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Telescope 2007

Convergence: Unified Communications

Large organisations will adopt unified communications, which is IP telephony, unified messaging, voice mail, Web conferencing and videoconferencing all rolled into one. These solutions reduce intra-office and long-distance communication costs. At the same time, they boost productivity by means of a range of applications such as e-conferencing and collaboration, call accounting and billing, and of course unified messaging, to mention a few. By Faiz Askari

When done right, unified communications (UC) can reduce downtime that’s implicit in any interaction. Consider this: according to an AT&T study, more than 70 percent of business calls are placed on hold for an average of 45 to 60 seconds each. The average executive spends 17 minutes each day on hold, and some 80 percent of phone calls end up in voice mail. UC curbs the wastage of time by letting users reach the right person at the right time through their preferred mode of contact. This goes way beyond slashing hold times or staying clear of voice mail. It means organising information faster and getting that information to the right person in a usable format when the recipient needs it most.

Dabinder Singh, Head, IT, Greenply Industries says, “Through UC, costs are significantly reduced. If there is an organisation having 40 to 50 locations across the country, all their telephones will be treated as an intercom and there will be a single Internet connection to link multiple offices. Basically, there will be a single access point and the end-result will be an integrated network.”

  • Networks such as UMTS or WiMax to carry huge payloads just about anywhere.
  • Technologies such as packet switching, firewall/NAT traversal and encryption.
  • Bridging products to bridge analog and digital telephony, and provide support for PSTN, ISDN, IP (H.323 and SIP) networks.
  • Devices encompassing a wide variety of computers, laptops, phones and PDAs.
  • Standards such as SIP for call signalling, or IMS to architecture a converged solution.

Sourav Roy, IT Infrastructure Manager, LG Electronics India says, “A single integrated network is easy to manage as there are no multiple tools or network infrastructure to manage. In the long run it can be a great cost-saver for organisations as they will have to deal with a single ISV rather than multiple providers.”

Although that’s always been a business goal, and stand-alone tools that work towards that end have long been available, leading applications vendors are now investing in this space. By building UC into their software, they plan to embed voice, IM, video and presence into the fabric of business applications, with little change to the client desktop. Minimal change means lower cost and less resistance from both end-users and the bean counters.

According to Ranajoy Punja, Vice-president, Business Development, Advanced Technology, Cisco Systems India & Saarc, “UC solutions offer migration at an organisation’s preferred pace. By integrating with most major legacy PBXs and voice-mail systems, as well as mission-critical business applications, most leading IP players empower customers to migrate based on their business needs rather than on account of technological limitations.”

Adds Kiran Bhagwanani, Vice-president, APAC Sales, HCL Comnet, “High rates of VoIP adoption, availability of advanced services such as unified messaging, tele-presence and rich-media conferencing (RMC), along with the inherent benefit of having application integration and ease of use, are the driving factors for the growth of UC. Deployments of UC solutions help customers derive high levels of efficiency from resources, be more productive, and reduce costs.”

According to Yugal Sharma, Country Manager, India & Saarc, Polycom, “UC enables users to integrate some form of data conferencing using a companion PC, integrated software, or attached electronic whiteboard to bring photos, spreadsheets, drawings or text documents into a ‘meeting.’” Video streaming technology gives users the ability to hear or view a file in real-time without downloading it first. “Products today are equally adept at streaming video from a live feed or from archived files on a server. Streaming is fast becoming a highly effective way to sell, market, communicate or train employees over a corporate LAN as well as the Internet,” adds Sharma.

Notes Rajnish Gupta, Director of Marketing at Tadiran Telecom India, “UC is an area which has been and which will see a lot of activity in the near future. With the advent of new technology and bigger and stronger backbones, UC requirements will multiply manifold. There is a lot of work going on in this regard i.e. convergence of technologies and end-user equipment. There’s more activity from every side, be it voice equipment (PBX) manufacturers, cellular infrastructure manufacturers or data equipment (LAN switches, routers) makers.”

Factors Spurring UC Adoption
  • Reduced cost of communication: Enterprises can leverage IP telephony for voice communications in a CUG, and drive down expenditure on communications.
  • Improved employee productivity: Enhanced applications such as unified messaging and call centre solutions enhance employee productivity.
  • A single network saves on operational costs: It is also easy to manage. UC solutions allow enterprises to invest in a converged communication infrastructure that will deliver voice, video and data communications to the enterprise desktop. In fact, the use of IP-telephony to terminate voice traffic by enterprises is seen to be the market with the maximum potential in the future.
  • Integrated voice, video and Web collaboration: Integrate all three into the same conference.
  • Ad hoc conference service support: This is true regardless of the communications media being used.

Many technologies on a single platter

Enterprises today are looking forward to leading-edge technology, flexible conferences, lexible deployment, common management suites, highly scalable solutions, secure VoIP conferencing, embedded multipoint options and more in video conferencing solutions

India is one of the fastest growing UC markets in the Asia Pacific. Some technologies which are already available in the Indian market are IP telephony, unified messaging, video telephony, audio/Web/video conferencing, collaboration solutions, instant messaging and customer contact services, all integrated with each other and with the messaging and business applications.

Informs Punja, “Some new technologies which are being launched are presence- or location-based services using the SIP protocol, and tele-presence, which is high-definition, life-size video conferencing integrated with an IP telephony system. Enterprise mobility is another application which is going to see a lot of action next year with the launch of clients for cellular phones which provide all UC applications for a mobile workforce.”

Sharma says, “Enterprises today are looking forward to leading-edge technology, flexible conferences, flexible deployment, common management suites, highly scalable solutions, secure VoIP conferencing, embedded multipoint options and more in video conferencing solutions.” The system can be used for scheduled or ad hoc meetings, and plays a crucial role in enhancing productivity. Access to, and sharing of information, plays a vital role in corporate meetings as we have them today. Video conferencing enables easy sharing of any type of information, instantly arming the participants with the necessary and required knowledge. This in the long run is extremely important for swift analysis and decision making, bringing products to the market, and gaining an edge over competitors.

Comments Bhagwanani, “RMC supports a mix of voice, video, Web and data, with instant messaging capabilities and the ability to access systems from a mix of touch points. End-users in an RMC environment can be a mix of PSTN, IP, Web and video endpoints, and they all get a seamless experience with the system providing a unique end-user experience irrespective of the mode of connectivity.” Tele-presence is another area which is expected to grow in a big way. We have already seen a highly mobile workforce in India thanks to broadband and wireless data access, so the next obvious step is tele-presence to complete the enterprise-class tele-worker experience.

Convergence in action

UC’s potential is high in India, and with better telecom infrastructure, high bandwidth connectivity through MPLS, Metro Ethernet and broadband, and favourable regulations, we will soon see enterprise adoption of UC

UC is an important part of the convergence of computers, telephones and television into a single integrated information environment. Giving an overview of some of the differentiating factors in UC, Punja states, “UC includes IP telephony, unified messaging, voice mail, customer contact and audio, Web and videoconferencing solutions.”

Bhagwanani points out that while convergence is the differentiating factor, some of the critical aspects that need to be kept in mind are quality of service since most of the infrastructure is IP-based with the ability to interconnect to other systems using standard protocols. Most of the solutions available today have incorporated both these aspects, hence we will see a lot of UC deployments where customers can re-use their existing investments in voice and video and still avail of the latest converged services.

Convergence is part and parcel of UC. Some critical factors strengthening UC’s sales proposition are:

  • Availability of bandwidth and the cost of the same coming down.
  • Availability of various applications which enhance the use of hardware and bandwidth.
  • Dispersed teams use different technology to communicate, and their need to communicate has acted as a catalyst for UC.

CIO’s demand for UC

Issues such as security, reliability and ease of maintenance are critical in the case of UC. The other major area of concern that an IT manager should look into is the use of standard equipment i.e. equipment that conforms to standards as opposed to equipment that uses proprietary standards.

IT managers want UC solutions that offer lower TCO and high RoI. Punja says, “Operating a converged enterprise network requires optimisation to guarantee that all applications receive the service levels required to meet performance expectations. ‘Throwing bandwidth at the problem’ is not a solution. Rather, adequate bandwidth provisioning is an important aspect of quality-of-service.” Lastly, inter-operability is also a concern while adopting UC solutions because enterprises are increasingly adding value to existing servers or infrastructure by running UC applications on top of existing infrastructure.

States Sharma, “In terms of CIO priorities, there are several components of UC to carefully look into. These include the voice and data network infrastructure, handsets, end-points, enterprise audio, video and Web conferencing, and the software and services for integration and collaboration.”

A tough call

Even if the business office buys in [UC], choosing the right UC architecture isn’t going to be easy. Virtually every supplier targeting the enterprise market with IP PBX, Web conferencing, IM or videoconferencing equipment offers elements of an enterprise-grade UC solution. Competing vendors often partner with one another, creating more choices—and more complexity for the beleaguered IT department. Nor is the distinction between infrastructure and application vendors clearly delineated. Presence, for example, is a critical component both of the infrastructure and the application, and is provided by just about all UC vendors. Application and infrastructure vendors also provide session-setup and resource-location functions. However, the decision as to who will own these core UC system capabilities isn’t clear. For these reasons, businesses must begin their evaluation of UC architectures at the endpoint. Integration with a leading desktop supplier is critical if UC is to become a part of the business process and enjoy widespread adoption.

Concludes Bhagwanani: “UC’s potential is high in India, and with better telecom infrastructure, high bandwidth connectivity through MPLS, Metro Ethernet and broadband, and favourable regulations, we will soon see enterprise adoption of UC for their communication and productivity requirements.”

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