What is meant by Unified Communications?
The term “Unified Communications” or UC, describes a concept rather than a product. In essence it is the unification of various methods of communication so that the user can access them all via a single interface. UC brings together real time communication modes, such as Voice calls, Video calls, Desktop sharing, Instant Messaging and Presence, with none real-time communications such as eMail, Fax and Voicemail.
A simple example would be to “upgrade” an instant message chat to a voice call and then to a video call simply by clicking the appropriate call control icon on your PC. Another example would be, when transferring a call to a colleague, the system would indicate immediately if the colleague is:-
- in a meeting (it has checked their Outlook diary)
- on their mobile (the App on their smartphone has updated the system)
- away from their desk (their PC has been idle for 15 minutes) or just
- engaged on the phone
Because UC is the integration of so many different forms of communication, every vendor has their own take on what comprises UC. When investigating possible solutions, it is imperative to compare and contrast each vendor’s approach to UC. Those vendors who come from a Voice background, such as Mitel and Avaya, focus their UC on the voice element of communications and hang the other applications off that. More data centric suppliers, eg Microsoft, would focus more on the data side, ie focussing everything on Outlook.
As the market matures, the distinction between the various vendors reduces. Mitel et al provide solutions that integrate with Outlook, whereas Microsoft integrate with Lync (their voice and instant messaging solution).
If you are considering implementing UC in your business is it important to understand which communications modes you need access to now, and what is actually available currently and at what cost. Most, probably all, vendors will say that all communications modes will be available “soon”, but soon is never soon enough when it is a function you need. It is also very important to cost in the professional integration fees that would be required. For most SME’s, it is likely that the external resource required to move from the non voice version of Lync (included free with hosted Exchange) to voice enabled Lync (which would replace an internal phone system) would be prohibitively expensive. Building a UC solution based on an up to date implementation from Mitel, Avaya, Shoretel and the like would probably provide a highly usable solution.
Whilst mentioning MS Lync, it is important to note that hosted Lync does not provide viable access to the PSTN, ie it cannot establish voice calls with the outside world. At the time of writing (October 2014) there are only 12 SIP providers worldwide that can provide this capability, only one of which is based in the UK. Third party products do exist, but given the small number of suppliers, their services may be expensive.
The benefits of UC increase with the size of the organisation. A large multi site business would benefit from having “presence” information for a colleague who works 1000 miles away. Smaller businesses who use remote workers and disparate project teams could also benefit significantly from the right mix of UC components. The key point is that if you are looking to replace any part of your technology mix, you must always try to do it with an eye to the future. This means that the choice has to keep your options open so that more capability can be added in the future when a need is identified.
NLDC can help identify your needs, based on your business strategy and required benefits, such as collaboration, knowledge sharing and flexible working. We can help you to identify the most appropriate mix of technologies that can give your business the flexibility it needs at a price it can afford.