Mobility, Cloud, Video Hold Keys to Future of Unified Communications

 
 
By Jeffrey Burt  |  Posted 2013-04-30
 
 
 

Mobility, Cloud, Video Hold Keys to Future of Unified Communications


Flotek Industries over the last dozen years or so has grown from a smaller, U.S.-based oil field logistics and products vendor to an international business with more than 400 employees on the move and dispersed around the globe.

Much of that growth was fueled by an array of mergers and acquisitions, which brought with them new sets of telephones and other communications systems that had to be cobbled together to support a rapidly growing and far-flung workforce. Outside of the email system, there was no uniform communications platform at the company, according to Mike Seagall, director of IT infrastructure at Flotek.

"Over the years, Flotek has grown from acquisitions," Seagall told eWEEK. "Through those acquisitions, it created quite a hodgepodge of phone systems."

What the Houston-based company needed was a unified communications (UC) platform that could bring together the disparate communications methods—from voice over IP (VoIP) to instant messaging to audio conferencing—and manage it all from a central console. Flotek also needed a system that enabled collaboration any time, from anywhere and on any device. Users of Cisco Systems' communications products, Flotek officials last year took a look at UC offerings from Cisco, Microsoft and ShoreTel, and settled on ShoreTel's platform.

The results have been positive, Seagall said: reduced capital and operating expenses, elimination of a third-party phone answering system, less administrative support time and costs, an expected return on investment in a year, along with a centralized and simplified management console. Whereas management of Flotek's 400 different endpoints required several people, now it can be done by a single person.

"It's pretty amazing that one person can manage all of those endpoints," he said.

That's the promise of UC—simplified management; reduced operating and capital expenses; greater and easier collaboration among workers, partners and customers; and a better overall user experience.

"If you look at the way people communicate, there are a lot of modalities people are using," Giovanni Mezgec, general manager of Microsoft's Lync UC platform, told eWEEK. "There are a lot of ways people communicate. … There is value in simplifying the user experience by bringing all of these modalities together."

The idea of unified communications has been around awhile and is a growing market. Market research firm IDC has the market—which includes UC technologies and services—at more than $26.2 billion this year and growing to almost $38 billion by 2016. However, it hasn't grown as fast as some had expected, due in part to such inhibitors as the complexity around understanding and integrating the various technologies involved, macroeconomic issues and an ROI story that isn't always clear, according to Rich Costello, senior research analyst of UC in IDC's Enterprise Communications Infrastructure unit.

"It's been talked about for quite a few years, but I don't think it's ever taken off like it was expected to take off," Costello said to eWEEK.

However, a number of trends—from a more mobile workforce to bring-your-own-device (BYOD) to the use of video—are beginning to ramp up the interest in UC, not only in enterprises, but also among small and midsize businesses (SMBs). In addition, the growing interest in UC in the cloud will have an impact, he said.

"It's been tough for the ROI piece, but companies are starting to get it, especially with mobility and what they can do there," Costello said.

Mobility, Cloud, Video Hold Keys to Future of Unified Communications


Carl Wiese, senior vice president of collaboration sales at Cisco, said the changing workplace—more mobility, more video and more social—is forcing businesses to embrace new ways of communicating and collaborating. People on the road or telecommuting are demanding the ability to communicate with each other from whatever device they want, whether it's a tablet, smartphone or notebook.

"The way people work today is different than how they were working even three to four years ago," Wiese told eWEEK. "How we work today in Cisco is different than it was two or three years ago. … Work is what you do, not where you go."

Vendors are working to provide platforms that offer whatever communications model a business is looking for, from voice, video, email and messaging to document sharing, scheduling, collaboration tools and presence, and doing so with both on-premises and cloud solutions.

Cisco is aggressively expanding the features on its Jabber UC platform and Unified Communications Manager software while IBM adds to its SameTime capabilities. Meanwhile, Microsoft in June will enable voice, chat and presence reporting between Lync and Skype, bridging the UC platform with Skype's massive user base, while also strengthening Lync's integration with Microsoft's Office products.

"We absolutely believe that to have a unified approach from consumers to the enterprise is absolutely critical," Microsoft's Mezgec said.

Avaya bolstered its Aura platform in 2012 when it bought video conferencing vendor Radvision, while ShoreTel gained cloud-based UC capabilities when it bought M5 Networks last year. Cloud-based UC is still in its infancy but will grow in the near future, according to IDC's Costello and vendors. At an event in Boston in November 2012, ShoreTel CEO Peter Blackmore said that currently, about 20 percent of the UC deployments leverage the cloud, while the other 80 percent are on-premises solutions. However, by 2015, Blackmore expects the percentage of cloud deployments to grow to 42 percent and to continue climbing. ShoreTel's cloud division is ShoreTel Sky.

Pejman Roshan, vice president of product management for ShoreTel, told eWEEK that most of the companies that adopt cloud-based UC already have experience using the cloud in other parts of their businesses, such as with Salesforce.com. They're the early adopters, and eventually more people will embrace UC in the cloud. Still, Roshan said, there will be room for both. "I don't see cloud displacing on-premises," he said.

But the discussion is changing, according to Cisco's Wiese. While most of Cisco's UC deployments are on-premises, there is much more customer interest in the cloud, he said. As more people get comfortable with the cloud in terms of security and availability, the idea of UC in the cloud will make more sense.

Video also will help fuel interest in UC. "Video is a big deal," not just for face-to-face collaboration, but also in verticals such as engineering, health care, financial services and the law, where users can leverage information gleaned from video.

Cisco is aggressively integrating video conferencing technologies into its Jabber and WebEx collaboration platforms. "There is more and more and more demand [for video] from users," Wiese said, noting that because many enterprise LANs and WANs are not yet ready to handle a lot of video traffic, that video may end up helping drive cloud-based UC adoption.

However, not all businesses are demanding it right now. Flotek's Seagall said there is not a great need for it right now among oil professionals in the field, though that could change.

"That may be something we'll look for later on in sales, but right now, it's not that big," he said.

Mobility, Cloud, Video Hold Keys to Future of Unified Communications


What Flotek needed was an intuitive, simplified, broad UC platform that was easy to deploy and could be centrally managed. The company needed to get it up and running at 30 locations within 60 days; it was done in 50. The company leveraged ShoreTel's UC software and hardware, including Mobility and Conferencing solutions, its Communicator management software and its VPN Concentrator appliance.

"That type of collaboration goes a long way in [creating] efficiencies," Seagall said.

With the ShoreTel UC solution, Flotek is able to save money on roaming fees, third-party technologies, a reduced amount of copper telephone lines and space. "The footprint in these locations is even smaller than a router," he said.

Services also were important, Seagall said. The ShoreTel solution is fairly easy to use, and the vendor offers a range of user training methods, from videos on YouTube to advanced user training programs, he said. ShoreTel's Roshan and Edward Wright, director of global mobility, said the company also offers user training programs that lasts as little as two to three hours.

"The learning curve is pretty flat," Roshan said.

The services vendors need to offer a range from support to professional services, such as going into the customer's building and explaining how everything works, IDC's Costello said. They also need to provide services to help businesses integrate their UC technology with any existing systems already in place, as well as managed and hosted services.

"Services are a really big piece to [driving adoption]," he said.

So is the end user's experience, Cisco's Wiese said. The applications must be easy to use and less complex and add to what the user is trying to do.

"How do we get—like it or not—to the Apple experience?" he said. "Apple set the standard for the user experience, and we need to get there."

Microsoft's Mezgec agreed, saying that businesses will not get the results they're looking for if employees have to wrestle with the technology. "If it works great, then the technology disappears and people are empowered," he said.

In addition, according to Seagall, having a common communications platform and making it easier for employees to collaborate enables mobile and remote workers to feel like they are part of the larger team rather than off on their own alone. That can add to the user experience and help improve productivity.

The vendors said there are some steps businesses can take and questions they can ask as they look to deploy a UC solution. Mezgec said companies need to ask themselves what their needs are—mobile, telecommuters and collaboration among remote teams? Also they need to determine who is going to be collaborating—is it internal, between colleagues, or will employees also be going outside the business and collaborating with partners and customers?

In addition, Flotek's Seagall urged businesses to determine what they need and to ensure that is what vendors are offering. In his case, central management of the solution was essential, and ShoreTel offered the best solution. He also said customers should check vendor references, make sure vendors have a record of doing the project on time and on budget, and avoid "hidden gotchas," like missing applications or solutions that "are not fully hardened."

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