Cover Story

Unified Communications for the SMB: New Gear, Cloud-based Solutions Help Make UC More Accessible to a Wider Group

By Paula Bernier, Executive Editor, IP Communications Magazines

Unified communications can enable small and medium businesses to increase productivity. Now new offers make it easier and more affordable for SMBs to take advantage of this important UC benefit.

"We're in a recovery, and SMBs are starting to buy again, albeit with a critical eye," says Larry Levenberg (News - Alert), vice president and general manager of national channels at NEC Corp. of America.

Why UC for the SMB?

Levenberg says SMBs are particularly well positioned to realize the benefits of UC given how they tend to operate.

"Employee roles at SMBs tend to be a lot less defined than they are in larger firms," he explains. "As a result, SMB employees perform different tasks that cover many different areas of responsibility relying - for the most part - on disparate, antiquated systems to manage and transition between them all. By breaking down communication silos, UC makes it easy for SMB employees who wear different hats to switch from one task - or role - to another and get more done, faster."

NEC (News - Alert) this spring introduced significant enhancements to its UC solutions. Its "UC for Business" updates include simplified installation and user-based licensing, and the ability for the solution to be packaged as an embedded application on NEC's SV8000 communications servers and UNIVERGE Sphericall. NEC starting early this summer also will deliver pre-packaged UC and contact center options for 50 or 100 users, including Contact Center Agent desktop; Executive Insight (with Microsoft (News - Alert) Outlook integration); rich presence; and voicemail /UM.

"Businesses and their employees are bombarded on a daily basis with communications from a variety of devices and applications, such as IM and video on their desktop, SMS on their mobile phone and e-mail in their inbox," says Jay Krauser, general manager, sales support and engineering at NEC. "The enhancements we've released for UC for Enterprise, UNIVERGE Sphericall and UC for Business are designed to help people orchestrate their world of communications."

Meanwhile, Samsung (News - Alert) Business Communication Systems recently introduced for SMBs a line of VoIP telephones called the OfficeServ SMT-iSeries, and two integrated communications applications, OfficeServ Communicator Basic and OfficeServ Communicator Professional with Messenger. The new Samsung Multimedia Telephones, a.k.a. SMTs, offer small to mid-sized businesses a range of advanced features such as video calling and a visual phone book.

"With VoIP solutions continuing to gain in popularity, especially among small to mid-sized businesses, savvy users are now looking beyond cost savings alone and focusing on how these phones can optimize their operations," says Doug Wonson (News - Alert), vice president and general manager of Samsung BCS. "Understanding this trend, we launched our latest line of feature-rich OfficeServ SMT-iSeries phones to coincide with the debut of Samsung's two new affordable integrated Communicator applications."

Samsung OfficeServ Communicator Basic enables voice, video and data applications to tap contacts from Microsoft Outlook. OfficeServ Communicator Professional with Messenger adds to Communicator Basic instant messaging and collaborative capabilities such as presence awareness and whiteboarding from the desktop. Both applications can operate in unified client mode, as a softphone, or via desk phone, and can be changed on the fly.

Hosted UC

To make UC more accessible and manageable for small and medium companies, hosted UC solutions are becoming more common. And, according to forecasts, these types of services are expected to see significant growth in the near future.

Nemertes Research, author of a recent report called "Managed and Hosted Unified Communications (News - Alert)," expects UC-based managed services to double or even triple by next year.

Nemertes Research, author of a recent report called "Managed and Hosted Unified Communications," expects UC-based managed services to double or even triple by next year.

"The increasingly virtual workforce has led to growth in adoption of applications such as VoIP, unified messaging, videoconferencing, Web conferencing, and document sharing," says Nemertes.

Speaking to this trend, UC service provider Alteva (News - Alert) this spring announced a new partnership with BroadSoft and Microsoft to deliver hosted UC services for small businesses.

Alteva has developed a way to interconnect its hosted voice and messaging services with the Microsoft Communication Services product suite, including Microsoft Exchange, SharePoint and Office Communications Server. But this is more than a simple interconnectivity announcement, as "Microsoft is actively pushing the capability of a fully integrated communications platform by partnering with Alteva, Comcast (News - Alert), and Go Daddy, among others, to provide more productive communications, improve employee productivity and enhance office efficiency," according to the companies.

"By allowing for more fluid and direct collaboration between employees, suppliers, partners and clients, a unified communications solution helps businesses of any size to streamline communications," says Alteva CEO William Bumbernick. "It also helps reduce costs and minimize delays to assure faster interaction with anyone important to the organization, even if they are not physically at the same location. By working together with an innovative company like Microsoft, we are now able to provide a proven and reliable, fully integrated communications solution."

Microsoft Communication Services allows workers from any location to access and use corporate applications and content such as e-mail and customer information, documents, calendars, collaboration tools and more. When integrated with Alteva's hosted VoIP, customers can enjoy voice-enabled Outlook calendars and e-mail, phone presence, vendor bill consolidation, scalability, increased control, business continuity and mitigation of technology obsolescence, according to the companies.

Alteva recently launched a Web store that caters to organizations with less than 25 users that want to shop for UC solutions. Through the site, the company offers four UC packages targeted at small businesses (see chart for more details).

The Qwest for UC

Qwest Communications this spring also introduced a new UC solution. Based on Cisco (News - Alert) technology, it's called Qwest iQ Hosted Unified Communication Service.

Eric Bozich, vice president of Qwest product management, says the service provider has for several years offered a hosted UC solution based on Cisco's call manager. But for that service, the UC gear sits at the customer premises.

That model works really well for larger customers with thousands of employees, such as state governments, organizations in the higher education space and large businesses with dispersed environments, he says. The new Qwest iQ Hosted Unified Communication Service, meanwhile, locates the UC hardware and software within a data center or centers, he says. That way, the cost can be shared among various customers, making it possible for Qwest to make high-quality UC solutions available to much smaller customers.

Arizona State University out of Tempe is the first customer to adopt Qwest iQ HUCS. It plans to use the platform across its four campuses to serve more than 70,000 students, faculty and staff.

Bozich says that initially Qwest iQ HUCS targets businesses with 50 to 100 employees per location, but could involve customers with several locations, and can address even businesses with as many as 5,000 users at headquarters. However, in the future, he adds, Qwest expects to bring this solution to even smaller customers, as the platform gains more efficiencies the more it is used.

The service delivers integrated voicemail and e-mail, presence, IM and voice. Videoconferencing, integrated with Outlook, also can be a component of the service. While Qwest iQ HUCS, for which the PBX (News - Alert) sits in the cloud, only requires that customers have IP phones or softclients to use the service, not all customers are ready to make a flash cut to IP-based solutions, adds Bozich. For those organizations, Qwest can integrate dial plans and voice messaging and the like for hybrid environments in which some offices have IP-based communications while others use PSTN technology. UC