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The benefits and challenges of presence within unified communications

Unified communications may be the next big thing in networking, but presence is quickly becoming the next big thing within unified communications. Brien Posey discusses the benefits of presence as well as the challenges associated with presence implementation.

It's been said that unified communications is the next big thing in networking, but presence may be the next big...

thing in unified communications. In case you're not familiar with it, presence, put simply, is real-time information about a person's availability. In this article, I will discuss some of the benefits that presence information can offer, as well as some of the challenges associated with implementing it.

The reason that presence is such a powerful tool is that people no longer use a single communications mechanism. Today, nobody just uses the phone or email. Instead, people often use office phones, cell phones, email, instant messaging and videoconferencing, to name just a few types of communications. Unified messaging brings all of these forms of communication together, but the problem has always been in knowing which communications mechanism is best suited to a specific instance. For example, suppose that you need to get in touch with one of your co-workers. Should you use the phone or email? If you decide to use the phone, should you call the person's office number, home number or cell number?

This is where presence comes into play. As I mentioned earlier, presence maintains real-time information about a person's availability. As such, it is possible for presence-enabled applications to make intelligent decisions about how to contact a person based on what the application knows about the person's availability.

Suppose, for instance, that you needed to contact one of your co-workers. As I mentioned earlier, you might have a tough time deciding which of the person's phone numbers would be the best one to call, but a unified messaging application could greatly simplify the process by allowing you to click on the person's name.

The rules that such an application would use to figure out which phone number to call can be customized from organization to organization. As an example, though, such an application might begin the process by looking at the person's calendar. Initially, the application might check to see what the person's normal working hours are. If the current time is outside normal business hours, then the call might be routed to the person's home. Otherwise, the application could look at the user's calendar for more detail. If the calendar shows that the user is in the building, the call could be routed to the user's desk. If the calendar showed that the user was at an off-site meeting, the call could be intelligently routed to the user's cell phone instead. If the calendar showed that the user was on vacation, then the application could be designed to route the call to the user's assistant.

Keep in mind that this is just one example of the way that presence can be used to simplify the process of getting in touch with someone. For this particular example, I have used the telephone as communications mechanism, but remember that the whole concept behind unified messaging is that disparate communications devices, applications and networks can be used seamlessly. As such, it is not uncommon for presence information to be applied to things like instant messaging.

Presence information can also be helpful when users are not quite sure whom they need to contact. Imagine, for example, that a large company's IT department operates a help desk in which various help desk employees all have their own specialties. In such an environment, it would be possible to create an application that asks end users about the types of problem they are having. Once the application has collected enough information about the user's problem, the application could cross-reference a directory that matches help desk employees to their specialties. Such an application could then automatically connect a user who is having problems with the appropriate help desk employee. This is just another example of the way that presence information can be used.

In spite of all the benefits of using presence information, there are also some challenges associated with implementing it. First and foremost, the implementation process tends to be very complex because of the way the presence information can span multiple devices, networks and platforms.

Another challenge related to using presence information is that presence is something that will be directly utilized by the end users. Unless the end users know how to make the network aware of their location, even the best presence-based systems are useless. Therefore, user training is critical to making presence work.

One of the biggest challenges associated with presence systems is that there is currently no clear standard. Right now, Microsoft, IBM, NEC, Cisco, Nortel and several other companies offer presence engines for unified messaging systems. The problem is that all of these companies use proprietary technology that is incompatible with the offerings of their competitors. However, Microsoft and Cisco have agreed to cooperate on making their technologies work together.

In this article, I've talked about how presence information can make it easier to track down a person that you need to communicate with. These types of capabilities can help a business to run much more efficiently because they remove many of the delays involved in communications. Even so, presence systems are still in their infancy, and a clear standard has yet to emerge.

Brien M. Posey, MCSE, is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional for his work with Windows 2000 Server and IIS. Brien has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and was once in charge of IT security for Fort Knox. As a freelance technical writer, he has written for Microsoft, CNET, ZDNet, TechTarget, MSD2D, Relevant Technologies and other technology companies. You can visit Brien's personal Web site at

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