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UC virtualization: Crossing the chasm

Editor’s note: Unified communications (UC) virtualization can lower costs and increase flexibility for enterprises. Now that every major UC vendor provides UC applications that can run on virtualized servers, UC virtualization is primed for rapid, enterprise-level adoption. The benefits of

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UC virtualization are abundant, as are the challenges.

In the last year, every major UC vendor has announced support for running their applications on virtualized servers.

Irwin Lazar
Vice President for Communications and Collaboration Research,
Nemertes Research

Perhaps no technology has gone from introduction to mainstream as quickly as virtualization. On the server side, more than 97% of companies use virtualization to support over 70% of their enterprise applications. Meanwhile, over half of firms are deploying desktop virtualization, a number we expect to grow to 74% by 2012.

Why the rapid acceptance? Cost and flexibility are the keys. Applications running on virtualized servers are generally cheaper to deploy and maintain, and easier to scale. On the desktop, virtualization reduces endpoint costs and management headaches by replacing PCs with thin terminals.

The time for enterprise virtualized UC has arrived

So what has virtualization got to do with unified communications (UC)? Plenty. Virtualization offers both significant benefits and significant challenges for those responsible for the success of their UC initiatives.

As a means to reduce implementation and operating costs, virtualization offers the same benefits to UC managers as it does to those responsible for any other application; UC virtualization can leverage a shared service to simplify implementation, minimize hardware costs, and support rapid expansion. In the last year, every major UC vendor has announced support for running their applications on virtualized servers -- which just underscores the UC virtualization trend

Successfully running UC on virtual machines requires proactive management to monitor session latency. It may also require software upgrades to releases certified to run virtually, and IT buyers are likely to face certification limitations, e.g., Cisco’s Unified Communications Manager can run on VMware or Citrix hypervisors, but only on Cisco’s Unified Computing System hardware.

UC virtualization potentially gives companies the ability to move the entire UC application into an Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) provider, eliminating the need to even run their own internal cloud. For example, Siemens recently introduced an option to run its HiPath UC product in the Amazon EC2 cloud, further adding to opportunities to reduce capital and operational costs for UC.

On the desktop side, things are a bit trickier. Running software-based voice and video on thin clients means addressing the need for localized encapsulation. It isn’t practical to capture raw video and voice at the source and transport it over the WAN back to the data center for encoding. Instead, a successful deployment requires an architecture that delivers endpoint hardware capable of digital signal processing. Fortunately, options are rapidly expanding thanks to offerings from vendors including Cisco, Citrix, Logitech, Mitel, NEC, Siemens and Wyse, to name a few. While solutions greatly vary, and interoperability is still a challenge, software-based voice and video is now doable for most organizations.

The real challenge of UC virtualization

Often the biggest challenge in crossing the chasm between UC and virtualization isn’t technical; it's organizational. One IT leader told us that his organization scrapped a 5,000 seat rollout of UC because the desktop managers were rolling out thin clients. A lack of coordination meant that the thin client platform couldn’t support UC.

The bottom line? A successful strategy starts with bridging the gap between those responsible for UC and those responsible for servers and data center infrastructure. Make sure you work with your server and desktop teams to coordinate plans. And make sure you are evaluating the virtualization capabilities of your UC vendors on both the client and server ends.

About the author:

Irwin Lazar is the vice president for communications and collaboration research at Nemertes Research, where he develops and manages research projects, develops cost models, conducts strategic seminars and advises clients. Irwin is responsible for benchmarking the adoption and use of emerging technologies in the enterprise in areas including VoIP, unified communications, video conferencing, social computing, collaboration and advanced network services.

This was first published in February 2011

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