Unified communications: Devising a strategy

Unified communications sounds like a great idea. But how do you actually make it work?

Unified communications (UC) has moved far beyond buzzword status, with major vendors -- Avaya, Cisco, IBM, Microsoft, Nortel, Siemens and a host of others -- offering tools to enable convergence and tie communications into business processes.

But the landscape is still confusing to many enterprise IT folks, who struggle to weigh the cost and necessity of UC solutions while also devising an attack strategy.

At the Catalyst Conference 2007 in San Francisco, Burton Group senior analyst Mark Cortner will present "IP PBX Vendors: Unified Communications Product Strategy Update," offering tips on how enterprises should plan their unified communications roadmap while also deciding which vendor plays best into their overall strategy for converged communications.

"The entry point into the UC discussion is commonly concurrent with a migration to IP telephone, an IP PBX or a next-generation voicemail solution," Cortner said, noting that legacy PBXs, for many companies, are reaching the end-of-life stage, and traditional voicemail solutions are in need of an update to some form of unified messaging.

Where the confusion starts, however, is whether to attack IP telephony and unified communications as an all-in-one upgrade or to parcel it out into a series of projects. The former, Cortner said, can work well for the SMB, where "doing both at once isn't so difficult." For the large enterprise, however, an upgrade to IP telephony rolled into a unified communications deployment may be too much to tackle in one fell swoop.

Unified communications, as it stands now, encompasses about a dozen varied applications and solutions set out to increase accessibility and better wrap communications into standard business processes. The UC umbrella comprises - among others -- such tools as voice messaging, video, conferencing, instant messaging, presence and VoIP.

"Start the migration with no more than one or two [UC technologies] at the same time," Cortner suggests. For many companies, he adds, IP telephony is still the most clear-cut path to unified communications.

Another area where companies struggle when planning or outlining a UC roadmap is determining the benefits. A few years ago, most companies were looking at the hard economic benefits of IP communications, such as strong ROI and TCO. Recently, however, there has been a shift, and UC is now more strongly associated with soft benefits such as increased productivity and business process enablement.

Still, Cortner said, the UC landscape is "confusing," since many IT pros can fall under the impression that they're moving toward a full unified communications package when in reality they're moving in the direction of just one or two of the applications that UC encompasses.

Companies need to ensure that their migration roadmap includes current open standards such as SIP and SIMPLE and that they shy away from protocols like H.323, which is still in wide use among major PBX and IP PBXs.

"You want telephone components to utilise SIP," Cortner said. "Not all features in H.323 are necessarily available in SIP."

Increasing the confusion is the massive competition among vendors to become the enterprise source for unified communications. With the number of major vendors making plays in the UC space, it's important to ensure interoperability among varying best-of-breed components to secure the investment and be prepared for future integration.

Enterprises are also stumped about whether it's best to go with a single, strategic vendor or play mix-and-match with various best-of-breed solutions. For example, a company can choose Cisco for its IP telephony, unified messaging, mobility and audio conferencing while selecting IBM or Microsoft for its email, instant messaging and Web conferencing.

"When you start looking at vendor solutions out there, it's possible to go with a strategic vendor or single vendor solution," Cortner said. "Or go with a best of breed."

In general, enterprises already have a strategic vendor, which will influence the direction they take with unified communications. The single, strategic vendor approach can get complicated when their offerings start encroaching on the market areas of other strong vendors. In the Cisco example, the networking giant has aggressive UC plans and an equally aggressive product roadmap to address the continuum of UC applications, but that could infringe on the areas where Microsoft and IBM have already found their strengths. And getting the competing vendors to play nice with one another can present interoperability hurdles, Cortner said.

Although many vendors seem to offer a number of unified communications-enabling applications, he warned, it is still possible to fall into silos.

"In the ideal world," he said, "SIP would allow you to integrate vendors A, B and C, but full interoperability has yet to be realised."

Where Cisco's UC roadmap is based on deep core competency, Avaya and Nortel understand the nuances with converged communications. Microsoft and IBM, on the other hand, have long experience in enterprise applications like email.

Companies should "look at who is ultimately going to have the best experience from a user perspective," Cortner said -- and at what pace [vendors] will push for integration with one another.

"If I get [unified communications] from one vendor," he said, "I'll have tighter integration than with multiple companies who compete with each other in different dimensions."

 

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