Nov 02 2011

UC's Gradual Evolution

Unified communications lets colleges work smarter and control costs while slowly adding productivity apps.

Unified communications, technology that lets organizations combine applications such as telephony, e-mail, instant messaging and video conferencing on an IP network, is at an interesting point in its evolution.

On the one hand, the technology itself is mature. Several companies, including Avaya, Cisco Systems, Microsoft and ShoreTel, offer robust suites that are well integrated and interoperable. On the other hand, IT managers at K–12 schools are still trying to match their needs to UC's broad capabilities.

"There's been a lot of hype about UC for several years now, and it hasn't yet taken off as expected," says Rich Costello, senior research analyst for unified communications at IDC. "UC is more of a gradual thing. It's a learning process."

The good news is that analysts believe users have learned a lot in the past year. Both IDC and research firm Gartner forecast significantly greater adoption of UC in the near future, even as customers wade through ever-larger suites of UC products to figure out which applications work for them. In the August research note "Magic Quadrant for Unified Communications," Gartner analysts Bern Elliot and Steve Blood wrote, "Although UC suites offer the full spectrum of UC functionality, in most cases, they do not offer best-of-breed functionality in all areas."

As a result, UC has become something of an a la carte menu of options, with many schools starting small, focused on specific communications needs and motivated by operational factors. They may not start out thinking they need unified communications, but for what they know they need, unified communications is often the best solution.

“The way things are with the economy and the way budgets have been stretched or reduced, there's a need to do things smarter. And there's a need to consolidate, whether it's people, locations or technologies,” says IDC’s Costello.

Better Collaboration

At Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass., officials deployed Avaya Unified Communication technology to students, faculty and staff to foster collaboration. Now, users can stay in touch whether they're on campus or on sabbatical. The college has deployed voice, e-mail, instant messaging and video communications across its UC network.

Joanne Kossuth, vice president and CIO at Olin College, says IM and the ability to check voicemail via e-mail have been the most popular applications. “Interestingly, Voice over IP usage has been going down because of the increased use of cellular services,” she says.

Olin College also makes use of the platform's presence capabilities, which communicate users' availability to talk or IM in real-time. “The more technical staff tend to use presence as a way to stay on top of brief discussions and meetings,” Kossuth explains. “While we have offered the services to all, we have not had an easy time gaining traction because of the number of individual tools and services available.”

At Elgin Community College outside Chicago, school officials recently rolled out a ShoreTel UC system across a new Cisco network infrastructure. Users have ShoreTel Communicator on their computers to manage their phones and provide presence detection. “You don't have to touch the actual IP phone if you don't want to,” says Michael Chahino, managing director of network operations and information security.

48 percent of colleges and universities are evaluating running UC in the cloud, while 14 percent are in the process of deploying cloud-based UC, and 5 percent have fully deployed cloud-based UC.

SOURCE: CDW•G 2011 Unified Communications Tracking Poll

Chahino says Elgin Community College used to employ one person whose sole job was to manage the legacy phone system. In switching to ShoreTel UC, one person implemented the entire system — including 1,200 phones — in a matter of days. “Nobody knew we'd changed phone systems. They just knew they had new phones,” he says. “And now it's easy to expand by adding more switches and software licenses.”

The new Cisco network was as important to the Elgin deployment as the ShoreTel UC system. In their planning, Chahino and his team recognized the need to power all the college's IP phones and built Power over Ethernet into their network solution. “A lot of people skip that step, but we did our homework,” Chahino says.

Going forward, colleges and universities continue to analyze their UC needs. At Olin College, Kossuth says she’s beginning to evaluate the school's UC solution and considering upgrades, including moving services into the cloud.

“If you're at a school where VoIP has not been deployed, and there is not a multibranch, large-institution reason to do so, the cloud offerings present potential savings,” Kossuth advises. “If VoIP has been deployed, look to offerings that leverage the current infrastructure and provide a path to software as a service.”

Whither the Cloud?

Just when industry watchers agree that the traditional unified communications market has matured in terms of its breadth and functionality, the cloud serves up a whole new dimension.

Rich Costello, senior research analyst for unified communications at IDC, cautions that organizations will need to weigh the perceived cost savings of a cloud-based UC model against the need for a secure UC infrastructure. "They'll want to ask things like, 'Are we sharing this cloud with somebody, or is it just ours?'" he says.  

But the decision to deploy UC in a cloud comes down to whether service providers can guarantee an acceptable level of service, Costello concludes.

Organizations thinking of moving their UC to a cloud should also ask the following questions:

  • How will the IT department ensure only authorized users can access its UC services? What forms of identity management does the cloud solution support?
  • How does a particular cloud solution conform or not conform to any regulatory requirements that might govern the organization's IT and security systems? Are there any custom measures needed to comply with the organization's unique requirements?
  • How will the cloud provider handle any possible security breaches? What information will be relayed to the IT staff —and when — and how will the IT department maintain critical UC services even as it resolves any possible security issues?