Using unified communications to augment your disaster recovery plans

Unified communications (UC) and VoIP deployments should be a core component of a company's business continuity and disaster recovery plans.

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Zeus Kerravala, vice president for enterprise infrastructure, Yankee Group

IT managers looking to leverage their VoIP and unified communications (UC) deployments or searching for a way to get budget approval should make unified communications a core component of a company's business continuity and disaster recovery plans.

Whenever I speak with current or potential deployers of UC, the conversation typically focuses on cost savings, VoIP and how to measure productivity gains. One thing that does not get brought up often enough, however, is how corporations can use UC as a way to ensure continuous communications in the event of a disaster.

Organizations that haven't actually been through a disaster tend to think only about the ones that gain national attention, such as Hurricane Katrina or the attacks of 9/11. But most disasters occur with very little media attention and can be just as crippling. For example, one company I recently dealt with had a chemical truck spill directly in front of its building, and workers were not allowed to pass the quarantined area. So the users were unable to get into the building, even though there was no problem with the building itself -- it was an access problem. This is an example of a situation where, even though no disaster actually occurred, a strong disaster recovery plan is required.

Planning for disasters with traditional communications tools is either really difficult or expensive, or just not really feasible at all. In a disaster situation, telephony is especially hard to engineer enough capacity for, because the system will be at its peak. During 9/11, the phones were unavailable to users, but many of the Internet communications tools, such as instant messenger, did work.

Deploying UC to the workforce gives users a wide variety of communications tools to collaborate with other workers, partners, customers or others in the company's extended enterprise. These UC tools have the same look and feel whether the worker is in the office or working remotely. If the UC suite is coupled with a softphone, workers can almost re-create the "in office" experience from wherever they are.

One of the reasons many disaster recovery plans fail is that the workers are not familiar with how the actual tools work remotely. Many applications use a browser or thin client interface to work remotely. With UC, though, the tools are the same and should be familiar to the worker when operating in a disaster environment. In addition, some vendors offer "telecommuter phones" with VPN clients built right into them. Mitel has one of the easiest to set up, and the experience for the user is identical to the experience in the office.

If the company does not want to go through the expense of buying telecommuter phones, workers can plug a low-cost USB handset into a laptop or PC.

If you're currently going through a UC evaluation or deployment, consider the following:

  • Make it mandatory for users to work from home at least one day per quarter.
    This ensures that employees are comfortable with using the tools remotely. It's in the company's best interests to have these systems tested, and it's a nice perk for the employee.

  • Don't be scared of consumer technologies.
    Tools like Skype and instant messenger can augment the corporate tools. Odds are that users are already using them for work, so take advantage of that.

  • Position UC as a communications continuity tool.
    This could help you procure budget from the corporate business continuity pool. I'm not guaranteeing this will help you fund UC, but if executives understand that this can help workers keep in touch in times of disaster, it may be enough to swing a close decision in your favor.

About the author:
Zeus Kerravala manages Yankee Group's infrastructure research and consulting, working with customers to solve business issues through the deployment of infrastructure technology solutions, including switching, routing, network management, voice solutions and VPNs. Before joining Yankee Group, Kerravala was a senior engineer and technical project manager for Greenwich Technology Partners; a vice president of IT for Ferris, Baker Watts; and technical project manager for Alex, Brown & Sons. Kerravala obtained a B.S. degree in physics and mathematics from the University of Victoria (Canada).

This was first published in August 2008

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