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State of the union

While many businesses tightened their IT budgets during the recent recession, a growing number of organisations are deploying unified communications solutions — integrated voice, data, messaging, conferencing and collaboration services over converged networks — as confidence creeps back and budgets expand.  The driver?  Return on investment.

For the uninitiated, UC solutions quickly increase an organisations’ productivity and reduce operating costs.  UC not only provides more reliable and cross-functional communication, but also increases resilience against network disruptions.  In addition, UC enhances the sense of belonging and affinity amongst remote or mobile workers.

However, getting to a UC platform takes careful thought and planning.

Definitions of “unified communications” are as plentiful as the companies that provide the component technologies.  As such, there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all.  However, there are several broad ways to approach UC on a single platform.

Many businesses are pursuing either rich media or telephony-centric approaches to implementation, while others are focusing on e-mail- or instant messaging-centric approaches.  Admittedly, the array of available technologies, combined with their unique implications, make selecting a UC solution a complex undertaking.  There are many things to consider when deciding what is right for your company, including the nature of your organization’s work and its physical structure.
“One of the most obvious concerns has to be bandwidth optimisation. Since UC involves real time voice and video, CIOs need to have a closer look at their bandwidth and their prioritisation in terms of services and traffic. The second is the local ISP infrastructure and regulations and what these cover. If the communications system covers several branches across the region, then the local WAN links and basic infrastructure needs to be set up to handle the traffic that these applications can (and will) generate,” says Dharmendra Parmar, GM Marketing, FVC.

Frits Neyndorff,  MD of NEC Unified Solutions, says in addition to the infrastructure concerns such as bandwidth, one of the key challenges for companies is changing user habits and processes among the staff and providing the right level of skills and training to ensure that they make the most optimal use of the solutions.

Mohammed Areff, MD, Avaya

Another area of concern is how will it affect network security? “Some of the most common concerns companies have is security, reliability and user adoption. Network security in UC is not any different from having a voice or data infrastructure. Network security in UC is all about user privileges and access,” says Mohammed Arref, MD – Gulf & Pakistan, Avaya.

Many of the obstacles faced in UC implementations stem from at least one of the following:

1. Rushed discovery phase — it’s easier to address challenges prior to implementation, so this phase should carefully assess all potential applications and systems that link to the communications platform or may be affected by the change in traffic

2. Assumption that equipment/applications can be transferred “as is” from existing systems — it is important to clarify this before investing.

3. Lack of stakeholder involvement in the process — since UC is not an IT-only decision, you’ll only capture the maximum benefit if you secure the users’ input during the discovery, planning, and implementation process.

4. Failure to establish a goal and stick to it — this is where UC solutions can become needlessly complicated, leading to unanticipated costs.

Identify the weakest link in the chain
If your network is not strong enough to handle an increase in traffic from UC, you will not get the results you are expecting.  Review your current business and network environments, assess current and future needs, and incorporate them into a scope of work for design and implementation.  For most companies, unifying communications is not a one-size-fits-all, packaged solution.  It is a phased process, leading to an end goal that meets business/organizational communication goals.  What is best for your company is a network and solution set that stays up and running when the weakest link is at or near maximum capacity.

Finally, remember that training your associates on the maintenance and use of the UC components is essential.  Begin preparing them for implementation during installation and configuration.  Again, your goal is to launch a reliable operating system without disrupting business as usual.

Wael Abdulal, Collaboration Manager, Cisco

Once viewed as a luxury that only large organizations with hefty IT budgets could afford, UC solutions are now within reach of organizations of all sizes, including many small and midsize businesses (SMBs).

“At this stage of time and after few years of penetration in the enterprises, UC is within the reach of any organization. The level of UC penetration might differ as some organizations may focus on mobility, others on voice, video and web conferencing,” says Wael Abdulal, Collaboration Manager, Cisco UAE.

Microsoft, which has recently launched its Lync server, says users will no longer need to invest in expensive hardware to adopt UC. “In fact, you don’t need to even own any hardware if you opt for the cloud based or partner hosted version of Microsoft’s UC solution. Owning hardware/IT infrastructure is one of the key blockers for small organizations while we offer a comprehensive enterprise solutions for some of our large customers. We have references to support UC for business from 5 seats to 100K seats,” says Yasir Khokhar,Information Worker Business Group lead, Microsoft Gulf.

Parmar from FVC adds that as UC leverages voice, video, social media and other communications into a more converged platform, there is a wider range of solutions available to suit the budgets and needs of organisations, whatever the size. “Organisations can start with a simple solution using voice/text messaging, and scale all the way to conference room video conferencing solutions.”

Payback time

While the goals of UC are admirable, it is not always easy to sell management on the idea of a revamped, companywide communications system. However, once management understands the benefits of UC, they may realize it is just the kind of enhancement they are looking for.
“Well, it’s true that some of the benefits of UC are not very easy to measure. It also depends on the size and the extent of how the systems are used. Some of the clear, measurable areas are productivity, in terms of increased communication and collaboration, access to resources that would normally be out of reach, and time savings and costs in terms of travel especially at executive levels,” says Parmar.

Areff from Avaya adds that enhanced productivity, employee retention, cost reductions from staff travel are just some of the factors that CIOs could consider while cost justifying a UC system.

Another option is to look at a hosted UC system, which offers incredible cost savings when compared to in-house, thanks in large part to eliminating the need for hardware, software and licenses.  Alongside the reduced need for hardware and software, staffing costs can also be easily manager, as a hosted solution doesn’t require a large team of internal experts to deal with upgrades or maintenance.

“This would depend on the needs of the organisation and where security can play a very key role in deciding what kind of systems to deploy. On-premise deployment does have the advantage of enhanced control, but hosted systems give these organisations the possibility of more flexibility,” says Neyndorff.

While unified communications is a complicated field with many potential challenges, it can undoubtedly help transform an organisation, and result in attractive operating efficiencies.  The facts speak for themselves — UC is on the rise as an innovative way to change the way your company does business.

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