Unified communications

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Unified communications (UC) refers to a trend in business to simplify and integrate all forms of communications. It is typically a software program and infrastructure improvement. In general, it allows an individual to send or receive a message on one medium and received on another. For example, one can receive a voice mail message and then read it in their email inbox using a unified communications program.

The communications leveraged by this term can include phone, e-mail, chat, voice mail, presence services, and fax. The typical software program unifies these communication mediums so that any activity or message can be easily transferred to another. A successful implementation can automate and unifies all forms of human and device communications into a common user experience. Gains in efficiency can result through an optimization of business processes and enhancing human communications, reducing latency, managing flows, and eliminating device and media dependencies.


[edit] Communication Latency

One of the main focuses of Unified Communications is to reduce communication latency. Time or in other words ( speed ) is always needed to make decisions and act upon instructions. However, a delay in the delivery of messages can result in an unneeded delay. For example, an important action that takes two days to complete but is received a day late, takes three days to complete. Unified communications technology aims to reduce that delay as much as possible.

Much of the research on this topic has focused on this latency element. [1]

[edit] History

The history of Unified Communications is tied to the evolution of the supporting technology. Originally, business telephone systems were a private branch exchange (PBX) or Key Telephone System provided and managed by the local phone company. These systems utilized analog or digital circuits provided by the phone company in order to deliver phone calls from the Central Office (CO) to the customer. The system, be it a PBX or Key Telephone System, would then accept the call and handle routing the call to the appropriate extension or line appearance on the phones at the customer's office.

The major drawback to this service was the reliance on the phone company to manage (in most cases) the PBX or Key Telephone System. This resulted in a residual and recurring cost to customers. Over time, the PBX became more privatized and internal staff members were hired to manage these systems. This was typically done by companies that could afford to bring this skill in-house and thereby reduce the requirement to notify the phone company or their local PBX vendor each time a change was required in the system. The privatization of managing the PBX ultimately triggered the development of more powerful software that increased the usability and manageability of the system.

As companies began to deploy IP networks in their environment, companies began to use these networks to transmit voice instead of relying on traditional telephone network circuits. Some vendors such as Avaya created circuit packs for their PBX systems that could interconnect their communications systems to the IP network. Other vendors such as Cisco created equipment that could be placed in routers to transport voice calls across a company network from site to site. The termination of PBX circuits to be transported across a network and delivered to another phone system is traditionally referred to as Voice over IP (Voice over Internet Protocol or VoIP). This design required special hardware on both ends of the network equipment to provide the termination and delivery at each site. As time went by, Alcatel-Lucent,Cisco, Nortel, Avaya and Mitel realized the potential for eliminating the traditional PBX or Key System and replacing it with a solution based on IP. This IP solution would be driven by software only and thereby do away with the requirement for "switching" equipment at a customer site (save the equipment necessary to connect to the outside world). This created a new technology which is now referred to as IP Telephony. When referring to a system that does not utilize any legacy PBX or Key System but rather IP-based telephony services only, it qualifies as an IP Telephony solution.

With the advent of IP Telephony the handset was no longer a digital device hanging off a copper loop from a PBX. Instead, the handset lived on the network as another computer device. The transport of audio was therefore no longer a variation in voltages or modulation of frequency such as with the handsets from before, but rather encoding the conversation using a CODEC (G.711 originally) and transporting it with a protocol such as the Real-time Transport Protocol (RTP). Because the handset was just another computer, applications could be pushed out to the endpoint to enable the end-user with advanced features enabled by web services such as XML, ASP or JAVA.

In 2003, Siemens (later to become Siemens Enterprise Communications[2]) launched the first unified communications application, OpenScape, to widespread acclaim. OpenScape was the first application to fully integrate the concept of presence and managed availability into a voice communications environment. OpenScape remains one of the richest unified communications applications on the market.

When considering the efforts of Unified Communications solutions providers, the overall goal is to no longer focus strictly on the telephony portion of daily communications. The unification of all communication devices inside a single platform provides the mobility, presence, and contact capabilities that extend beyond the phone to all devices a person may use or have at their disposal. [3]

Given the wide scope of Unified Communications, there has been a lack of community definition as most solutions are from proprietary vendors. Since Mar 2008, there are several open source projects with a Unified Communications focus such as Druid and elastix, which are based on Asterisk, a leading open source telephony project. The aim of these open source Unified Communications projects is to allow the open source community of developers and users to have a say in Unified Communications and what it means.

In October 2007, Microsoft entered the Unified Communications market with the launch of Office Communications Server[4], a software-based solution running on Windows. In March 2008, Unison Technologies launched Unison[5], a software-based unified communications solution that runs on Linux and Windows.

[edit] The technology of unified communications

[edit] The difference between unified communications and unified messaging

Unified communications is sometimes confused with unified messaging, but it is distinct. Unified communications refers to a real-time delivery of communications based on the preferred method and location of the recipient; unified messaging systems culls messages from several sources (such as email, voice mail and faxes), but holds those messages for retrieval at a later time.

[edit] Components of unified communications

Unified communications represents a concept where multiple modes of business communications can be seamlessly integrated. Unified communications is not a single product but rather a solution which consists of various elements, including (but not limited to) the following: call control and multimodal communications, presence, instant messaging, unified messaging, speech access and personal assistant, conferencing, collaboration tools, mobility, business process integration (BPI) and a software solution to enable business process integration.[6] The term of presence is also a factor – knowing where one’s intended recipients are and if they are available, in real time – and is itself a key component of unified communications. To put it simply, unified communications integrates all the systems that a user might already be using and helps those systems work together in real time. For example, unified communications technology could allow a user to seamlessly collaborate with another person on a project, even if the two users are in separate locations. The user could quickly locate the necessary person by accessing an interactive directory, engage in a text messaging session, and then escalate the session to a voice call, or even a video call – all within minutes. In another example, an employee receives a call from a customer who wants answers. Unified communications could enable that worker to access a real-time list of available expert colleagues, then make a call that would reach the necessary person, enabling the employee to answer the customer faster, and eliminating rounds of back-and-forth emails and phone-tag.

The examples in the previous paragraph primarily describe "personal productivity" enhancements that tend to benefit the individual user. While such benefits can be important, enterprises are finding that they can achieve even greater impact by using unified communications capabilities to transform business processes. This is achieved by integrating UC functionality directly into the business applications using development tools provided by many of the suppliers. Instead of the individual user invoking the UC functionality to, say, find an appropriate resource, the workflow or process application automatically identifies the resource at the point in the business activity where one is needed.

When used in this manner, the concept of "presence" often changes. Most people associate presence with IM "buddy lists" -- the status of individuals is identified. But, in many business process applications, what is important is finding someone with a certain skill. In these environments, presence will identify available skills or capabilities.

This "business process" approach to integrating UC functionality can result in bottom line benefits that are an order of magnitude greater than those achievable by personal productivity methods alone.

[edit] Unified communications in action and corresponding business benefits

[edit] Unified communications in action

Given the sophistication of unified communications technology, its uses are myriad for businesses. It enables users to know where their colleagues are physically located (say, their car or home office). They also have the ability to see which mode of communication the recipient prefers to use at any given time (perhaps their cell phone, or email, or instant messaging). A user could seamlessly set up a real-time collaboration on a document they are producing with a co-worker, or, in a retail setting, a worker might do a price-check on a product using a hand-held device and need to consult with a co-worker based on a customer inquiry. With unified communications, instant messaging and presence could be built into the price check application, and the problem could be resolved in moments.[7]

[edit] Business benefits of unified communications

Unified communications helps businesses, small and large alike, to streamline information delivery and ensure ease of use. Human delays are also minimized or eliminated, resulting in better, faster interaction and service-delivery for the customer, and cost savings for the business. Unified communications also allows for easier, more direct collaboration between co-workers and with suppliers and clients, even if they are not physically on the same site. This allows for possible reductions in business travel, especially with multi-party video communications, reducing an organization's carbon footprint.

Many UC platforms can also be integrated into automation systems to aid in rapid response for incident situations. Organizations are often concerned with emergency incident response time in a disaster recovery, client impacting, or revenue losing incident. Organizations must be able to resolve these issues as fast as possible to prevent further impact on business processes. Having a UC system fully populated with names, phone numbers, email addresses, IM names, and access to video and voice can be a great benefit to organize incident response teams as fast as possible and ensure that these teams have all the information available when the incident occurs. This can be accomplished with automation systems and incident response processes to allow business teams to quickly establish communication to a number of required individuals by simple clicking a button or submitting a command for a certain escalation procedure. A fully integrated UC platform can be interfaced with to receive commands from an automation system and quickly establish communications with the proper individuals. Having these teams be able to quickly establish full communication regardless of presence allows the incident to be managed and solved through the best available open communication tunnels.

[edit] Who is it for?

Unified communications is very useful for knowledge workers, information workers, and service workers alike, many of whom may cross the lines between the three sectors on a daily or hourly basis, depending on the task and the client. With an increasingly mobile workforce, businesses are rarely centralized in one location. Unified communications facilitates this on-the-go, always-available style of communication. In addition, unified communications technology can be tailored to each person’s specific job or to a particular section of a company.[8]

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ Magic Quadrant for Unified Communications, 2007
  2. ^ [1]
  3. ^ History - Courtesy of Mark H. Turpin, Senior Consultant - Unified Communications, Calence, LLC
  4. ^ Gates launches Microsoft VoIP portfolio, CRN, October 16, 2007
  5. ^ Linux unified communications suite launches in beta, PC World, March 9th, 2008
  6. ^ Pleasant, Blair (2008-07-28). "What UC is and isn't". SearchUnifiedCommunications.com. http://searchunifiedcommunications.techtarget.com/generic/0,295582,sid186_gci1322973,00.html. Retrieved on 2009-04-01. 
  7. ^ Haskin, David. “The Brave but Speculative New World of Unified Communications.” www.computerworld.com, Sept. 26, 2007
  8. ^ Rybczynski, Tony. “UC For All Employees Transforms the Enterprise.” Business Communications Review, June 2007, pp. 30-34.
  9. ^ [2]
  10. ^ [3]
  11. ^ Microsoft, Nortel unveil ICA's first products
  12. ^ Covide, Ditch company already providing UC in 2003

[edit] External links

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