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Choosing the right unified communications system for you

Network expert Chris Partsenidis compares the leading unified communications vendors based on key purchasing criteria, such as end-to-end services and organization size.

The unified communications (UC) market offers a variety of products and services that target organizations of all sizes, from small businesses to large enterprises. Thanks to the continuously growing and demanding telecommunications market, the unified communications adoption rate has increased dramatically over the last five years, opening new opportunities for existing and new unified communications vendors.

With so many vendors, options and features, choosing the right unified communications system for your enterprise can be difficult. This article will compare the top vendors in the UC market based on four important purchasing criteria.

Evaluating end-to-end services

Only a few vendors actually offer end-to-end unified communications services, and yet those vendors who don't offer end-to-end services should still be considered in your buying decision. An end-to-end solution usually consists of the following elements:

  • IP phones
  • Network infrastructure, including switches, routers and firewalls
  • UC server or hardware platform, including rack server and hardware appliances
  • Applications or services, such as a softphone, call manager server, instant messaging (IM), presence server and contact centers

End-to-end services can offer organizations significant savings in upfront costs since they are able to negotiate greater discounts for hardware, software and support services. On the other hand, many organizations feel an end-to-end vendor will lead to vendor lock-in, leaving little or no space for alternative services and upgrade paths in the future.

Choosing the right unified communications system is becoming more complex as vendors are continuously enhancing their solutions and introducing new features.

These concerns, to an extent, might be valid. However, an end-to-end vendor solution does not always stop the organization from seeking alternative vendor solutions for future upgrades or expandability needs. If your organization is considering an end-to-end solution, vendors such as Cisco Systems, ShoreTel and Alcatel-Lucent offer end-to-end UC and infrastructure services.

Cisco's enterprise UC service includes its flagship call-control platform, Cisco CallManager accompanied by Unity Connection for messaging and voicemail, an IM and presence service, and Expressway server. Cisco also offers a range of IP phones, switches, routers and VPN firewall devices to cover all UC services for the intranet and extranet or mobile users.

ShoreTel's end-to-end UC service includes its newly updated Connect ONSITE, the main call-control software, along with a desktop app for Web conferencing, IM and presence services; a mobility app for desktop-to-mobile extension; Connect Director, a complete configuration and management of the ShoreTel infrastructure; and Connect Edge Gateway for remote access for mobility clients and IP phone devices. ShoreTel's key ingredient for the platform is simplicity, making it easy to configure and maintain the whole UC infrastructure.

Alcatel-Lucent's unified communications system consists of the OmniPCX Enterprise Communication Server, the main call-control server that offers numerous features. Additional services include OpenTouch Multimedia Services -- which include presence, IM and video conferencing -- and OpenTouch Session Border Controller, used to connect remote clients and terminate session initiation protocol (SIP) trunks.

Alcatel-Lucent also offers OpenTouch Business Edition, a UC solution targeting small to medium enterprises with up to 1,500 users.

Organization size a key consideration

Your organization's size is a key factor to selecting the right UC service. Each vendor's UC platform offers support for a specific amount of users and is usually designed around these limitations, which makes it very important to decide on a UC service that offers the right capacity for your organization.

Small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) can be considered the luckiest, as they have the flexibility to select pretty much any UC solution. Here are some unified communications systems targeted toward small to medium-sized organizations:

Unify's OpenScape Enterprise Express is designed for organizations with up to 200 users, while  OpenScape Business bumps the user support up to 1,500. Both products are highly capable of providing full UC services, including voicemail, IM, presence and mobility.

Alcatel-Lucent offers OpenTouch Business Edition -- a multimedia collaboration solution for organizations with up to 1,500 users. Alcatel-Lucent is also one of the few vendors with end-to-end solution coverage that includes the network infrastructure.

ShoreTel's Connect ONSITE is a unified communications system that offers simple deployment and ongoing administration. Connect ONSITE supports up to 20,000 users, but also targets SMBs.

NEC's UNIVERGE 3C can easily cover SMBs, thanks to its 30,000-user support. UNIVERGE 3C is a complete UC solution suitable for organizations that are experiencing continuous growth. UC services such as voicemail, IM, presence, video conferencing and mobility are tightly integrated into UNIVERGE 3C and its UNIVERGE 3C UC Client. The UC Client interface and functions are almost identical across all platforms, making it easy for users to work on laptops and mobile devices.

UC services for big businesses

Larger organizations are a bit more restricted in their choices, but still can select between vendors such as Cisco, Avaya and Microsoft.

Cisco's Unified CallManager (CUCM) can support more than 100,000 users, while its Unity Connection messaging platform supports up to 20,000 users. Cisco's IM and presence service can scale up to 45,000 users in a CUCM deployment or 75,000 users in a non-CUCM design.

Avaya's Aura Communication Manager can initially support 36,000 SIP endpoints, but depending on the deployment design, this figure can jump to 250,000 users or 350,000 SIP endpoints, making it an interesting solution for large multinational organizations seeking a single UC solution. Similarly, Avaya's Aura Presence server begins its support with 16,000 users and is expandable to 250,000 SIP users; however, the Avaya Aura Messaging server can support up to 20,000 users.

Microsoft is another big player capable of delivering UC services to organizations with more than 100,000 users, thanks to its Skype for Business Server -- a highly scalable solution comprised of Microsoft servers and third-party, Microsoft-certified peripherals, such as voice gateways and SIP phones.

Alcatel-Lucent's OmniPCX Enterprise Communication Server can support up to 250,000 users. Unify's OpenScape Enterprise Voice platform scales to support up to 500,000 users, making it one of the largest deployments.

On par with Unify's OpenScape, Mitel's MiVoice MX-ONE UC solution can also support up to 500,000 users. Mitel's UC suite includes MiCollab, responsible for presence, messaging and mobility; the MX-ONE Media Server, a software media gateway; and hardware media gateway units.

Virtualization platforms and high availability

Unlike VoIP PBXs, which mostly rely on proprietary hardware devices, UC solutions primarily run on server-based hardware, which means redundancy and high availability are key factors for minimizing service downtime.

Thankfully, vendors also understand this importance, which is why most vendors offer support for virtualization environments, such as Hyper-V and VMware, but also multi-server deployment models that provide load balancing and an increase of capacity. While all vendors support multi-server deployment models, when it comes to virtualization it's a different story.

If your organization works with both Hyper-V and VMware virtualization platforms, then selecting the right UC solution might be easier. On the other hand, some enterprises have strict policies that force the use of a specific virtualization platform.

ShoreTel's Connect ONSITE runs under the Windows Server operating system supporting both Windows 2008 R2 and Windows 2012 R2 editions, and both Hyper-V and VMware virtualization platforms. 

NEC seems to follow a similar philosophy, as its UNIVERGE 3C system runs under the Windows server operating system, supporting Hyper-V and VMware virtualization platforms.

Alcatel-Lucent's OmniPCX enterprise service is based on the Linux operating system and delivered on the VMware ESXi virtualization platform. Unify's OpenScape Enterprise and Cisco's CallManager also run under the Linux operating system and support the VMware virtualization platform.

Mitel's MX-ONE UC solution uses standard hardware servers running the Linux SUSE operating system, but also supports VMware virtualization. Avaya's Aura Communication Manager runs on Red Hat Enterprise Linux and supports the VMware virtualization platform.

Finally, Microsoft's Skype for Business is offered under the Windows 2012 R2 operating system and is best run in a standalone environment rather than a virtualized one.

Vertical market software offerings and applications

A UC platform is much more than just a smart VoIP telephony system. It's a system that enables organizations of any size to enhance their communications by allowing multiple forms of collaboration methods, such as phone, video and IM, no matter where they are around the world.

At the same time, the UC platform helps organizations save time and resources, thanks to advanced services such as integration with enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, customer relationship management (CRM) software, and other critical systems.

Vendors recognize the value that customers want out of a unified communications system, which is why many vendors offer application program interfaces (APIs) that allow organizations to build custom software to interface with their UC solution. Other vendors even develop software for specific vertical markets.

ShoreTel is a prime example, as it offers several applications that enhance its Connect ONSITE platform by introducing extended functionality for many different industries. Here are some examples of the offerings:

  • ShoreTel Hospitality Connector, recommended for hotel customers, allows external systems to initiate username and call-handling changes to ShoreTel phones.
  • ShoreTel Outbound Campaign IVR creates automated calling campaigns for different purposes.
  • ShoreTel Emergency Notification is for organizations that want to coordinate in-house response during emergency situations.
  • ShoreTel Call Recorder is for any organization requiring call recording, storage and management.

Avaya's Engagement Development Platform provides organizations with the ability to integrate their applications with the Aura Communication Manager platform, extending their value and functionality. More information on Avaya's Engagement Development Platform can be found on Avaya's website.

Alcatel-Lucent has a number of applications that many organizations will find necessary for their OmniPCX Enterprise Communication Server or OpenTouch Business Edition server:

  • OmniPCX Record Suite is relevant for financial services, healthcare, hospitality, public safety organizations and more. It provides a complete tracking solution for customer interactions via call recording, screen capture and coaching capabilities.
  • OpenTouch Notification Service is targeted for healthcare, education and high-risk industries. It aggregates alarms from various systems, such as nurse calls and fire alerts, and notifies the most appropriate person or group.
  • Soft Panel Manager is designed to help supervisors identify problems and optimize contact centers and customer service by displaying data and call statistics.

Mitel offers a limited amount of applications, but their functionality extends to cover many industries:

  • Mitel CMG BluStar Web is a presence and activity platform that allows users to perform smart-search directory services, click-and-dial, manage call routing preferences based on their calendar and more.
  • Mitel InAttend provides a multi-featured attendant solution built on open standards to allow integration with various communications servers.

NEC offers a healthy number of applications that aim to extend the UNIVERGE 3C UC platform and are worth taking a look at:

  • UNIVERGE 3C for Hospitality provides hotels with numerous advanced services and features.
  • Call Accounting for UNIVERGE 3C helps eliminate phone abuse, toll fraud, provides detailed reporting, allocates call charges to departments, plus much more.
  • UNIVERGE Appointment Reminder helps reduce missed customer appointments by automatically reminding them, helps market new products and services, plus more.

More information on all these vendors' applications is available on their respective websites.

Finding the right unified communications system for you

Choosing the right unified communications system is becoming more complex as vendors are continuously enhancing their solutions and introducing new features. Be sure to make the right decision based on which criteria are important for your organization.

Enterprises prioritizing end-to-end solutions will most likely prefer larger vendors such as Cisco, Alcatel-Lucent, ShoreTel, Avaya or Microsoft. Smaller enterprises would most likely benefit from products like Unify OpenScape, NEC UNIVERGE or ShoreTel Connect ONSITE. 


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