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Confused about unified communications?

Can you define unified communications (UC), or are you still trying to find a common vendor definition? Gary Audin sheds some light on how to understand UC from a vendor perspective.

Can you define unified communications (UC), or are you still trying to find a common vendor definition? The 2007 Nemertes report Building the Virtual Network states that 79 out of 100 enterprises say they are going to deploy UC in the next two years. The tough question is what the surveyed respondents were considering when they defined UC for the report.

It seems that nearly all the major vendors participating in the communications market have a position on UC. These vendors do not all agree on the definition of UC. The why of UC has to do with productivity -- human productivity. In Gartner's Magic Quadrant for Unified Communications, 2007, they stated that "the largest single value of UC is the ability to reduce human latency." Increasing human productivity can be accomplished by providing multiple forms of communications, controllable by the users.

Sage Research published the paper UC Applications: Use and benefitsin 2006. Some of their benefit conclusions were:

  • Unified messaging will reduce the time required by users to manage their messages
  • Soft phones will be very useful for traveling employees, thereby boosting their effectiveness
  • By bringing the conferencing function in house, the enterprise will avoid conferencing fees and allow for faster/easier setup of the conference
  • Enterprise employees will be able move smoothly between IM chat and phone calls
  • With unified clients, there will be greater co-worker accessibility

UC is rising to the top of IT's view of the future of communications, so why now and not a few years ago? A primary reason for the slow movement to UC in the past was the difficulty of adding the range of UC functions to the legacy PBX. Unified Messaging (UM) is supported on some legacy products, but UM is only a piece of the UC puzzle. Other reasons for the slow development of UC are:

  1. Multiple instant messaging (IM) implementations
  2. Delivering location and presence information
  3. Multiple user interfaces
  4. The lack of application integration

There appear to be three approaches for delivering UC:

  1. Combining most of the functionality into one solution with a single broad product offering.
  2. Taking a portfolio of many communications functions and combining them through a set of shared services.
  3. Delivering a middleware framework approach that can be used to connect many unrelated and probably multi-vendor products.

The fact that there are three approaches immediately signals to the enterprise that the vendor community has a number of solutions that do not compare easily, nor do all the solutions have equal capabilities.

The next question is: What does UC include? As you have already learned, there is no consistent, agreed-upon definition.

Jim Burton provided his definition at the Voicecon conference in March 2007: "UC is the use of software, hardware and network technology, along with the appropriate training and procedures, to help companies of all sizes manage business transactions and projects, providing an integrated, consistent communications experience for users, resulting in optimized business processes and results."

Quite a definition. This encompasses what an enterprise IT department would set as its vision for communications. The elements/functions of UC cover a range of capabilities, not all of which are in every vendor's portfolio of features. My list is not perfect and may have missed some particular feature. Here are the parts of UC that most vendors include in their definition:

  • All the features and functions found on the PBX, whether legacy or IP based
  • Presence functions and their management
  • Instant messaging (IM)
  • Voice services
  • Voice conferencing
  • Mobility (cellular, Wi-Fi)
  • Hoteling
  • Unified messaging (single location and structure for email, voicemail and faxes)
  • Web conferencing
  • Data conferencing
  • Video calls
  • Videoconferencing
  • Common user interface

Location-based call routing is an important capability that uses the functions of UC. This would include find me/follow me, recipient availability, call/message screening, and determining the available form of message reception.

When you speak to any UC vendor, make sure you define what that vendor includes in its definition and what can be integrated from other vendor offerings for a full implementation of UC.

What follows is a list of vendors that have some form of UC offering:

Interactive Intelligence

About the author:
Gary Audin has more than 40 years of computer, communications and security experience. He has planned, designed, specified, implemented and operated data, LAN and telephone networks. These have included local area, national and international networks as well as VoIP and IP convergent networks in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia and Asia.

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