Approaches to unified communications virtualization

Virtualization is making inroads in the unified communications market, no matter the size of the enterprise customer. Whether as a large scale deployment in an enterprise data center or as a turnkey appliance, unified communications virtualization is likely the next logical step for customers and vendors alike.

On the surface, unified communications virtualization is a logical progression for enterprises. As the traditional PBX has given way to IP telephony, the hardware and software elements of unified communications have become disparate components, with IP telephony gateways connecting the outside world to software-driven call control, voice mail and call center services.

Vendors, however, had been slow to embrace virtualization, largely due to the inherent limitations of real-time applications of early hypervisors. Now that these limitations have been resolved, unified communications is heading full steam into the virtualized data centers of enterprises everywhere. The impact of virtualization is not only changing how unified communications is deployed in large enterprises, but is also trickling down to the medium and small business users in a number of different ways.

Moving UC to virtualized data center

Server virtualization is the primary focus for many IT organizations, with most enterprises moving some or all of their standalone servers into the virtual machines running on shared server hardware. Until recently, IP telephony applications were not officially supported as virtual machines.

With an inability to adequately deal with real-time communications within the virtual environment, unified communications virtualization was limited to non-real-time UC services, such as voicemail or unified messaging. Real-time services, like call control, conferencing and call center applications, were too latency-sensitive to be supported as virtual machines, but recent enhancements made in the last year to VMWare’s vSphere and Citrix’s XenServer, for example, are opening the door to fully virtualized unified communications platforms.

“With the latest updates to the hypervisors, the issues with real-time communications have been resolved, and the entire suite of communication services can be deployed in a virtualized environment,” said Brian Riggs, research director for enterprise communications at Current Analysis.

The advantages of unified communications virtualization are similar to other virtualized applications. “Virtualization can bring a level of reliability not available on dedicated servers, while lowering the overall costs of the platform,” Riggs explained.

One of the benefits of virtualization is that the virtual machines and appliances are no longer bound to a physical server, so in the event of a hardware failure, those virtual machines can be quickly migrated to another server in the environment and resume operation. This level of resiliency is key to mission critical solutions like unified communications, while also eliminating the need to have redundant servers required in a dedicated server deployment.

While virtualization is a boon to on-premise enterprise communications, hosted PBX offerings from service providers are also improving. Through the use of virtualization, service providers are able to build virtualized data centers to host any number of customers and optimize utilization among its customers in the smallest possible footprint.

“Service providers, and even value-added resellers, are seeing virtual environments as a cost effective way to deliver hosted communication solutions for a wide range of customers,” Riggs said.

Unified communications virtualization a new appliance choice

Virtualization technologies are also changing the form factor of unified communications for mid-sized enterprises. To fill the gap between hosted or small-scale solutions for small businesses and large-scale deployments for top-tier enterprises, unified communications vendors are offering virtualized modules of unified communications services deployed in turnkey appliances. Through virtualization, the mid-sized customer can mix and match the services it needs. The appliance creates separate partitions for each service, and allows multiple occurrences of the same module to be loaded, enabling a bit of redundancy or load balancing on high-demand services. This partitioning also enables administrators to apply software updates alongside running versions of these services and switch over to the new version without impacting the user.

For medium-sized enterprises, the appliance approach lowers the overall footprint of unified communications. The approach also allows the organization to customize the system by selecting only the services it needs, and if the organization’s needs change, new modules can be turned up on the appliance without additional hardware costs.

Desktop virtualization creeping into unified communications

A number of unified communications vendors are integrating the burgeoning virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) space into their platforms. Cisco Systems, for example, has announced Cisco Virtualization Experience Clients (VXC). Thin clients, which are small devices that enable a user to access their desktop and applications without a dedicated PC, are actually being integrated into Cisco IP desk phones, enabling the two to share a network connection -- a Power over Ethernet source -- and the physical footprint on the user’s desk. As more enterprises consider deploying virtualized desktop solutions into their architectures, these integrated devices are likely to gain popularity with both end users and IT departments.

This was first published in January 2011

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