Nov 03 2011

UC's Gradual Evolution

Unified communications lets schools 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,” says IDC's Costello. “And there's a need to consolidate, whether it's people, locations or technologies.”

At Assumption High School, a Catholic girls' school in Louisville, Ky., officials were in the market for a new phone system, partly because they were running out of lines in their existing system, and partly because their existing system was inefficient. Teachers and staff had little control over how calls were routed, and voice messages were handled the old-fashioned way — jotted down on pieces of paper in the school's office.

“And whenever we wanted to add a phone line, someone had to come in from outside to do it,” says Joyce Koch, the school's technology director.

Assumption High School opted for a Cisco Unified Communications platform to support its roughly 150 users. Although not all teachers have phones in their classrooms, they each have a phone extension on the UC platform that automatically forwards voice messages to their e-mail inboxes. Several also have softphones loaded onto HP tablet PCs for staying in touch while mobile.

The integration between voicemail and e-mail has been Assumption High School's primary UC application, though Koch says staff is beginning to delve more into other features, such as conferencing. Overall, the biggest return on investment comes from ease of maintenance. Koch says the ability to perform changes, adds and other tasks — without delay and without needing an outside contractor — is one of the biggest benefits of adopting the Cisco product.

“I've heard of other schools that don't want to do what we're doing because they think it's so costly,” Koch says. “But over time, it pays for itself.”

Tighten Up

In Cleveland County, N.C., the move to unified communications was driven primarily by consolidation. In 2004, three school districts became one in the rural southwestern county. In 2006, AT&T brought Metro Ethernet to the area, giving officials the bandwidth they needed to roll out Cisco Unified Communications.

“Over time, we've had lots of personnel changes,” explains Rob McDaniel, the district's network engineer, who adds that 23 of the district’s 29 schools now use the Cisco system. “It used to be we had one guy who spent all his time going out and changing phone lines. Now it's just one of the things he does.”

One application that was a major priority for Cleveland County Schools was running intercom over the UC system.

46 percent of public school districts are evaluating running UC in the cloud, while 21 percent are in the process of deploying cloud-based UC, and 4 percent have fully deployed cloud-based UC.

SOURCE: CDW•G 2011 Unified Communications Tracking Poll

“We wanted to eliminate all the old intercom systems in the schools without losing intercom as a way of communicating,” McDaniel says. To accomplish this goal, Cleveland County Schools deployed Singlewire InformaCast across its UC network. The software turns the Cisco IP phones on teachers' desks and throughout the schools into IP intercoms. “We even have the school bells set up on a central control system,” McDaniel says.

Cleveland County Schools has not rolled out UC functionality that other school systems might embrace. For example, McDaniel says not everyone in the district can access their voicemail via e-mail. And though Cleveland County has tested video conferencing and has the bandwidth to do it, rolling out video districtwide isn't in its current plans.

“What UC customers have realized,” says IDC's Costello, “is that the best approach is to take a piece of unified communications, work with that, and then grow it as they understand how it works and they have a need.”

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?