IT Planner: 5 Steps to Unified Communications

 
 
By Andrew Garcia  |  Posted 2007-11-13
 
 
 

IT Planner: 5 Steps to Unified Communications


 

IT Planner


: 5 Steps to Unified Communications">

Unified communications is one of those technology terms that means different things to different people. Nonetheless, it is ultimately a driver for better business processes.

Properly implemented, unified communications, or UC for short, will bring together people (both internal and external to the company), applications and data in ways that increase efficiencies and create new opportunities.

On a technical level, UC may be viewed as an effort to tie together disparate communication modalities—presenting a unified interface for VOIP (voice over IP), instant messaging, real-time video, whiteboarding and presence. Users would then have the ability to efficiently navigate and migrate among the different communication channels, easily initiating collaborative work sessions with other employees as needed.

But from a wider perspective, UC should be viewed as the convergence of communications with business processes. The real value of UC becomes apparent when it is tied to business objectives and business applications to advance the companys competitive advantages and increase shareholder value or market share. The individual technologies comprising UC are but a bunch of moving parts working together to solve the underlying business challenges.

Microsoft ushers in the unified communications era. Click here to read more.

That said, a UC implementation is disruptive. An undertaking of this magnitude will likely touch every aspect of IT, requiring significant planning and cooperation between the teams responsible for the day-to-day operation and availability of numerous data services.

UC also will undoubtedly change the way workers do business on a daily basis—requiring them to learn new tools, adapt to the new technologies and recognize that seemingly simple communications and conversations will be archivable business assets.

To manage the disruption, any UC initiative needs to be carefully planned and considered in the early stages to keep the project on target and the disruption positive, instead of a distraction.

Following are the five steps eWEEK Labs recommends that any company take before undergoing such a herculean project.

Page 2: Step 1: Find a Champion

Step 1


: Find a Champion"> Step 1: Find a Champion

To be successful, UC should not be viewed as a technology project but rather as a technology-enabled business initiative, with clearly defined goals and quantifiable measures of success.

"Increasingly, what we are seeing with the next-generation workplace is that it is a business change process," said Kevin Bellinger, Avanades global solution manager for digital collaboration. "[Unified Communications] is being initiated by the business side—not the IT side."

To get there, senior leadership of any UC project is essential—to keep the project focused in terms of cost and scope, and to keep it on target to meet the underlying business objectives.

"The higher you get the sponsor, the better," said Frank Redey, a partner with Accentures Network Service Technology line. "If you could link [a UC initiative] to a C-level objective—of revenue generation, cost reduction or risk mitigation—you can demonstrate the solution value and increase shareholder value."

Mergers and acquisitions are prominent driving forces toward UC, which is frequently pursued both for tying together disparate networks and user groups and to rapidly speed the progress of pending moves. Both of these circumstances are senior-level concerns.

During a joint conversation with Redey and Bellinger (Accenture and Avanade are both partners to Microsofts UC initiative), and in a separate discussion with Christopher Thompson, senior director of solutions marketing for Ciscos Unified Communications group, eWEEK Labs heard several strong examples of executives driving UC projects.

In each case, senior executives drove the technology project to advance business goals—whether the project was initiated via a human resources department looking to reap the benefits that come with improved collaboration among its staff members; a sales manager looking to present an identical set of tools and experiences for salespeople, no matter their location; or a CFO looking to reduce occupancy costs by overprovisioning a workplace through flexible work space and a mobile work force.

Likewise, a project champion will help keep the project on target, not losing sight of the business-goal forest through the technology trees. "Customers get enamored with techno-babble," Thompson said. "If they believe they can create this glitzy application that everyone will use, it is almost always a nonstarter."

Bellinger agreed: "Unified communications is complex, but you could wind up with something complex to the end user that doesnt meet business needs. Fit the tech to meet your business needs, not the other way round."

Read here Bill Gates thoughts on how far we have to go on the communications front.

C-level stewardship is also vital to later bridging the divide between the IT silos ultimately responsible for implementing and maintaining the project. UC implementations are massively complex, with technologies reaching into many distinct areas of IT. In a fully realized deployment, UC will touch the network, directory services, core messaging infrastructure, and desktops and mobile devices. And as the project develops, UC will also have implications for applications and their development teams.

Marshaling all the disparate IT factions responsible for these technologies and resolving arguments over ownership of elements of the project may seem daunting, but with the right leadership—espousing a business plan with tangible objectives and clearly defined areas where cooperation is vital—it can work. In the end, it boils down to many new applications over IP, and everyone on the team just needs to recognize that.

Lastly, senior leadership in terms of adoption of the technology will set the example for the rank and file. "Get the executives and senior people on board, and they will drive adoption down," said Bellinger.

Page 3: Step 2: Remember the Users

Step 2


: Remember the Users"> Step 2: Remember the Users

User uptake of a UC system can be viral, and well-trained users getting the most out of the system will likely be the best advocates to quickly expand adoption of the platform. But implementers cannot readily assume that each and every worker will adapt to the system to the same degree or at the same rate, so user training and attention to user comfort will be paramount.

"You have a wide array of tech knowledge and skills among end workers, affecting their ability to take up new user interfaces and new applications," said Dennis Karlinsky, principal group program manager of the Unified Communications team at Microsoft.

The act of introducing something as seemingly simple as presence could easily get complicated, as users need to understand what all the red and green lights showing up in Outlook, Excel or Word really mean. How to best communicate depending on that presence information will take some getting used to.

To adequately prepare the user base for the new technology, implementers must provide training that meets the users needs. Taking the time to put together a manual is a logical step for implementers, but the interactive nature of UC and presence would be better served by live, hands-on training sessions or at least an in-depth and engaging Webcast.

Karlinsky recommends going a step further. Users need to understand the options that are available to them, as there are numerous devices and accessories that could be part of each persons personal-area network for unified communications. Users should have the opportunity to select the devices that best suit their needs, so, for example, the requirements of the hands-free Bluetooth crowd will be met as well as the needs of those who prefer the cold comfort of a handset against their ears.

"Form factor is superimportant. Have open houses to show the devices, so people can come and play with them physically," said Karlinsky. "Our partners and systems integrators that did that had a much faster ramp-up time in terms of getting end-user adoption."

Prior to elementary training and device selection, however, it is incumbent upon UC implementers to understand how the companys users conduct business on a daily basis to fully understand what needs to be unified.

Dell moves into unified communications. Click here to read more.

"Think about what is in the users work spaces," said Ciscos Thompson. "Ask what needs to get the job done that supports the companys competitive advantage and that will tell you what to think about as you go through the process of unification."

Thompson sees four primary areas to take into consideration: devices (PCs, phones, mobile devices and accessories), applications (messaging, customer relationship management, enterprise resource planning, collaboration tools), network types (office, home, mobile, wired or wireless) and operating systems.

Conducting this kind of inventory will help implementers ensure that pockets of users are not left out in the cold as the project comes into place. If the graphics team is running on Macs and the engineering team is running on Linux, implementers need to ensure that the new communications tools will work on those platforms and will be supported in the applications that would benefit from a collaborative environment.

Page 4: Step 3: Deploy in Parallel

Step 3


: Deploy in Parallel"> Step 3: Deploy in Parallel

A UC deployment project will require much heavy lifting. Given the sheer magnitude of the project, maintaining parallel deployment threads will be essential, as upgrades of the majority of the network can be done concurrently with the early pilots of the communication and collaboration tools.

Companies that are embarking on their first VOIP deployment will have an especially large amount of work to do on the network to ensure QOS (quality of service). Since large enterprises are commonly composed of many globally distributed branch offices—often melded together through mergers and acquisitions—organizations need to extend that kind of network resiliency to the WAN as much as possible.

"One of the first things we did within Accenture when we approached our internal unified communications program was to start with a network transformation program," said Accentures Redey. "On the wide-area networks, we moved to MPLS [Multiprotocol Label Switching] to take advantage of its quality-of-service features, and we also upgraded our local-area networks so they also have quality of service built in. With this foundation in place, we could then layer collaboration tools on top."

Redey also recommends beginning UC pilot projects while the network upgrades are taking place. UC projects are frequently driven by the needs of a specific group within a corporation or by a remote office needing better communication capabilities. While the forklift upgrades are occurring throughout the network, select members of a pilot team in the target group can begin trying out the new modes of communication and collaboration.

Siemens tailors unified communications for SMBs. Click here to read more.

Ciscos Thompson posits that expansion can happen rapidly with an IP-based communications platform. "Once you have moved your voice traffic onto an IP network, it is very easy to add capacity, as expansions to your data network mean automatic expansions for the voice network as well," he said.

Duncan Greatwood, CEO of messaging vendor PostPath, points out that the messaging and storage infrastructures may require a significant update, as well.

"You need to have the right level of scalability," he said. "Weve found that many companies are still running with [100MB to 150MB] mailboxes, but for UC it has to be multi­gigabyte at the least."

Page 5: Step 4: Expand the Application Base

Step 4


: Expand the Application Base"> Step 4: Expand the Application Base

A UC strategy may get its start as a platform to improve user collaboration by presenting a single interface for a companys workers to communicate more efficiently through a variety of mediums. However, the real power of UC will come once strategic business applications can be pulled into the collaborative mix and the by-products of these new types of communications can be archived as strategic data assets.

Martin Suter, president of SMB-focused UC vendor Objectworld, sees unified communications as a continuum. "You have the voice over IP/dial-tone/low-value proposition at one end, and unified messaging—where your voice mail and faxes find you—in the middle," Suter said. "But really where companies need to aspire is further to the right. Unified communications is the convergence of communications with business processes and business applications."

"Integrating UC components into line-of-business applications will be absolutely essential," said Accentures Redey. "If we go back to how people work, they want to be able to launch collaboration straight out of working context, whether it is a CRM or ERP system they are working in."

Going beyond the model of user-to-user communications, a focus on the role of applications within a UC construct can improve automated services—where the application itself can, for instance, automatically generate communications to resupply a low-inventory item or conduct automated billing notification in several mediums. Or, customer requests and contact attempts can be automatically included in a customer management profile, allowing the company to retain more information about its client base, without relying on humans to perform the actions.

Taking UC adoption to this next level will require that implementers discover what systems and applications workers use that would benefit from improved collaboration and automation, and then redesign or replatform these applications to integrate with the new communications model.

Suter recommends that implementers identify potential pain points for a business to help identify applications and parts of the business that would benefit from UC. "Ask yourself where we can be hurt badly tomorrow, where we are expending a lot of energy and where we are putting out fires."

Implementers should also consider whether a business process or application would benefit from the ability to archive real-time communications surrounding the use of said application. UC presents the opportunity to turn something as simple as a voice call into a richer form of communications that could include pictures, presentations, videos and whiteboard sessions. These richer information sessions can then be archived and indexed, and later be made searchable. This will save not only the core information that populates the application but also context, discussion and subsidiary information that could otherwise be lost in the ether.

Page 6: Step 5: Bring Outside In

Step 5


: Bring Outside In"> Step 5: Bring Outside In

With end-to-end QOS on the network and system survivability in place, UC can bring many communications improvements for users within the network. The real challenge, however, will be to extend those improvements outside the company, bringing both customers and trusted partners into the mix.

UC can provide savings against the current mode of communication, reducing expenditures on things such as one-time collaboration sessions or travel costs for in-person meetings and events.

Implementers need to weigh in advance how open their solution will be, as everything has to integrate properly and play well together. At the same time, implementers must maintain the flexibility to quickly add new applications and capacity to handle new business conditions or relationships.

All kinds of decisions made early in the planning process—such as what devices, operating systems, network types and applications will be supported—will have implications for the systems openness and flexibility. Therefore, it is critical to plan for extensibility from the start.

To enable rich presence outside the corporate walls, federation will also be an ongoing concern for UC systems, opening up trust relationships between different organizations and networks. Implementers must construct a plan that puts in place the technical groundwork needed to connect and build trust relationships between different directories and to build a system of accountability and responsibility for securing, maintaining and updating those relationships on an ongoing basis.

SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) continues to gain steam as a way to initialize communications for converged networks. Because of its flexibility and near-universal adoption among vendors at this point, SIP will be a major component of any UC deployment. However, there are still irregularities among different vendors SIP implementations that could become a factor in integration between different companies.

Security officials must also take care to ensure that perimeter security equipment correctly handles both SIP initialization traffic and the real-time transport protocols that carry the data payloads.

Microsofts Karlinsky also thinks codecs will be important as UC crosses the corporate boundaries.

By building these considerations into the planning phase of a UC deployment, implementers will provide the flexibility to reduce costs while generating new business opportunities and creating new competitive advantages.

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