The unification of all communication devices inside a single platform offers huge advantages for businesses looking to streamline their operations, yet requires careful planning and management if it is to deliver the benefits it promises. Driven in large part by the rise in mobile working and the growing need for more flexibility across different communications devices, there has been growing demand for unified communications in recent years with legal firms, and government at the forefront of adopting the platforms, explains Martin Anwyll
The growth of the mobile work force is a key factor in the growing demand for unified communications, in fact a recent Forrester report revealed that 64 per cent of the 2,187 US and European companies surveyed, listed mobility support for employees as a ‘priority', and nearly one in five as a ‘critical priority' in 2008. Also, analyst firm Gartner has estimated that 46.6 million people are expected to be spending at least one day working at home by 2011. This means that businesses are shifting towards a decentralised workforce to reduce costly office space.
Increasingly, the impetus to ‘go green' in these energy conscious times has moved up nearly every business's agenda over the past few months and with the ever increasing fuel costs, the use of online and virtual meetings can significantly reduce business travel costs and lower an organisation's carbon footprint.
However, the unified communications network is an inherently more sophisticated and complex environment, making high quality service difficult to deliver. What are the key issues that managers need to consider in order to quickly identify and troubleshoot any issues and avoid costly downtime?
Unified communications comprises many interdependent and heterogeneous parts making it more difficult to ensure an acceptable and consistent quality of service. Poor quality of service can put the goals and business benefits of unified communications in jeopardy, for example, poor quality of communications is likely to deter a mobile workforce from using real-time communications and reducing any potential benefits. Managers must be able to quickly identify degradation in quality of service or, if any service falls over take the appropriate action. Without monitoring, time to resolution can be significantly impacted, resulting in a poor user experience, reduced productivity and ultimately, loss of business.
Unified Communications can offer an organisation new flexibility and manageability for employees that can deliver unprecedented levels of connection between the distributed workforce. Not only will unified communications help with unravelling bottlenecks, it supports closer collaboration across the business and provides the organisation with a competitive edge that enables employees to contact each other more quickly and eliminate any delays caused by the inability to reach key decision-makers. Poor quality of communications is likely to deter the mobile workforce, reducing any potential cost benefits that an organisation may experience.
There are usually several factors that contribute to a manager being unable to deliver high quality of service and these can range from IP networks not being ready for real-time communications to organisations employing VoIP technology from more than one VoIP vendor. Real-time communication solutions such as email, instant messaging and VoIP, rely upon consistent, stable and low-latency network connections. However, most existing networks are built upon technologies that were not originally designed to be consistent, stable and low-latency and new communication technologies are much less tolerant and prone to service issues.
Unified communications is usually multi-vendor by nature; however, mergers, acquisitions and fragmented purchasing processes mean that an organisation will deploy VoIP technology from more then one of the major VoIP vendors such as Cisco, Nortel and Avaya. There are very few management vendors that support multiple VoIP technologies. Of those vendors that do, it is rare that they are able to manage other unified communications solutions such as Microsoft Exchange, BlackBerry or other business applications.
Each different technology or application that supports unified communications tends to bring its own native management tool. These native management tools generally support a specific piece of the organisations infrastructure and not the service as a whole. This will usually result in holes in the unified communications management or a patchwork of disparate tools to address the management challenge.
The use of an enterprise real-time communications server, for example Microsoft OCS, enables the unified communications infrastructure to allow instant messaging, presence, audio-video conferencing and web conferencing functionalities but administrators should be aware that intermittent network problems can cause issues. For example, when network congestion causes dropped connections in conference calls or when poor call quality is detected from an OCS client to a non-OCS client.
Organisations that use an OCS platform in conjunction with another voice system must have a solution in place that allows them to have visibility of all major components so that they can effectively manage and monitor the unified communications environment. It is important that organisations are able to proactively anticipate potential problems before they have an impact on their core business.
Security also needs to be a priority in the buying equation. With technologies in place that only provides protection from existing and impending threats, the likelihood of a major and successful attack on unified communications systems is growing for one simple reason; end-user failure to implement security techniques properly. For example, traditional firewalls do not protect VoIP calls as voice packets must be encrypted and traverse a firewall without undue latency. Any network that ends with an IP address is vulnerable to unauthorised calls, spammers, information theft and other malicious activity by hackers and DoS (Denial of Service) attacks that can, at best, adversely impact call quality. In a worst-case scenario, the entire network can be at risk during a VoIP security breach.
In order to be effective from a security perspective, the unified communications management system must provide an automated security layer that monitors the entire unified communications environment in real time to increase protection levels and ensure layered defences. It should be capable of correlating security events and alert on security breaches and performing analysis and forensics - all in real time.
Organisations that are looking to deploy unified communications need visibility into the health of the entire communications platform and more importantly need to manage the service that it delivers. By using a comprehensive lifecycle management approach an organisation can successfully ensure that deployment, operation and continued roll-out of unified communication services is delivered at a high standard.
Unifying communications helps streamline business processes and improved connectivity has a direct influence on information sharing, productivity and efficiency. The task of unifying communication applications is actually the opposite of shifting to a single communications platform. Multiple, often unrelated systems must be linked together to appear seamless to the end user. The one unifying element is the underlying data network.
The process of planning, managing and improving begins before deployment and this means that prior to any new communications tools or technologies being used, the capacity of the network must be assessed to see whether it can cope with the anticipated communications traffic.
Once deployment has taken place, organisations must constantly monitor and manage the unified communications system and services. Monitoring should take place at the element level and from the perspective of the user. Taking a proactive approach can save an organisation's time and money by identifying problems before they have an impact on end users, freeing up time for managers to apply a more cost-effective solution. It is essential that organisations have the ability to quickly and easily troubleshoot issues; this requires tools and knowledge that are specific to unified communications technologies, especially those providing real-time communications.
Proactive assessment and monitoring tools provide organisations with the ability to generate comprehensive reports that detail the usage and performance of the various elements of the unified communications infrastructure. The ability to generate reports enables managers to adjust elements such as tracking calls, dial plans, gateway utilisation and external links to improve the service delivery.
Managing a unified communications system needs extensive visibility into the organisation's converged voice and data environment. Vendors offer management capabilities for fundamental unified communications technologies including VoIP, Microsoft Exchange Server, Active Directory and networking equipment. The ability to monitor, troubleshoot, report, diagnose and resolve events with one management solution enables an organisation to correlate events and take corrective or preventative action, effectively minimising resources and time to resolve issues.
The unified communications management market is young and immature. Many organisations are defining their own approach to unified communications and how it meets their specific needs. Organisations need to find a unified communications management solution that fits comfortably, with the flexibility to be tailored to the company's needs.
Business has always relied heavily on communications and organisations that have integrated business applications into the unified communications platform found that they were able to resolve customer issues faster whilst maintaining a higher quality of communication experience.
As communication platforms become more complex and integrated in nature, organisations require tools to assess, monitor, troubleshoot, and secure voice and data transactions. Organisations cannot afford to function in today's economy without the assurance of their communication systems' performance.
Martin Anwyll is Product Line Specialist, VoIP Solutions (EMEA) for NetIQ.