You may already be using unified communications

On the ‘basic’ end of the scale solutions take a wide array of forms, often entailing point products. Most small organisations or individuals dabbling in UC at this level are at an early stage of their adoption, and many are not completely aware of the potential of what they’re engaging in and where to next with the technology.

January 25, 2012

By Bennie Langenhoven, Managing Executive, Tellumat Communication Solutions

Many companies and individuals already use a form of unified communications, whether rudimentary or quite advanced.

Basic dabblers

On the ‘basic’ end of the scale solutions take a wide array of forms, often entailing point products. Most small organisations or individuals dabbling in UC at this level are at an early stage of their adoption, and many are not completely aware of the potential of what they’re engaging in and where to next with the technology.

For organisations, it will be useful to start with an Internet Protocol-based (IP) PBX, which can form the basis of future add-ons. Begin by adding IP phones, which can be replaced by another vendor’s handsets, if need be.

Knowing what you want

At the next, more advanced level, the unified communications market is more settled and informed. Companies at this level already have an IP PBX, into which they can begin to integrate the UC elements that are right for their business. Since IP is a universal standard, the following components can be added piecemeal and be from different vendors:

• Unified messaging, such as voicemail-to-e-mail, fax-to-e-mail or fax from the desktop

• Desktop productivity integration, allowing the aforementioned unified messaging, and also identifying callers and responding accordingly

• Remote and home extensions, allowing staff to make and receive calls using their mobiles while appearing to be at their desk extension. With directory integration, they can even find colleagues on their smartphone directory and transfer calls to them!

• Presence management allows users to set their availability and location, and even to allow others to see their meetings, which helps with scheduling.

• Other than that, UC offers many exciting features, such as videoconferencing and instant messaging.

And finding it

But where to find it all? The advanced UC industry is contested by major enterprise communications and collaboration vendors, including Shoretel, Cisco, Microsoft, Avaya, Siemens and Mitel.

• Microsoft has the benefit of being pervasive in the enterprise, but suffer the drawback of vendor complexity in its UC environment. Should the customer want a voice gateway, IP phones or call centre platform, they will be referred to a third-party vendor. For the same reason, support is a cumbersome affair.

• Others like Cisco have the benefit of coming from an IP networking infrastructure background, with associated network application expertise for a fuller value proposition. But as with Microsoft, the complexity of a Cisco solution is difficult to manage, scale and replicate for redundancy.  The cost of maintaining a Cisco Solution is also often prohibitive.

• Traditional PBX vendors like Avaya and Siemens approach UC from the vantage point of a background in voice. But the conversion of their portfolio into Internet Protocol-based (IP) infrastructure, devices and applications has made for complexity of a different sort. Many add-on third-party components have been integrated into the mix, and are often charged separately.  The different components also mostly have different management interfaces, which makes it expensive and complex to manage and maintain.

• Digital natives like ShoreTel have shunned complexity by building pure IP-based communications systems from the ground up. Instead of charging for each piece of new functionality, the IP PBX and phones are part of the basic functionality while most of the Unified Communications features are included free of charge. With a uniquely simple distributed architecture, redundancy is a simple matter of adding another appliance for every new site. Unlike complex configurations, redundancy does not require replicating the entire system.  On top of that, all components of the entire Unified Communications solution are managed through a single management interface.

Where do you fit in?

So where are you on the evolutionary path to full UC? Are you ready to go beyond consumer-grade solutions? The answer to that is known only to you.

If you are, which of the abovementioned vendors is for you? There is no right or wrong, merely appropriate or inappropriate for your needs. Some customers prefer to go with Microsoft as an enterprise standard, in which case integration with Microsoft is a must for the add-ons this vendor doesn’t have. Other companies may trust a time-honoured brand, while others yet may go with hard comparisons concerning cost, features and technology – which may benefit disruptive newcomers.

Invite proposals from the vendors you would shortlist, read analyst reports and research the proper vendor selection criteria.

* Tellumat is the South African distributor of ShoreTel systems.