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Whose unified communications definition is right?

Unified communications (UC) has been defined multiple ways by different industry experts. Gary Audin tries to figure out whose definition is correct.

Unified communications (UC) is the new hot term in IT communications. More than VoIP and IP telephony (IPT), UC is changing how we communicate. However, what is more than VoIP and IPT? The definition of UC depends on the vendor, consultant or industry analyst that answers the question: "What is unified communications?"

There is no consistent or agreed-upon definition of UC. Jim Burton provided his definition at the VoiceCon conference, 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." This encompasses what an enterprise IT department would set as their 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. And not all of the functions and features will be appropriate for every enterprise. The following checklist is not perfect and may have missed a feature or two. It is designed to illuminate the nature of the existing UC offerings.

The majority of vendors' UC offerings will include:

  • PBX features
  • Voice services
  • Voice conferencing
  • Unified messaging
  • A common user interface

Several vendors, but not as many, will also offer:

  • Presence
  • Instant messaging
  • Mobility (cellular and WiFi) capabilities
  • Hoteling
  • Web conferencing
  • Data conferencing
  • Video calls
  • Video conferencing

And a very select few vendors might also include:

  • UC middleware

This checklist is not designed to help the IT professional select any particular vendor. It was created to demonstrate the variations that will be found as enterprises review the UC market and analyze vendor offerings.

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. These types of features alone make UC attractive to most businesses.

When speaking to any UC vendor, make sure you understand that particular vendor's definition of the features and functions that are included in its UC offerings. You should also evaluate features that can be integrated from other vendor offerings to build a full implementation of UC.

Unified communications is really the convergence of six communication product areas. Some of the six areas have existed for years, and other areas are recent entries. UC is really part of the evolution of IT and telecom into one common set of features and functions -- not a brand-new, just-emerging concept. The six areas are:

  • The evolution of the legacy PBX into the IP telephony system
  • The development of the softphone as part of the IP-based PBX offerings
  • Integration of voicemail and email
  • The change in email function to a desktop management tool
  • Multiple forms of conferencing such as Web, voice and video
  • Instant messaging services and capabilities

There are not one but three approaches to delivering UC:

  1. Combining most of the UC 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. This may be the integration of multiple vendors' or recently acquired products.
  3. Delivering a middleware framework approach that can be used to connect many unrelated and probably multi-vendor products.

These three approaches should immediately signal to the enterprise that the vendor community has a variety of UC solutions. This makes it difficult to compare the products. It also means that the vendors do not compare easily, nor do all the solutions have equal capabilities. When a vendor promotes an enterprise as a successful implementation of UC, confusion will occur. It will be hard to determine how much UC is actually deployed. It may be only unified messaging, not a full complement of UC functions.

When an enterprise approaches the migration to UC, there is no single method for implementing the UC migration. Think of UC as a menu, not a single entity. The enterprise may select those functions and features it perceives as valuable. Employee productivity increases will occur. UC benefits will not be consistent across all the enterprise's business units. Whether or not the productivity increases offset the UC investment will vary by enterprise and with business units within the enterprise.

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.

Related links:
Podcast: Unified communications: A practical approach
Article: Best practices: Migrating to unified communications
Article: Removing the roadblocks to unified communications

This was last published in October 2008

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