Many enterprises shy away from all-IP unified communications (UC), fearful that communications blackouts and brownouts could sink their businesses. But UC doesn't have to be a gamble.
"The wonderful part of this new technology is that converged applications can provide huge benefits," said Warren Williams, vice president of technology consultancy InfoTech. "But the downside is that voice has always been a mission-critical application, and when we lose voice, it's like our doors are closed."
Williams said total failure is possible, but improbable, with comprehensive preparation. More vexing, he said, were "little gremlin types of problems" like misconfigured hardware or poorly managed capacity. These problems often allow diminished or limited operation, but they are harder to track down and fix than a crashed server or severed T3 connection.
Even the prospect of only an "occasional" dropped call on the office line is not likely to leave the sales staff smiling.
"The problem is the predictability of what kind of traffic your network is going to be called upon to process and handle," Williams said. "Today, you put in VoIP, and everything works fine. Six or 12 months from now when you add SAP, it might not be so fine."
Williams said network managers have to keep on top of a number of variables, such as the corporate and personal applications in use on the network, bandwidth consumption, internal use, and business policies in place. To get accurate information on these variables, they need the right tools.
At a minimum, administrators should have access to server loads, quality of service metrics, and detailed information on bandwidth usage -- where it is all going and who's using it are critical information that network management servers can provide.
Another, perhaps less immediately tangible, factor is the complexity of the deployment. Kerry Shih, founder and chief strategist with unified communications management vendor Communicado, said this complexity could be a roadblock for many enterprises. Making sure email servers, video servers, and a virtual PBX all play nice, sharing bandwidth and user information, can feel like supervising a kindergarten recess.
However, as Microsoft Office Communications Server (OCS) replaces Exchange to become the enterprise standard, with video and VoIP capabilities, it will push many networks toward UC deployments, ready or not. There is little escape from the Microsoft upgrade cycle.
"Microsoft is going to shock and blast [OCS] down your throat … so if there are 10 benefits, you might only use two of them, but you're going to use them because it's part of their upgrade strategy," said Shih. Communicado sells a unified communication service management offering, including guaranteed uptimes through a service-level agreement, which Shih said can vastly ease an otherwise treacherous transition.
"With some [enterprise] sites you just know, if this level of integration is going to take complexity and careful planning, it will be a mess," Shih said.
For those who do decide to go it alone, managing and allocating bandwidth – as well as tracking any growing problems – is a key part of making sure the transition goes smoothly. Fortunately, a host of vendors are happy to help out.
"Without visibility, it's hard to start even solving the problem," said Stan Schreyer, vice president of North American sales with network management vendor Exinda, whose product allows network managers to monitor bandwidth consumption by applications and users and to reallocate bandwidth to allow high-quality calls.
"On everybody's network who's using VoIP, that is their highest-priority traffic," Schreyer said, adding that most of Exinda's customers were midmarket companies that were using network management hardware for the first time. "They're seeing a problem that's very visible, or audible, in their VoIP system."