of information gets lost in the translation.
- Modes: These include real-time voice, realtime data (IM), asynchronous data (e-mail), multimedia communication (video), collaborative media (start with phone call and add other media as needed, ad hoc)
- Locations: Employees find themselves in a variety of different fixed and mobile locations, including office, home, hotel room, public lounge, and car or other transport.
- Devices: These range from traditional phones to PCs, laptops, and an ever-evolving list of more specialized digital communicators.
With such a mixed bag of technologies, it is difficult for the communication process to leverage corporate intelligence well, if at all. Similarly, the communication process is largely in the dark about who is available to resolve critical issues quickly.
What businesses need is a context-sensitive communication system that uses presence and other intelligence to offer a choice among all these types of communication, and do so in a way that is seamless and transparent to the user. From anywhere, you can see the best way to reach your target at that particular moment. And you can use whichever mode and device is most convenient, without having to hop between communication silos.
Just as importantly, you can automatically filter incoming communications by assigning priority treatment to certain individuals or organizations. You are alerted in real time to important communications while others are sent to your UC inbox as voicemail or e-mail you can deal with later. Such capability greatly increases the probability of achieving effective communication, and doing so in the most convenient and appropriate mode.
Presence: The UC enabler
Presence is a key component of the UC paradigm. It enables you to find the best person available for live contact, and also shows you the state of the receiver so you can choose the best or richest communications mode. Presence is an absolute prerequisite for true UC, and the gap between theory and practice persists as presence technology continues to evolve.
- Basic presence is simply replacing traditional telephony’s dial tone with a “user tone.” While the dial tone tells you that the voice system is ready, the user tone tells you the user is ready.
- Rich presence combines multiple pieces of information about a user’s state. For example, are you on the phone? Are you using your keyboard and thus at your computer? Rich presence also considers the various capabilities of different modes and devices. If you have a digital camera in your mobile phone and your target is sitting at a PC screen, then you can share visual information uni-directionally. If both your devices have cameras, you can communicate video information in both directions. And you can do so with few restrictions if both ends of the communication have high-end cameras, high-end displays and highspeed connections.
- Contextual presence uses an individual’s context to enhance the information provided about their availability. When people attend meetings their availability changes as they focus on the situation at hand. If you are focusing on a critical task, callers can be made to see your presence as unavailable, even though you are in your office using your computer and phone.
- Process presence adds another layer of abstraction, indicating the availability of someone who can fulfill a business specific role. For example, if there are three individuals in the finance department who can answer a certain question, process presence would show you whether or not at least one of them was available or, like a traditional Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) system, provide information on the estimated wait time if they are busy.
Presence is a powerful concept that will change how we communicate, but its evolutionary progress is currently constrained by single-vendor solutions that serve to enhance existing products. Instead, you need a communications infrastructure that lets you assemble best-of-breed presence applications. This universal approach will also facilitate federation, which extends presence and other enhanced capabilities across enterprise and service provider boundaries to improve communications with partners, suppliers, contractors, and other third parties. Once the presence “user tone” is established, the technologies that can exploit it are virtually unlimited. Some examples:
- Calendar-based presence. Your status is automatically changed by the state of your Outlook calendar. When you are in a meeting, you are unavailable.
- Smart media. Your presence is based on activity across multiple devices, and your availability for different media changes according to the capabilities of the device you are using at the time.
- Network transparency. Presence transcends the network and separates accessibility from the type of media you are currently able to accept. You are simply available or unavailable, whether you are mobile or on or off site.
- Priority management. Your actual presence status doesn’t have to be an open book. You can assign people and groups different priority status, and give them different levels of access to you depending upon your current state.
Aligning the infrastructure
Companies that are first to exploit presence and benefit from UC will have a big competitive advantage, so aligning your enterprise infrastructure to support them is critical. The phone system is the biggest stumbling block — an unwelcoming environment that has little history as an application development platform. To recast it as such, some vendors have moved the entire phone system to open application servers. However, in large enterprise environments this involves constructing huge server farms and increasing IT staffing to add the expertise required to manage these complex server environments.
General-purpose servers also decrease the reliability and availability of communications systems. The operating systems are rife with vulnerabilities, and the server hardware components — particularly the disk drives — decrease the system’s mean time between failure enormously. Only switch-based IP telephony systems are immune to these problems. The server issues are compounded by the acquisitions path most IP telephony vendors have taken to build and enhance their voice platforms. VoIP and UC capabilities developed separately by different companies get cobbled together, often somewhat tenuously. The result is a highly complex amalgamation of discrete, disjointed components that are difficult and expensive to implement, manage, and upgrade. The slideware and Flash demos often look great, but there is no practical way for businesses to experience what they present.
The ideal IP telephony architecture for supporting UC is one that transcends the voice and data silos and is not limited or constrained by them. It offers high reliability and scalability while imposing a very reasonable total cost of ownership, and is fully distributed to enable location transparency. This IP telephony also allows easy integration of third-party communications applications, so you can build a UC environment from best-of-breed products.
Mobility: A key real-time requirement
Mobility is a critical enabler, because you can’t achieve ubiquitous real-time UC without it. It is also a major stumbling block. The wireless carriers want captive audiences inside a closed system, like the cable or satellite television systems. This creates communication barriers, especially as you move up the technology layers into enhanced applications.
Mobile UC has also been handicapped by the size and capabilities of handheld devices. With such a small display space, communications applications and client interfaces designed for desktops are often reduced to a rather truncated and crippled form. Similarly, data input can be laborious and frustrating without a full keyboard and mouse, and bandwidth limitations are a major problem on carrier networks that haven’t been upgraded to 3G. The slower 2.5G networks have trouble doing two things at once: You can send data at some sub-100Kbps rate, or you can make a call, but not both. Such form-factor and bandwidth challenges have made it very difficult to put a telephony application — one that gives you intuitive, visual control of your calls — on a mobile phone.
Fortunately, the smartphones that are flooding into the enterprise provide a much more suitable platform for mobile client software and telephony applications — particularly when they are used in conjunction with the newer generation 3G wireless networks. Designed to provide mobile users with broadband-class services, 3G transmits voice, text, multimedia, and video data at rates ranging from 384Kbps to 2Mbps. Voice signals and data applications can run across 3G simultaneously, letting you augment or illustrate conversations with visual communication. Ultimately, 3G and its successors will enable even more advanced services for mobile phones, including video calls and seamless integration with enterprise WiFi networks.
Meanwhile, mobile phones create some additional security challenges for IP networks, because the data they are transmitting bypasses enterprise firewalls. Enterprise mobile messaging services, such as forwarded e-mail and voicemail, create opportunities for Denial-of-Service (DoS) attacks and are vulnerable to eavesdropping as messages move between the mobile device and the network. These messages must also be protected while stored on the mobile device. For example, handheld pioneer Research in Motion has taken an early lead in addressing this problem by deploying mobile firewall softwarethat runs on its enterprise server and BlackBerry® devices. This solution provides secure policy administration, prevents DoS attacks and eavesdropping, and eliminates the risk of malicious use of information from lost or stolen mobile devices.
Such mobile security systems will protect the enterprise network by encrypting data moving between the mobile client and server, providing authentication and secure access, and preventing DoS attacks. The messages themselves as well as access to the enterprise network should be protected with device or application lockout, stored data encryption, strong password security policies, remote device bitwipe, and remote secure policy assessment and updates.