This content is part of the Essential Guide: What makes enterprise unified communications work

Mobile unified communications client overview: Connecting users

Mobile unified communications can be a boon to user productivity, but supporting a mix of users and mobile devices can be a nightmare. Learn about apps to link devices to the IP telephony infrastructure.

A mobile workforce can be a unified communications nightmare. Unless an enterprise has a good mobile unified communications (UC) solution in place, users will end up juggling a fragmented collection of mobile and fixed-line voice and UC applications. By equipping mobile workers with smartphones and mobile unified communications clients, enterprises can improve productivity and exercise more control over how workers communicate and collaborate.

Enterprises have several options for mobile unified communications (UC) clients, including native apps from UC infrastructure vendors, third-party fixed mobile convergence products and lightweight SIP apps. These options vary in their features, functionality and ease of use.

Dual mode phones were just the beginning of mobile unified communications

The baseline goal for a mobile unified communications client is to provide fixed mobile convergence (FMC), the seamless integration of communications across the corporate UC infrastructure and mobile cellular networks.

Before the rise of smartphones in the enterprise, Nokia, Motorola and other phone manufacturers offered dual-mode handsets, basic feature phones with both a Wi-Fi adapter and a cellular radio. Limited in functionality, these early dual-mode phones could integrate with corporate UC infrastructure across cellular networks and the enterprise wireless LAN.

With the ubiquity of smartphones, unified communications vendors, third-party FMC suppliers and even the device makersare creating mobile unified communications clients that offer enterprise users one-device convenience and a single mobile interface to access UC applications.

Native mobile apps from UC vendors

UC vendors have developed multiple mobile unified communications clients that run natively on smartphones. For instance, both Cisco Systems and Avaya have developed such apps for iPhones and iPads, available for free download from Apple’s App Store. Many of these native apps are free, but they require authentication and licensing in order to connect to enterprise UC infrastructure.

UC vendors vary in their support for smartphone platforms with their mobile unified communications clients.  While many vendors have developed apps for iPhones and BlackBerrys , support for Android, HP’s webOS, and Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating systems remain spotty at best.

These native mobile UC clients also vary wildly in functionality. Some offer just basic access that allows users to remotely forward their desk phone to their mobile device. Other mobile apps deliver a full featured VoIP option that has most of the functionality of a desk phone, including extension transfer, conferencing and even presence options, both on the enterprise wireless LAN and cellular networks.

Mobile UC via third-party fixed mobile convergence products

Third-party FMC solutions offer an alternative to native mobile unified communications clients.  

BlackBerry manufacturer Research In Motion (RIM) offers Blackberry Mobile Voice System (MVS), which links a wide variety of switched circuit and IP telephony solutions with RIM's Blackberry Enterprise Server (BES). By using the secure link between the BES and mobile devices, MVS bridges the gap between devices and UC without the need for a virtual private network (VPN). This eliminates the need for users to download and configure mobile unified communications clients. Of course, RIM's MVS only delivers this capability to BlackBerrys, so enterprises with a heterogeneous approach to mobile devices will need a broader solution.

ShoreTel’s Mobility Router, a product it acquired with its purchase of Agito Networks, functions much like RIM's MVS solution. The router connects mobile devices from RIM, Apple and Nokia to a broad range of IP telephony solutions, whether those smartphones are connecting via an enterprise wireless LAN, a Wi-Fi hotspot, or a 3G network.

SIP-based mobile unified communications clients

Many third-party developers have created mobile client applications based on Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) that allow enterprises to take a do-it-yourself approach to mobile UC. Mobile SIP clients offer a solution to enterprises whose UC technology doesn't offer a native mobile client, such as Asterisk.  Apple’s App Store has over 250 entries for SIP clients and related apps listed. Google’s Android OS version 2.3 includes a native SIP stack.

While these mobile clients have the advantage of broader support for more IP telephony systems, both wired and wireless SIP endpoints only offer a narrow set of call functions, such as hold and transfer. They do not offer higher level functionality such as presence or instant messaging. These SIP clients can also be complex because a UC manager will have to ensure that the client's audio codecs are compatible with the codecs of the enterprise's IP telephony system.

Make sure the infrastructure is ready for mobile UC

A successful mobile unified communications deployment requires an enterprise infrastructure that can support it. Users equipped with mobile UC will test the mettle of an enterprise wireless LAN whenever they are working at the office. UC managers should collaborate with the networking team to ensure the wireless LAN is ready. Mobile VoIP users will expect their smartphones to work wherever they roam in a campus network, whether in stairwells, shop floors or even outdoors between buildings.

On a wired network, most voice and video traffic traverse a dedicated VLAN to ensure quality of service. Moving that traffic to wireless devices will demand similar VLAN tagging and QoS policies as mobile voice traffic moves across both the wireless and wired networks.

UC managers also have to look at how mobile users will access the corporate network with their mobile unified communications clients. The UC manager and the networking team will have to decide whether to expose the UC infrastructure to external networks or to require mobile UC devices to connect via a VPN. Unfortunately, like mobile UC applications, VPN clients vary between devices and operating systems. Enterprises that support multiple mobile devices will have to find multiple VPN and UC clients to support those devices.

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