ITEXPO begins in:   New Coverage :  Asterisk  |  Fax Software  |  SIP Phones  |  Small Cells

Feature Article
June 2001


Business Advantages Of Unified Communication


[ Go Right To: CTI: Strong Enough For A Portal? ]

Voice mail is without question one of the most significant communication technologies of the past decade. It enabled business people -- and ultimately consumers -- to access messages from virtually any location where a telephone was present. And like any "killer app," its rise in popularity created significant advantages for users, however it also created several dilemmas: How to manage messages based on the amount of time a user has at any given moment, and which messages are the most critical at that time.

In fact, a recent study published in The Wall Street Journal proclaimed that working professionals handle more than 200 incoming and outgoing messages of all types per day. Considering the amount of time it takes to retrieve these voice mails, in addition to e-mail, faxes, and instant messages -- let alone analyzing the content and responding -- there is clearly a need for a solution that consolidates all of this information so that knowledge workers can manage it more efficiently.

Unified messaging builds on the proven functionality and value of voice mail by integrating it with other messaging channels that include e-mail and fax in a single mailbox that offers expanded message and contact management capabilities. By implementing a unified messaging solution, users have the ability to access, manage, and reply to all messages from a PC, touch-tone telephone (wireline or wireless), or PDA from virtually anywhere in the world.

Unified messaging has proven to be a powerful tool in helping knowledge workers organize and manage not only voice mail, but also other non-real time communications such as e-mail and fax. Currently, enterprise communication providers are working toward complementing the functionality of unified messaging solutions with technologies such as collaboration, personal assistant, and mobility applications to create a unified communication experience.

Unified messaging and unified communication are an outgrowth of the success of voice mail, which continues to enjoy a must-have status in today's business environment. As companies' needs evolve and change, these real-time, near-real-time, and non-real-time elements will form powerful building blocks for the execution of unified communication strategies. Enterprises must design communication to fit their business models and balance the need for standards-based software and IP-enabled hardware with their need to maximize return on investments and minimize disruption and risk.

Making The Case To Unify
Workers can spend up to 58 percent (approximately four hours) of their workday away from their desks. In other words, they are away from their traditional offices, unable to take calls, check voice mail, or read e-mail for a block of time that would take up the entire morning and the lunch hour of the workday. These numbers can increase exponentially when applied to executives and salespeople, who typically spend most of their time on the road. Being out of touch can mean risking relationships that are increasingly essential in today's customer-centric economy.

To remain competitive, an enterprise must constantly improve its communication abilities by enhancing communication tools for its workforce, customers, and partners. Efficient communication drives customer responsiveness and advances employee productivity. This results in increased satisfaction, retention, and loyalty for both customers and employees.

Taking Step One
To date, accessibility to multiple applications beyond messaging has been the barrier to realizing the full benefits of unified communication. Portal technologies, however, have the potential to change that by enabling "anytime, anywhere" access to not only messaging applications, but also additional communications functions and collaboration technologies, creating true unified communication.

Imagine this business scenario: A global customer accesses a Web site and clicks to send e-mail to the sales department with a question on a pending contract, which is included as an attachment. The salesperson is on the road and is notified on her cell phone -- her "Communication Enabled Portal" -- of the urgent message. Using text-to-speech capabilities, she listens to the customer's e-mail. The question requires help from a business partner and product manager in two other locations -- and help from her assistant who works from home.

Switching over to the "Multimedia Collaboration" function on the portal, the sales person uses voice dialing to dynamically set up an audio conference call with all parties to collaborate on the response. The business partner provides the information needed and drops off the call. The sales rep's assistant shares and edits the document with the product manager in real-time data collaboration session and then sends the revised contract, along with a voice message, to the customer as an e-mail attachment. The customer is very satisfied with the rapid service received and the salesperson has one less transaction to worry about when she arrives back at the office.

Once a company puts its unified communication strategy in place and begins to design and implement a "Communications Enabled Portal" that meets its business needs, the company can begin to realize the benefits of having a single server-based or Web-based message box. This is where voice mail continues to play a major role in a unified network. Customers, partners, and employees still need and choose to leave messages -- after all, humans are not going to keep their devices turned on 24x7. However, unified communication enables the receiver to react to any message at any time regardless of format in which it was sent, including voice mail. For example workers can:

  • Respond to customers with speed, ensuring excellent and consistent service. With the ability to access and manage all messages seamlessly using their choice of a PC, telephone, PDA, or Web browser, employees save time, allowing them to be more responsive to customers.
  • Simplify collaboration for better, faster decisions. Unified communications can speed response time by enabling users to listen to e-mail messages over the phone via text-to-speech conversion and reply instantly, in turn enhancing the convenience of checking e-mail by having it act more like a traditional voice mail system.
  • Send and receive fax messages with a PC, streamlining processes and increasing accessibility.
  • Generate voice mail messages as e-mail attachments that can be sent to anyone with an Internet address, enhancing the ability to communicate with traditional e-mail-only users.
  • Reply in the medium of choice, allowing users with a preference for e-mail or voice mail to use the application and device most comfortable or convenient for them.
  • Work with compound messages, such as forwarding e-mail or fax messages with a voice introduction; or embedding voice messages into e-mails, adding personalization and emphasis to any message.

Put simply, unified communication enables organizations to operate more efficiently no matter where users access the system -- at their primary office, at remote locations, or when they are mobile.

Choosing A Solution Today
One of the key strategies for implementing a cost-effective unified communication system is interoperability. A good unified communication platform should integrate easily into the company's existing infrastructure. For example, businesses that have made significant investments in either their voice messaging infrastructure or their collaborative environments should identify a solution that can support it.

The right solution will provide scalable, open systems architecture capable of supporting present and future communications applications. Whether a company is using a PBX or IP-based communications infrastructure, a good unified communication solution should be capable of extending an organization's reach and provide a new set of tools designed to positively impact the bottom line. When evaluating different solutions, look for ones that offer a full range of dynamic options such as the abilities to:

  • Answer PBX-forwarded telephone calls and play a personalized greeting;
  • Forward or transfer calls or record the caller's message and store it on the user's unified message box;
  • Detect fax calls and automatically transfer them to a third-party fax server that places the document in the user's unified message box; and
  • Support both small and large sites through a scalable architecture.

Positive Returns Tomorrow
Unified communication's potential return on investment lies in its ability to support revenue growth and market leadership. If Company A doesn't respond to inquiries fast enough, the customer is a mouse click or phone call away from doing business with Company B. Therefore, handled separately, unanswered voice mail, e-mail, and fax messages can present a liability. For example, what good is a cell phone to a company representative on the road when an urgent e-mail arrives from a high-priority client? The short answer is that it isn't. However using unified communication solutions, the same company representative can listen to that message using a cell phone and respond to it immediately anywhere, at anytime.

This type of best-in-class service makes a strong impression not only on customers, but the bottom line. Businesses know now that it costs five to seven times less to maintain a customer relationship than it does to get a customer to come back. In addition, customers who receive timely responses are more likely to remain loyal, purchasing more and bringing repeat business in the future. A good unified communication solution can save 30 minutes of productive time per day, per employee. For example in an enterprise where managers earn $50K annually, directors $100K and executives $200K, that translates into an annual savings of $3,125 per manager, $6,250 per director, and $12,500 per executive.

Is unified messaging the end of voice mail? No. When implemented in a scalable and interoperable solution, unified messaging is a pliable technology with lasting power that can provide a building block for future unified communication capabilities. Combined unified communication capability will heighten businesses' ability to respond to customers with speed and quality. It will also simplify collaboration for faster and better decisions. Unified communication will help make lives easier, more mobile, and more efficient, and when the right solution is implemented, it can be done with minimal risks and entry expense. In short, unified communication will drive responsiveness, competitive advantage, and productivity.

Scott Stone is currently vice president of Solutions Management at Avaya Inc. Avaya also offers professional services for customer and enterprise relationship management and value-added services for the outsourcing of messaging and other portions of an enterprise's communications system. 

[ Return To The June 2001 Table Of Contents ]

CTI: Strong Enough For A Portal?


Feature-rich CTI platforms are shaping up as a key element to success in the unified messaging portal arena today. Cost pressures and time-to-market needs have all but ruled out deployment of alternative PBX type systems as a viable option. Such legacy platforms offer all the resources needed to support thousands of simultaneous users. The addition of new applications or features, however, can be a timely and cost prohibitive exercise. Service differentiation and competitive pricing models are therefore both difficult to implement within these environments.

The Scalability Question
One central question to answer over the coming months, however, is this: Can traditional CTI (computer-telephony integration) architectures deliver enough scalability and system flexibility to handle the peak demand cycles of an ASP (application service provider)? How this scalability issue is addressed will likely go far in determining some of the winners and losers in emerging unified messaging portal markets. Traditional CTI systems have long delivered improved customer service and the more efficient use of resources within CPE environments. The emerging unified messaging paradigm, however, places a whole new set of requirements on hardware and software used to build new applications as well as deliver services.

Personal unified messaging portals provide a standards-based e-communication system that offers a seamless interface to individual contacts, information, or programs as well as all the intelligence and integration necessary to make Microsoft's .net computing paradigm a reality today. To support this new environment, CTI platforms will need to break with the bounds of traditional thinking. The goal must be to move towards a next-generation architecture with independently scalable subsystems capable of easily and seamlessly getting onboard the IP power curve.

Real-time voice processing operating systems (VPOS) form the core of these next-generation architectures. These operating systems allow independently developed applications to run on the same DSP. The combination of applications loaded onto each DSP can be determined at run time rather than being statically configured, and is limited only by available real time and memory. VPOSs can also dynamically allocate each instance of an application to one of up to 256 voice channels and more, depending on the needs of the application developer and service provider.

These capabilities open up some intriguing prospects for scaling CTI platforms to meet the needs of unified messaging portal providers. Constantly shifting user demands, for example, can be easily met by adjusting how many instances of the same application run across multiple voice channels at any point in time. Rather than statically allocating a certain number of channels to each application when the system is initially configured, service providers can simply use a GUI front end to deliver more channels for one application over another. Since the VPOS is able to load only those applications needed at any point in time, new services or features can be added without the need for additional hardware. Service providers can do more with less expense and complexity.

The need to support additional voice channels within this architecture can be easily handled by adding more DSPs rather than extra resource cards. Since most chassis can support only a limited number of resource cards, system-wide channel densities can therefore be increased at a substantial cost advantage.

Allocation Without The Crystal Ball
Next-generation CTI architectures essentially do away with the need to statically allocate CPU resources, voice processing capabilities, and individual ports to each and every CTI application. Such traffic engineering calculations were essential just a few short years ago. Service providers that wanted to deploy CTI would need to first gaze into their mystical crystal ball. They could then arrive at a complex series of "best guess" estimates as to how many customers would need what kind of access to how many applications at any given point in the day. These numbers would then allow engineers to bang resources into each and every card. Changes in demand for one application over another, of course, threw this entire cumbersome architecture off balance. This makes it totally unsuitable for the hosted application service model.

Optimized CTI systems today deliver full flexibility at a multi-chassis level to shift and share resources on-the-fly. For hosted ASPs, this means that CTI systems within large centers can be designed to scale in all dimensions of an application over multiple hardware platforms. The same system within smaller centers can also be collapsed into a single chassis, with all the same feature rich suite of services and scalability potential.

System-wide resources from an application standpoint within this architecture appear almost as a virtual hardware and software pool running across multiple CTI chassis. Where this reaches its true industry standard potential is with the emergence of a specification called Compact Packet Switched Backplane (cPSB). This new telecom bus architecture basically maps existing switched Ethernet/IP networks directly onto the backplane of each CTI chassis. An end-to-end IP architecture offers significant cost and system integration advantages over other technologies like ATM for an inter-chassis connect schemes. Standards such as RSVP and MPLS both offer a way to achieve this. Both standards have attracted substantial industry resources, time and effort over the past several years.

Telephony systems -- that are increasingly more dependable, smaller, and cheaper to own and use -- will quickly become an industry imperative for most unified messaging portal providers. cPSB architectures should be able to meet these requirements by facilitating the optimal pooling and sharing of DSP resources and physical ports.

Get On The Bus
In general, the adoption of IP as a ubiquitous bus technology will go a long way toward easing many of the system bottlenecks that currently hinder the widespread deployment of CTI platforms outside of CPE environments. Next-generation chipsets will emerge to fully exploit the new bus architectures. Developers in the interim should look to architectures that use today's more powerful switching silicon. These chips can help minimize bottlenecks that may exist in local-to-local and local-to-CT Bus switching. Most importantly, systems should be built from the ground up to support highly robust DSP resource pooling and flexible allocation of resources. This will allow the development of CTI systems that combine all the best elements of today's LAN power curve with the scalability of the most ubiquitous router network into a single IP-based architecture.

Ron Kennedy is vice president of Marketing at Pika Technologies, Inc., a designer and manufacturer of telephony building blocks that empower the development of next-generation network applications.

[ Return To The June 2001 Table Of Contents ]

Today @ TMC
Upcoming Events
ITEXPO West 2012
October 2- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas
The World's Premier Managed Services and Cloud Computing Event
Click for Dates and Locations
Mobility Tech Conference & Expo
October 3- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas
Cloud Communications Summit
October 3- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas