The Long and Winding Road: "Unified" Communications

By Allen Bernard

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For many companies (most, depending who you talk to), the convergence of voice and data onto the same network is already done. Digital PBXs have, for the most part, replaced traditional analog ones. Email, voicemail, ordinary cell phones and smart phones, WiFi, the Internet, ultra-light laptops, Web 2.0, etc., etc. have all combined to raise the bar on what users expect and what IT is expected to deliver.

Now, many companies are looking at taking the next step by deploying unified communication (UC) technologies from the likes of Cisco and Microsoft. But, like VoIP before it, UC’s promise has far outpaced the technology’s ability to deliver.

Early adopters, like most early adopters, ran into problems because most of the “convergence” happened at the end user level. This meant a lot of high hopes dashed on the rocky shore of some help desk somewhere as users struggled to make sense of things.

“Historically, the user experience has suffered and the poor user experience hasn’t been worth the complexity on the back end,” said Cisco’s Chris Thompson, senior director of Solutions Marketing for Cisco Unified Communications. “Either we pushed this system integration out to the user or it made it really difficult on the back end.”

On to Today

Fast forward some ten years or so, and UC providers are now focusing on the back end to make things work. On the downside, it doesn’t sound like UC is much easier. On the upside, at least the problem is now in the hands of people with time and ability to do something about it. Even so, “There’s all sorts of hic-ups and gottchas,” said Larry Burton, senior analyst for Network management at Enterprise Management Associates.

Even vendors agree. UC is not plug-‘n-play. This is an “eyes open” project.

“I wouldn’t say from an administrative side, ease-of-use, but from the end user perspective, it’s becoming a lot easier today for those end users to take advantage of a lot of the business tools that the business groups are trying to put in their hands,” said Jim Koniecki, IC Solutions Manager, Dimension Data North America, a $3.8 billion specialist IT solutions provider and Cisco UC partner. “From the business side there’s certainly tons of complexities.”

From the IT side, as well. You really have to go into a UC deployment with your eyes open. Burton Group VP and Service Director Michael Disabato recommends using the IT Infrastructure Library as your best practices guide to any UC install. In other words, if you want to do UC you better get your house in order first.

There are legacy application compatibility issues, people issues, expectation issues, culture issues, architecture issues, integration issues, migration issues, cost issues, and, strangely enough, mobility issues, to deal with and most of this work has to happen on the front end of the install or your dead.

Most traditional UC installs are strictly inside the firewall ordeals, said Thompson. Most of the people he meets with to talk about UC are “ … moving from what we call the business transformation phase to the inclusion phase where they’re trying to figure out how to extend it outside of their corporation network. Most traditional UC deployments, the functionality set, you can’t take beyond the corporate firewall.”

This mobility issues is particularly perplexing since that is what may people see UC as all about. Take mobile phones for example. If you don’t have a dual mode smart phone that can handle GSM and 802.11, you won’t be able to benefit, at least on the road, from the corporate UC initiative. But, on the bright side, said Thompson, “If you have a smart phone odds are good its dual mode.”

Once you go out of the U.S., said EMA’s Burton, however, all bets are off because the rest of the world uses different cell phone protocols on their networks. If you have such a phone, however, you might be in luck because in Japan and Europe, for example, you can do a lot more on your Blackberry than you can here.

Then there are the proprietary issues, said Burton: “If you lined up three UC configurations, there’s going to be different components all the way through. The only piece that seems to be a hub or an anchor point in any of these deployments is a copy of Microsoft Exchange sitting that core.”Then there are the security issues, said security analyst Richard Stiennon of IT Harvest: “You can secure the communications but most (companies) don’t. So it is possible now, if you’ve unified your data and your communication network, then anyone in the building can—there’s some tools that make it easy— snip the wire and listen to your phone conversation.”

You can also do this remotely just as easily by email and a Trojan Horse designed specifically to target the phone system. But, this is also a threat with VoIP and, so far, one that is way down on the “things to watch out for” index. With so few UC deployments out there and the proprietary nature of those deployments, no one is writing mass malware to go after UC—yet.

It’s like the Apple computer syndrome: Apple users love to brag about how secure their computers are, but what many Apple users fail to realize is since Apple is only about five percent of the market, no one bothers to write code attacking them. UC, for now, is in the same boat. But, as more UC installs come online, and they will—aging corporate communications infrastructures almost guarantee it—security will become more of an issue.

Overseas, many once backward economies are now leap-froging U.S. firms by going from completely outdated technology directly to IP-based communications systems and UC. This will inevitably drive up installs and, therefore, the potential for attacks.

Culture Club

Once you get through all of the technical stuff then you have to move on to things like why you want UC, who is going to use it, why they are going use it, etc.; all of the organizational/cultural/”why do they have it and I don’t” issue that come with any system wide initiative like UC.

These can be the most vexing issues of all (provided you legacy system will work with the UC system and your old voicemail system is capable as well).

If you work in financial services, for example, then you can’t get calls on your cell phone, it’s against regulations. Also, most employers don’t want most of their employees to have business conversations on their cell phones, which, for the most part, the company doesn’t even provide. “So, what you end up with is this great variety of people on different networks,” said Cisco’s Thompson.

But, therein also lies the value proposition: “What (Cisco) would rather do is have people work on the device that is most appropriate for their jobs. To carry the traffic over the corporate network where possible because it is cheaper and not have to let he caller worry about how to reach the person or have the employee have to worry about which device is the right device to use at a point in time.”

A tall order to be sure, but, like many technologies before it, if you can make the promise of UC pay off then the benefits are there. But, it seems, UC ranks right up there with CRM, ERP or SOA when it comes to level of difficulty even though it sounds so straight forward.

“It’s productivity in both cases but one is productivity that is going to be focused on generating those revenues or increasing those revenues … verses (UC), which is just to make one’s life simple and easy,” said EMA’s Burton. “And that doesn’t usually rate real high on managements places to spend money (list).”

Even so, with consumer connectivity offerings now quickly outpacing enterprise one's, it may just be a matter of time before you employees begin to demand what UC has to offer.