May 03 2011

Unified Communications Extends Its Reach

With new conferencing and collaboration capabilities, UC has even more to offer.

Sometimes it's not what you know – or even who you know – it's what tools you use for sharing your ideas and expertise. That quickly becomes obvious when an engineer struggles during a phone call to describe a simple change to a drawing, or when a service rep studies an e-mail message for clues to how upset an important client is after an order is botched.

Fortunately, there's newfound help from technology that's been evolving and maturing for years. Unified communications platforms mash up all of the tools people use to communicate, whether through quick-burst instant messages, lengthier phone calls and online chats, detailed webinars or engaging video conferences.

What's new are two important developments that are making the technology even more essential today. The first is an emphasis on conferencing and collaboration as organizations hunt for ever more effective and economical ways for people to work together.

"Conferencing and collaboration can save organizations some dollars," says E. Brent Kelly, senior analyst and partner with Wainhouse Research, which specializes in the UC industry. Some of the biggest cost reductions come from shrinking travel budgets, he explains.

Analysts believe the desire for real-time video and audio conferencing will only heat up as tablet systems and smartphones encourage untethered collaboration in corporate environments.

The second trend is simplicity. Gone are the days of multiple passwords and siloed applications each time someone wants to progress from an IM to a phone call and then perhaps switch over to a web conference. "UC is now becoming a mainstream way to do business because it's no more difficult now than firing up a spreadsheet," says Bernard Gutnick, senior director of product marketing at ShoreTel.

ROI Considerations with Unified Communications

Because users can effortlessly move among UC applications with a mouse click, technology doesn't get in the way of people sharing information, brainstorming ideas or solving problems. That can be a game changer. Midsize and large enterprises report that UC solutions built on the ubiquitous Internet Protocol (IP) networking standard help reduce operating costs in both IT and telecommunications budgets.

Another key ingredient to UC is "presence," the ability to quickly locate colleagues and determine their current availability through any of their available communications channels. In short, it's the antidote to phone tag and overstuffed voicemail boxes.

Industry studies show that presence alone can reduce a third of the time people waste trying to connect with co-workers. Productivity gains from a complete UC platform can snowball beyond just workgroups by enabling better communications among divisions within an organization as well as with partners and customers.

"As workforces become global, there's an increasing need to be on joint calls and collaborate with a variety of workgroups and partners," notes Manfred Arndt, distinguished technologist for unified communications and collaboration (UC & C) at Hewlett-Packard. "UC and C dramatically improves productivity in those cases."

Arndt adds that UC efficiencies make it possible for workgroups to undertake additional projects without adding staff, or for a 12-month project to be cut down to perhaps nine months or less, all through more effective communications and quicker response times.

Just as important, UC isn't a delayed-gratification IT solution that requires years to deliver a measurable return on investment. Arndt advises a stepping-stone approach – organizations can gradually add UC software and advanced collaboration modules onto an existing foundation, such as a Voice over IP (VoIP) telephone system. Organizations often see a payback in six to nine months with each step and use the savings to fund or justify additional UC investments.

"The ROI savings can be tremendous when I don't have to fly to New York for a one-hour meeting," he explains. "I save two days' worth of travel and the travel expenses, avoid strain on my family and get more work done."

Conferencing Building Blocks

The latest conferencing and collaboration efficiencies of UC are built on three main pillars: audio, web and video communications.

Venerable audio conferencing provides the most familiar channel for communications among individuals and workgroups. What's new? Like much of UC, audio, too, has gotten easier and less expensive to use.

Organizations have two main choices. They can implement and manage an audio-conferencing system in-house, typically built using an IP private-branch exchange, a more economical and easier to manage alternative to traditional public switched telephone network (PSTN) phone systems. Or organizations can opt for a hosted solution in which a service provider manages all the underlying technology for a base service fee and usage charges.

Each choice has relative pros and cons depending on the size of the organization and how many conferencing minutes it totals each month. Organizations interested in avoiding the upfront technology investments and ongoing maintenance overhead of an audio system may benefit from the predictable operating expenses of a hosted solution. Larger organizations with adequate staff resources may find economies of scale when launching an onsite system.

Audio conferencing may be familiar and easy to use, but it's one-dimensional; conference participants can easily share documents and visual assets that haven't been distributed as hard copies prior to the call. Web conferencing, using private or public Internet links, fills this gap by allowing people to connect at their desktops to talk, share visuals on screen, brainstorm with a virtual whiteboard and engage in impromptu IMs.

This resource can be especially valuable when workgroups in different locations are collaborating over engineering drawings, marketing brochures or similar types of projects. "If I'm an engineer I may not need to see you, but I do need to see the schematic we're working on," Arndt says. "That way we can both see what we're working on and jointly make any changes."

Another plus: Moderators can record conferences so they can be replayed later for anyone who missed the live session or for interested partners and customers.

As with audio conferencing, organizations have a choice between hosted and onsite web-conferencing solutions. Like audio conferencing, an onsite web conferencing solution delivers a lower cost for frequent users. Additionally, organizations maintain more control over their own solution, including customization options.

With an onsite solution, organizations can develop branded portals for individual departments, enabling users to customize the interface and settings to fit their needs. It also allows for integrating web conferencing with other company applications, such as e-mail, IM and productivity applications.

In addition, vertical markets required to follow strict privacy or data security regulations – such as financial services, healthcare and public-sector organizations – may be required to implement an entirely internal solution. IT managers have better control over security policies because an onsite solution resides behind the corporate firewall.

On the downside, an internal solution requires internal IT support. That increased complexity is why a hosted web-conferencing solution is attractive for many companies. With a hosted service, an organization can get all the functionality it needs while avoiding the upfront capital outlay and internal IT support.

Video Options for Unified Communications

Although it's been around for years, video conferencing has only recently become financially viable for mainstream business use. The turning point: Widespread IP networks now make video reliable at an affordable cost.

Corporate video-conferencing choices range from simple to complex, but each shares a common benefit: Business users can meet face to face without the expense and hassle of travel. Video is particularly indispensable for meetings that rely on personal interactions, such as when instructors need to assess the engagement level of a trainee.

For these types of one-to-one communications, the simplest and least-costly choice is desktop video conferencing. Organizations need little more than inexpensive web cams and lightweight conferencing applications to connect desktop PCs and portable computers. To enhance user experiences, UC infrastructures can also layer on VoIP and web-conferencing modules for voice, data and video collaboration.

But this basic solution loses steam when multiple participants need to join a session. When this scenario becomes the norm, organizations add multisite systems to their video repertoires.

Consisting of flat-screen video displays and associated cameras and microphones, multisite video conferencing solutions can pull in participants from across geographic locations for sales meetings, product launches, strategy sessions and other large group meetings.

Multisite is a step up in quality from low-end desktop cameras, but participants still find themselves interacting with flat images on a screen. For a fully immersive experience, a growing number of organizations are investing in telepresence solutions for important gatherings, such as high-level board meetings.

Telepresence solutions often consist of three large, high-definition video screens, plus a fourth screen for sharing documents and visuals. Full high-definition images in resolutions of 1920x 1080 pixels display participants in lifesize representations that break down the barriers of geographical distance.

"Within two or three minutes, you get to the point where you forget that you are a thousand miles apart," Arndt says.

But reality comes at a cost. Telepresence systems can run from $50,000 to $100,000 or more, although some newer alternatives offer smaller price tags by trading off image quality. Nevertheless, organizations may justify the expense of telepresence by avoiding the travel and entertainment costs that mount up when scores of sales reps gather for quarterly meetings.

The key consideration when choosing a video system is to not look for a one-size-fits-all solution. A single organization may benefit from each of the three alternatives depending on which users and departments need face time.

Behind the Scenes

The glue that brings all of these conferencing and collaboration pieces together into an effective whole is a combination of the right technology underpinnings and industry standards.

UC technology is more than the phone, IM, web and video components – although each of those pieces is essential. Behind the scenes, UC infrastructures need sophisticated tools for managing bandwidth and quality of service.

The latter allows IT managers to give performance-sensitive applications, such as voice and video, preferential treatment when allocating network resources. The best UC system software allows managers to fine-tune the entire UC infrastructure from a central location through easy-to-use graphical tools.

"The software should be drag-and-drop, so I can literally swipe people from my contact list to initiate a conference, whether that's voice or video," says Terry Robinson, director of unified communications and collaboration solutions at Avaya. "I should also be able to incorporate social media by merging my contracts from LinkedIn or Facebook with my corporate directory."

On the standards front, one of the most important is Session Initiation Protocol, or SIP. Solutions based on SIP use a common set of protocols that make integration easier when organizations build UC solutions with components from multiple vendors. Another SIP advantage is its ability to maintain a communications session even when the communications channel changes – for example, when participants in a phone conference decide to move video chat.

The catch with SIP, as with many widely adopted industry standards, is that individual vendors may extend the basic protocols to tweak performance or features, which can impede interoperability among certain modules.

Wainhouse Research's Kelly advises due diligence before buying UC systems. "Bring solutions in house and use them for a while to see what it really takes to make them work together," he says "That way you won't encounter surprises later."