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Cisco ramps up unified communications tools

Cisco last week released a host of new products to enhance its suite of unified communications tools, including an IP phone that's easier for end users to accept.

In the past few months, Cisco Systems Inc. has made it abundantly clear that it's serious about the unified communications game. Last week, a host of enhancements to the networking giant's suite of voice, data and video products made that push evident once again.

The latest IP bombardment includes a new Cisco IP telephone, a new desktop integration application and greater scalability for rich-media conferencing, messaging and call processing solutions.

San Jose-based Cisco's latest IP telephone, called the Cisco Unified UP Phone 7931G, includes 24 lighted line keys and four interactive soft keys to help walk a user through call features. Cisco said the phone is best suited to commercial and retail environments.

John Stadick, IT director at Sunbelt Rentals Inc., a Charlotte, N.C.-based equipment rental company, said his company recently rolled out beta versions of the 7931G to a few of its 400-plus branches.

Adding the phones was part of Sunbelt Rentals' two-year VoIP push. According to Stadick, though, the initial VoIP rollout hit a few roadblocks, especially when it came to training end users to use the first set of IP phones.

"They were used to the key systems," he said. "Line one is a button with a light, line two is a button with a light, and so on."

Stadick summed it up like this: "We took a tool the store was used to using and turned it into technology, instead of taking technology and turning it into a tool."

Stadick said the company needed a solution before the phones were ripped out and replaced with more costly, non-IP counterparts due to lack of acceptance.

Users have embraced the 7931G, which gives them access to features like global directory and four-digit dialing. The stores that operate with VoIP and the latest Cisco phones are now more autonomous and provide their own services. "Each store operates as its own entity," Stadick said.

The success of the phones and the VoIP system play a part in Sunbelt Rentals' long-term IP strategy, Stadick said, which down the road will likely contain video as well as voice and data.

And the new phones solved one of Stadick's biggest -- and most costly -- pain points: adding lines or moving and changing phones.

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"From an IT perspective, now we don't require an outside vendor to move and change phones," he said. "We can make changes on the fly."

Stadick estimated the new system is saving roughly 40% on recurring monthly charges. The company's ROI analysis found that the phones pay for themselves in 18 to 24 months and have a five-year lifecycle.

Along with the 7931G phones, Cisco also rolled out the Cisco Unified Operations Manager 2.0 and the Cisco Unified Service Monitor 2.0, which gives enterprises more tools for simplifying communications system management. Additionally, the Cisco Unified Videoconferencing Manager is a new application that lets organizations using Cisco's videoconferencing schedule and control conferences from a Web browser and Microsoft Outlook calendar.

Cisco also enhanced the Cisco Unity Connection to offer better voice-enabled director handlers and double voice mailbox capacity, while the latest version of Cisco Unified MeetingPlace -- version 5.4 -- boosts videoconferencing scalability and scheduling capabilities with improved interfaces, support for Lotus Notes 7.1 and enhanced instant messaging. The Express version of MeetingPlace was also updated to support up to 200 concurrent voice conferencing users and will integrate with Microsoft Outlook calendar and offer ad hoc videoconferencing later this year.

Lastly, the new Cisco Unified PhoneProxy extends enterprise phone access and features to remote workers by securing Cisco IP phones deployed in homes or other remote locations without the need for a VPN router.

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