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Unified Communications in the Enterprise

By: Richard “Zippy” Grigonis

Unified Communications (News - Alert) (UC) is the descendant of desktop-bound, single in-box unified messaging systems of the 1990s. UC adds to the mix Presence technology that enables you to determine what everyone in your organization is doing (On the phone? In a meeting? Out to lunch? Just plain busy?). UC also is increasingly becoming “Mobile UC”, a vital part of the toolkit of every road warrior who must now survive by foraging the business landscape. Soon social networking tools will also become a major interface to UC communications solutions. (Even now, Facebook (News - Alert) participants can receive emails, view the presence status of others in their network and can gather other pertinent information with a single interface.)

Most heartening is the fact that unified communications vendors are themselves using UC internally. (It’s amusing that, in the whole history of Computer Telephony magazine (1994-2004), we never actually used computer telephony, aside from a RightFax server and a Repartee voice mail system!)

For example, Spanlink Communications, led by their forward-looking CEO Brett Shockley (News - Alert), uses their UC technology internally. Eric Lebow, Vice President of Business Transformation at Spanlink, lives 32 miles from work (a 45 minute trip each way). With unified communications, and the ability to tie his telephone, email, voicemail, instant messaging, desktop video, web collaboration, presence and mobile phone together, he is able to be in a full office environment regardless of his location – at the office, home or even that the local Starbucks. By working from home only two days a week, Eric says he’s able to reclaim three hours of productivity per week and about $1,200 per year in gas money. (That’s a lot of coffee.)


UC on the Move

Critical Links (News - Alert) of Fairfield, New Jersey, develops and markets edgeBOX, a multi-service gateway they call “the first Unified Communications Appliance” and “Office-in-a-Box” that provides all the vital voice and data communication services required by Small and Medium-Sized Businesses (SMBs), branch offices, remote workers and telecommuters with the same voice, data and IT capabilities in an office system so as to increase productivity. The edgeBOX can replace at least six separate devices that would normally handle VoIP/IP-PBX, VPNs, security, NAC, QoS, WiFi (News - Alert) access, as well as a fax server, web server, email server, print server and data storage. It’s available on hardware platforms that support up to 300 users, with different form factors and a broadband interfaces such as BRI/PRI (T1/E1), FX0/FXS, Ethernet, etc. Critical Links serves SMBs through a global network of VARs, System Integrators, OEMs and Service Providers.

Recently, Critical Links announced edgeMobility, a new set of features for the edgeBOX that enhance its communication and networking capabilities to serve the growing mobile workforce

Critical Links’ Abdul Kasim (News - Alert), Vice President of Global Marketing and Business Development, says, “Our new set of features for the edgeBOX specifically target the mobile worker market segment. Increasingly, many employees are working remotely or on the road, especially in the case of SMBs. We’ve discovered that many of them wear ‘multiple hats’ and are frequently on the road visiting customers, suppliers and so forth. For them, the important thing is to stay connected to the customer, because the customer experience is increasingly becoming an important element. So, we’ve developed features for the edgeBOX that enable such roving employees to stay connected and be reachable at anytime.”

“edgeMobility includes such features as Follow Me/Find Me, which forwards unanswered calls to another designated number,” says Kasim. “It also supports twinning, which enables both work phones and cell phones to ring simultaneously.”

The edgeMobility feature set also includes capabilities familiar to users of major PBX (News - Alert) systems, such as Direct Inward System Access (DISA), a function that allows teleworkers to dial into the office system from a remote location and make calls as if they were present in the office. This allows for use of in-house dialing plans and placing toll calls, among other things. Moreover, voicemail transcription is supported (it can be sent to a designated email address); and Fax2mail enables faxes to be received via email. Email push technology allows mail to be read from Blackberry, Nokia (News - Alert) and other handsets.

A groupware package called edgeExchange can also run on the edgeBOX which can do PDA synchronization, thus allowing mobile employees to share calendars, contacts, resources and tasks. Remote worker VoIP and other traffic (e.g. applications and file sharing) moves via a secure VPN.

Digium (News - Alert) is the company that got the open source telephony software ball rolling with their Asterisk IP PBX. Wanting to offer a top-notch customer premise solution with a superb GUI , Digiuim acquired Switchvox (News - Alert) in 2007, which had taken the open source Asterisk GPL code and had added their own proprietary code.

Digium’s Product Line Director, Tristan Degenhardt, says, “We’ve releasing a new version of Switchvox that’s focused on unified communications, and more specifically on web-aware UC. In the past, we’ve offered different components of UC — certainly Asterisk (News - Alert) can be made to do just about anything, since it is open source. But what we’ve doing with Switchvox is tying all of that together into a package that is UC-capable and consists of more than just the typical things that you’d think of UC, such as voicemail-to-email, fax and chat. The web-aware component enters the picture when you consider how all of these different communications methods are great, and they all know what you’re doing — in the best case scenario your PBX ‘knows’ that you’re on the phone, so it shouldn’t be forward calls out to your cell phone. It knows all about your communications components and what they’re doing, but with Switchvox you can now pull in data from the Internet. It enables end users to really make better decisions.”

“For example, when I see a phone call coming in from my company, the company’s name appears on the phone along with the phone number, which is nothing new,” says Degenhardt. “But with the Switchvox Switchboard, I also get the web-aware component, which can stick a pin on a map, thus showing me where they’re calling me from, and it pops up data from our CRM database about who they are, and it notifies me that we had a call scheduled at this time. I can also see any other data that might be pulled out of the system. For example, when our tech support people get a call they may see completely different kinds of notes displayed, with reminders and so forth. So it can pull in data from outside of the internal system, from Google (News - Alert) Maps, say, or Google itself. Or if you’re running a call center and you need to immediately do a credit check automatically, it can do that too. It’s about all of those things you would be frantically doing in the background if you could while taking a call from a person whom you’re attempting to identify and figure out how to best help them. So we tend to categorize this as a web-aware communications solution, not just a typical phone solution. It resembles a sort of mash-up middleware methodology. The API is simple — it takes only a few minutes or even less for me to add a capability so that the phone system can, say, Google your caller ID name automatically when you call me.”

Just Like Being There

Unified communications relies on broadband, and end-to-end broadband connections can support high fidelity, “HD Audio” audio codecs. Companies such as AudioCodes – whose wideband audio VoIPerfectHD encoder as we went to press is being considered by Microsoft (News - Alert) for use in the Office Communicator – will be releasing products in early 2009, many ending up in the audio components of UC suites.

Alan Percy (News - Alert), Director of Market Development for Audiocodes, says, “The time is right for HD VoIP. Due to the growing penetration of IP in both enterprise and consumer markets, the foundation is now in place to operate in an all-IP environment, allowing the use of HD VoIP to dramatically improve the voice quality. HD VoIP delivers dramatically improved quality because these codecs increase the sample rate from 8 kHz used in the PSTN to 16 kHz. The side effect of increased sampling is that much more of the high and low frequencies in human speech are captured and transmitted to the listener. You can hear the difference between ‘Fifty’ and ‘Fifteen’ on an HD VoIP call, where they are very hard to tell apart on a standard PSTN narrow-band call.”

“The AudioCodes (News - Alert) HD VoIP initiative is based on industry standards that include SIP and an array of standard voice coding formats including G.722, G.722.2, G.729.1, G.711.1 and selected proprietary coders including Microsoft’s Real Time Audio [RTA],” says Percy. “These standards are in line with other manufacturers that make IP phones, tele-presence systems and software applications. For HD to work, it must be based on standards that all the manufacturers agree upon. No sense starting another HD-DVD / Blu-Ray war.”

“We believe enterprises will be quick to adopt HD VoIP within their networks as Microsoft Office Communicator 2007 penetrates the market,” says Percy. “OCS and its RTA voice coder give users an opportunity to experience HD at the desktop.”

“At the same time, we think HD VoIP will gain early adoption in the smaller, more agile service provider space, allowing them to differentiate their services from the ‘big guys’,” says Percy. “Up until now, all the legacy and VoIP service providers have delivered virtually the same voice quality and therefore have had to differentiate their services in areas other than the actual product you actually buy – voice communications. Most of the differentiation today is accomplished with billing tricks like ‘Friends and Family’ billing or additional service like three-way calling or voice mail. With HD VoIP, service providers can finally deliver a superior product that customers can hear the difference and would be willing to pay extra to use.”

“Based on the initial feedback from our partners and our experience inside AudioCodes, once you hear it, you’ll never go back,” beams Percy.

The Mercy of Quality

Adopting such high quality sound codecs and combining different forms of bandwidth-hungry real-time media on hybrid networks can lead to concerns over Quality of Service (QoS) and the more ineffable, subjective Quality of Experience (QoE) — a term championed by Psytechnics (News - Alert), the master provider of software solutions for voice and video performance management in IP communications applications. Both service providers and Enterprises use Psytechnics’ Experience Manager solution to augment conventional data and IP network management applications, by monitoring, managing and generally improving IP telephony, video and UC in both fixed and mobile environments. The Experience Manager can deliver specific performance and diagnostic visibility on a per user, per call basis, measuring and diagnosing the actual user experience. It identifies specific issues that many other solutions can’t detect, such as echo, noise and distortion. Experience Manager also aggregates user and quality metrics for SLA compliance reporting and trending.

Psytechnics’ Vice President of Marketing, Joe Frost, says, “In November 2008 we announced our most recent major release, which can handle video conferencing performance management too. We’ve been tracking the evolution the UC industry. There’s much debate about where on the road many enterprises are in terms of unified communications. Almost all of them start on their journey to UC by installing IP telephony. They then tend to overlay applications on top of that or integrate IP telephony into other applications as they evolve towards full-blown UC. Depending on who you talk to or whatever survey you read, the next major application to be deployed following VoIP is Presence or unified messaging. Both are interdependent and there’s not too much difference between the two. Most of the larger enterprises are still having problems coping with being able to manage larger deployments of just the VoIP side of UC. That’s great for us because fixing that is our business. But it is fair to say that most large enterprises and most managed service providers have recognized that they have a hole in their arsenal of tools in terms of being able to have a good level of visibility on how any given application is performing and how well a user is making use of the application, which is his or her application ‘experience’. Existing tools are too inward-looking and just focus on QoS in the internal infrastructure. Fortunately, we offer a more expansive product.” IT

Richard Grigonis is Executive Editor of TMC (News - Alert)’s IP Communications Group.

 

The following companies were mentioned in this article:

AudioCodes – (www.audiocodes.com)

Critical Links – (www.critical-links.com)

Digium – (www.digium.com)

Psytechnics – (www.psytechnics.com)

Spanlink (News - Alert) Communications – (www.spanlink.com)

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