Unison Server and Unison Desktop deliver a decent unified communications experience at a great price for companies looking for basic integration of communication channels at the desktop. However, due to a current lack of extensibility to mobile devices or other applications, Unison may not be a good fit for companies with more advanced UC needs.
I tested Unison 1.1, which integrates VOIP (voice over IP), instant messaging, presence, calendaring, and e-mail into a single interface for the user, delivering an experience similar to that of a merged Microsoft Office and Communicator. Unfortunately, Unison does not currently support document collaboration among users and offers limited conferencing capabilities, and the presence capabilities are severely hampered because the information is not viewable in enough places.
Without a doubt, the best part about Unison is the price. The Unison Server and Desktop software components are free-provided you accept that your users will be served advertisements. Unison representatives promise that advertisements will be appropriate for business environments (business-to-business services and products, for instance).
During my tests, I only noticed advertisements pop up when the Desktop loaded on a client machine, but I saw no ads during normal usage. However, Unison officials anticipate there will be a higher volume of ads served down the road.
There is also a pair of for-pay alternatives for those unwilling to accept advertisements. Licenses can be purchased for $50 per user per year or $36,000 per Unison Server. The former model grants companies access to further upgrades to the Server and Desktop, while the latter does not.
Installing the Unison Server was surprisingly simple, particularly compared to the complex installation I endured with Microsoft’s OCS. Unison provides install packages and scripts to install all components on a single Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 or CentOS server (beta iterations are also available for Ubuntu server), and I found installation on my CentOS 5.2-based system took less than a half hour, save for some licensing issues I encountered.
Unison Server and Desktop components must be able to communicate via HTTPS with the Unison licensing service, which is hosted on Unison’s network. Without communication for the licensing server, the mail, VOIP, calendar and IM services will not start on the server, and the Desktop will only operate in offline mode.
Unison also has available for download preconfigured virtual machines that include an operating system and Unison Server software for Parallels’ Virtuozzo virtual platform.
Management of the Unison system is performed via the Web-based control panel. From the control panel, administrators can populate the system’s LDAP directory and manage address books for the entire organization, department level or for individual users. Unfortunately, at this time, Unison’s directory will not synchronize with existing sources such as Active Directory.
From the control panel, administrators can also configure many aspects of Unison’s telephony behavior. I could control inbound and outbound routes from the Unison system, assign phones, extensions and external numbers to users, and set up hunt groups and ACDs (automatic call distributors). Unison includes a TFTP server for easy centralized configuration of certain Cisco Systems phones.
Because Unison utilizes SIP (Session Initiation Protocol), I also found it fairly simple to configure third-party IP phones to register with the system, as I successfully used Polycom IP phones and CounterPath softphones with Unison.
Available for XP, Vista, Not for Mac OS X
The Unison Desktop client is currently available for Microsoft Windows XP and Vista, and there are betas available for RHEL and Ubuntu but nothing for Mac OS X at this time. I tested the Desktop on XP, and found the e-mail and calendaring experience quite similar to that provided by Outlook, so users should be able to get comfortable with the client quickly.
I found on-screen call control worked pretty well, with a few oddities. I could click on a contact in any of my address books and quickly choose between chat, e-mail and a phone call, although presence is not viewable from these sources. Selecting a voice call rings the desk phone or softphone associated with my account, then places the call through once I pick up the phone.
I could also easily record the call, park it or put it on hold from on-screen prompts.
When I had an incoming call, a notification message would appear in the lower right part of the screen. Unfortunately, I could not answer the call via the Unison Desktop, but rather I had to perform that action on the desk or softphone.
Unfortunately, Unison does not do much to take UC mobile at this time. The Server features are designed to work with the Unison Desktop only, and there are no clients for mobile devices at this time. I found that mobile users could access their e-mail via IMAP, but this will not open up the IM, calendar, contacts or voice features that make Unison appealing.
Unison has also added a barrier to IMAP adoption. During my tests, I discovered that a user’s IMAP password differs from the password used to log in to the Unison Desktop. To obtain the IMAP password, administrators actually have to log in to the MySQL database, then run a small script to extract a user’s IMAP password. Unison officials said this hindrance was put in place to “encourage people to use the Unison Desktop.”
Fortunately, Unison officials claim easier IMAP support and ActiveSync support will be in place sometime this summer.
The Unison Desktop delivers IM chat to other Unison users via a pane within the Desktop called the Unison Messenger. Users can also configure Unison Messenger to communicate with a few external IM networks as well. To access MSN or ICQ networks, users can input their credentials for those networks as a gateway, or users can interact directly with GoogleTalk via XMPP (although administrators will need to open a TCP port on the firewall for this to work).
While Unison technically provides presence capabilities that allow Unison users to see when other users are available, busy or on the phone, I found this feature to be a bolted-on afterthought. Instead of incorporating presence views into the corporate or personal directories, presence may only be viewed in the Unison Messenger IM client pane and each Unison user must individually add contacts to their own Unison Messenger roster.
To add a contact to a Unison Messenger, users must request permission from the contact to take such action. Extrapolated out, this means that as it currently stands, to set up presence among everyone within a company requires every user to manually add every user to their own roster and request permission from that contact-which is simply a ridiculous requirement.
I would prefer to see presence information included automatically with the corporate directory, or, failing that, administrators should be allowed to pre-configure and deploy pre-assigned Unison Messenger rosters. Unfortunately, Unison does not currently support shared rosters, although Unison representatives claim shared Messenger rosters will be available sometime this year. ??
Senior Technical Analyst Andrew Garcia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.