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Unified Communications
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UC Mag
Andrew Borg
Senior Research Analyst,

Aberdeen Group

Secure Real-Time Unified Communications: Safe Connections While On the Move

Unified communications holds enormous promise as a coherent, integrated approach to incorporating the full spectrum of business communications modalities, and as a direct path to cut through communications clutter resulting in accelerated time-to-action. It also offers a cost-effective way to connect the company more directly to its customers, employees to employees, and more tightly bind business partners and suppliers.


In the September 2009 Aberdeen Report "Unified Communications: Gaining a Competitive Advantage While on the Move," reducing human latency - the time delay in initiating and reaching a contact - was revealed as a key benefit of UC, resulting in measurably increased efficiency and improved customer intimacy.


UC enables optimization of communications routing between several modalities. Examples of UC include receiving voice messages in an e-mail inbox, making phone calls from a laptop computer, transferring calls between a smartphone and a desk phone, and using presence-enabled applications to determine whether the person to be reached is busy, available, in the office or the car, or not to be disturbed.


Because UC is ultimately about uniting today's disparate communication modes into an integrated whole, mobility always plays an enabling role. In fact, mobility is the one common denominator in every UC initiative. The recent emergence of the mobile device as the most reliable point of contact for an individual, along with the need to integrate the device into the organization's communications infrastructure, has become one of the primary drivers for increased UC adoption.


UC also can include the virtualization of all of an individual's contact points behind one number, one voice and email inbox, with simultaneous ring. UC also can go beyondsimultaneous ring with find me/follow me functionality, which automatically rings numbers for an individual based upon previously-defined actions and preferences depending on location, date, day, time of day, etc.


Real-time UC is that portion of the UC capabilities spectrum that typically takes place in real-time (synchronous) versus the usually time-delayed store-and-forward forms (asynchronous). Examples of real-time UC include standard voice telephony, VoIP, IP video, telepresence, instant messaging, presence and Web collaboration. Unlikethe asynchronous forms such as e-mail and voicemail, which are often secured using vendors' bundled security solutions, real-time UC is often not secured unless it is addressed by a third-party or add-on appliance, performing deep packet inspection, providing real-time encryption and decryption, detecting threats, and managing access control and associated UC security functions.


The technical challenges of encrypting and decrypting streaming or real-time media without introducing an unacceptable delay (processing latency) are significant. Few solutions available on the market today provide zero-latency, fully-encrypted, end-to-end, secure, real-time communications beyond the organization's firewall. Performing UC security at line-speed without unduly burdening the existing infrastructure is no small challenge.


This is precisely where the most significant security vulnerability resides - when the real-time content crosses over the public Internet in its routing path. An example of this is, when a mobile dual-mode smartphone uses VoIP via Wi-Fi to join a PBX conference call, or when an instant message is sent from an Internet cafe to a worker behind the firewall, or used remotely to determine presence.


The combination of mobility and real-time UC are typically the most-in-demand UC capabilities, and in many cases are the primary drivers for broader UC adoption within the enterprise. This underscores the business-critical nature of incorporating a comprehensive real-time UC security solution.


Real-time UC presents several difficult security challenges. A real-time UC content stream may convey a host of applications at any given moment - for example, voice, video and instant messaging. The security architecture must be able to differentiate among content streams in real-time, simultaneously applying the appropriate security policies to each stream.


As previously described, this must be accomplished without introducing perceptible processing latency. Processing latency creates unnatural pauses in voice conversations, or voice and video out of synchrony in video streams, either of which is unacceptable from a user-experience perspective.


In addition, the security architecture must support the increasing variety of endpoint devices in use: smartphones, laptops, desktops, netbooks, IP desk phones, IP video cameras, videoconferencing terminals, presence-enabled appliances and others.


UC has enormous potential to integrate multiple business communications modalities into well-integrated communications pathways to enhance knowledge sharing, streamline operations and efficiency, improve workforce collaboration, and increase customer responsiveness.


However, the lack of a comprehensive security solution for real-time unified communications undermines broader acceptance and penetration of UC within the enterprise. One major security lapse reverses years of progress. On the other hand, within a well-integrated, real-time, secure environment, trust in new communications modalities can be maintained, and UC's promise of measurable efficiency gains may actually be achieved.


Andrew Borg is a senior research analyst at Aberdeen Group (www.aberdeen.com).

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