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Unified Communications Magazine July 2007                                                                                                                Volume 1 / Number 1

 

 

From IP Communications to

Unified Communications


By Richard “Zippy” Grigonis, Feature Articles

 

Years ago, my former boss had a “right-hand man” named Rose. If you wanted to know where the boss was, Rose knew. If you wanted to send the boss a file, Rose knew that he was in a meeting and didn’t have his laptop with him, so instead of emailing a file to him you’d have to settle for a voice call on his cell phone. Rose knew that once the boss let her know he was back at his hotel in the afternoon, you could then send him a fax.

All wealthy and successful people have a Rose, an intelligent assistant. The rest of us have had to figure things out for ourselves, at least until recently. Indeed, the difficulties have increased since we all have more and more ways of communicating with each other: desktop phones, PC softphones, instant messaging, IP phones, email, faxes, cellphones, collaborative whiteboards, PDAs, videoconferencing equipment, pagers, text messages, and on and on. Each of these deal with different media and have differing bandwidth requirements.

But wait, you say. It’s true that in the past applications were ‘siloed’. If you bought, say, an H.263/ISDN-based videoconferencing system, it wasn’t going to ‘converge’ with anything else — or even interoperate with a competing H.323-based videoconferencing system, for that matter. Whole dedicated networks were built for the exclusive use of specific devices such as the analog phone, each with separate costs and management methodologies. Heck, there were even subnetworks dedicated to particular devices, such as the old hard-wired PBX in your office that communicated solely with the PBX vendor’s digital phone sets. Moves, Adds and Changes (MACs) were a big deal, even if you were moving just 20 feet to a different office or cubicle. (Trying “roaming” in that environment!)




However, today most of your communications devices and applications are now IP-enabled. What about “convergence”? Isn’t IP Communications all about “converging” these devices and media somehow to make it easy for all of us to communicate amongst ourselves? Now that we can integrate an IP-enabled application with other IP applications, we can make the whole environment more seamless, yes?

That’s true — but only partly so. Actually, the IP-enabling of devices and applications that’s going on today is merely the first step toward true convergence. Indeed, the first attempts at convergence occurred back in the old circuit-switched days, when computer telephony developers tried to unite voicemail, email and faxes with what they called Unified Messaging (UM) technology, also called Integrated Messaging or Integrated Email. We all thought that our desktop PC or laptop (when it was in the desktop docking station) was going to be our new all-purpose phone in those days (remember “the PC as Phone”?), and so monolithic applications, typically running in conjunction with such things as a Microsoft Exchange server, were developed to collect voicemails, email and faxes and list them on one interface.

There were several problems with Unified Messaging. Ye Olde circuit switched technology was finicky and not totally logical. Combining different media (at very low bandwidths) in one application in such an environment was, as the British would say, a “dodgy” affair. Moreover, even when it worked perfectly, UM simply gathered information in one stationary place, the desktop — what if the user wanted to be continuously mobile? It also didn’t solve the problem of how to get a hold of somebody immediately if they were moving about the landscape, and connect to them using whatever device was most convenient for them at that moment. That brings us to the next step toward true convergence, Presence.

 

The Powers of Presence

Although VoIP and video-over-IP are real-time communications, that’s only true once both parties are connected. Getting the initial connection can be a hit-or-miss affair — if the person with whom you’re trying to communicate doesn’t have with them the particular device you’ve signaled, the best you can do is try another device (cellphone, PDA, laptop, etc.) or else leave a message, which can lead to such nonamusements as “voicemail jail” and “voice tag”, or perhaps email getting lost in a sea of spam.

Obviously, we need a more “psychic” version of Rose the personal assistant. And we can have one, too, thanks to that special form of eventdriven middleware known generically as “presence”.

The first glimmerings of presence came in the form of the first primitive Instant Messaging (IM) applications that are still heavily used today: AOL’s Instant Messenger (AIM), CuSeeMe, Yahoo Messenger, and similar offerings from Microsoft and Google. With IM you can first ask someone if they are available for a phone call. Or you can start chatting with them using text and then “upgrade” or “escalate” to a phone call or web conference. Thus, IM acts as a signaling system and provides meta-data about the “state” of the person at the other end of the line.

Actually, it’s the person at the other end who’s providing that information, by setting his or her “status”. Ideally, the processes of setting and disseminating an individual's presence information should be automatic and intelligent, an electronic version of our old friend Rose the secretary. For example, we want to know if an IP phone is “off hook” indicating that the user is talking with somebody else and is unavailable for a conversation. Fortunately, developers are enabling applications to communicate presence state-changes to other applications, which ultimately enable a semi-automated way of determining where people are, what devices they have around them, and if they’re available to communicate at all, given their busy schedule. Think of it as a more sophisticated, futuristic version of find-me/follow-me services.

Thus, presence is the “glue” that helps tie applications, terminal nodes and people together into a seamless communications fabric and is a major step toward genuine convergence and Unified Communications (UC), a communicating environment where anyone can reach anyone else, at any time, anywhere. In such an environment, the all-important “presence manager” software takes the place of Rose, our intelligent human assistant.

 

UC Yields Collaboration to the Nth Degree

Once UC becomes pervasive, communications between individuals becomes less inhibited. Just as IP peering technology has penetrated the corporate firewall and allows various partners to federate their collective information, so too does UC further drive the extended enterprise to higher levels of productivity. The whole business ecosystem — vendors, partners, suppliers, customers, channel partners — becomes more active, since any member of this ecosystem can communicate with any other member quickly, efficiently and with greater flexibility. For example, a customer “call” to a contact center agent can now occupy multiple channels. It can start out as an IM chat, and the contact center’s customer service representative (CSR) can right click on the individual’s instant messaging icon, and data can be pulled up from the company’s CRM system listing the last three or so interactions the company’s sales force has had with that person, such as the most recent products purchased and/or any previous help desk calls. The CSR may then decide to “upgrade” the communication into a voice call, then perhaps upgrade again to a video call if the customer wants to actually show something to a customer service representative using a webcam.

Instead of the monolithic unified messaging applications of the past that handled just voice, email and faxes, the new world of UC technology — thanks to the IP-enablement of endpoints and applications — can now deal with “mash ups”, collecting, processing, displaying and acting upon inputs from any form of media.

This ability to have back-office, business application-derived data tied into a UC system and made available over different “channels” globally, depending on when and how you want it, is the true vision not just of unified communications, but of “convergence” too, not to mention the fundamental activity of human collaboration itself. That’s because, at a certain point, the increased interactions between all of the members of the extended enterprise brings about a synergy that reaches a sort of “critical mass”. Instead of simply expending time and effort into merely communicating with each other, we’re now all effortlessly collaborating. Business can now proceed at warp speed, enabling a huge competitive advantage.

 

Changing the Corporate Culture

At ShoreTel (www.shoretel.com) Director of Product Management Jeff Ridley says, “Customers now are starting to take a look at the higher level values afforded by unified communications. In the early days, IP communications was all about bypassing long distance, then people realized it was more about the ‘network efficiencies’, improved management and improved total cost of ownership for deploying voice as a service throughout the enterprise. As we move forward, it’s now more about taking a look at the productivity benefits of new applications that perhaps can be leveraged with voice. The concepts that stick in my mind around defining UC have a lot to do with the ability to do ‘mixed mode’ or support multiple media types, bringing them together for users. The second big concept is leveraging and starting to take advantage of presence in the infrastructure, thus making presence more usable for people to help them make intelligent decisions.”

“The third and crucial component, though it tends generally to be less discussed, is business process integration,” says Ridley. “The ability to tie your communications systems into your business systems is where there’s a lot of activity at the moment.”

Ridley reminded Yours Truly of Nortel often talking about business processes being affected by UC and Avaya talking about “intelligent communications” relating to business. UC if nothing else does affect a business’ workflow.

“Companies want to make everybody more productive,” says Ridley. “And let’s say that the employees can now do things in five minutes instead of ten minutes. Will they do more work in the same time interval, or will they just go home early? We want to make people more effective as they connect to information, which drives productivity, but doing so will also drive customers to be more satisfied with the business in general.”

Business process integration first appeared in call centers, and indeed much of what is appearing now in UC appears to give users call center-like capabilities and “personal Automated Call Distributor (ACD)” features.

“We’re taking technologies and capabilities historically seen only in call centers and making them more broadly used in the UC framework,” says Ridley. “For example, take our pre-built integration with Salesforce.com. This is very direct — it connects the inbound caller to the Salesforce record. People receiving calls from callers have the usual benefits. They now know the person calling, and they can provide better service. They can improve the productivity of the service they require, but also leave the person that called you more comfortable with the service they received because they spoke with somebody knowledgeable that was better able to handle their request.”

“It’s like an intelligent ACD that works on a personal level,” says Ridley. “At a very basic level, if I were asked to describe this in the ‘old days’ I would have called it a screen pop in a call center. In general, it’s one of those valuable components that bridges the gap between the person calling you and what you already know about them, so that you can better respond to what they’re looking for.”

“Making these things network-wide is another important concept,” says Ridley. “Let us consider the more general case of real people working with lots of other people and the notion of extending telephony presence across the enterprise. There’s a lot of efficiencies and productivities that can be gained when you don’t necessarily have to worry about physical boundaries. A secretary or an assistant that may be sitting at one location and with presence technology can pretty much see what’s going on with another person. Calls can be handed off and calls can be covered as necessary. So another dimension of convergence is to make it so that it’s not so different working in the branch office as in the headquarters office. You can define a single communications environment with flat features, having the ability to share information about people’s availability across that network. That’s also a part of the equation of unifying everything, so to speak.” Today ShoreTel offers a distributed VoIP system.

“Voice is distributed across the entire enterprise,” says Ridley, “and we do it in a way to achieve what we call ‘feature transparency’; you maintain your set of capabilities as you move from one site to another. It’s designed to be a highly reliable system and, because it’s distributed, elements that are situated at the remote office can both provide standalone services and be part of the total system. So if a backhoe digs down somewhere and breaks your WAN connectivity, the individual offices can keep working.”

“On top of that we also offer a solution we call Converged Conferencing,” says Ridley. “That adds traditional audio conferencing of course, but also includes a web conferencing component, instant messaging and a presence system. The web conferencing includes document sharing as well as application or desktop sharing.”

Companies such as Avaya, Microsoft, Nortel and Siemens are laboring mightily to bring about a new world of communications for SMBs (Small and Medium-sized Businesses), enterprises and other organizations. Furthermore, unified communications shall ultimately reach into the home and change the way we communicate in much the same way that it will transform the business world. UC technology will become as commonplace and as vital to everyday life as its great progenitor, IP Communications.

Richard Grigonis is Executive Editor of TMC’s IP Communications Group.







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