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January 2007
Volume 10 / Number 1

Unified Communications

By Erik K. Linask


Unified messaging — the spiritual and semantic predecessor of unified communications — was identified as killer app long before it even existed in microcomputer networks! The first “test issue” of Computer Telephony magazine in October of 1993 touted its wonders, even though most of the software it described was still in beta. Admittedly, the concept can be traced back to the 1960s and certainly to 1983, when a Brown University grad named DeBorah Mills-Scofield joined Bell Labs as a systems engineer and decided to write a single spec for several messaging systems, which evolved into AT&T’s Unified Messaging Architecture (UMA).

Art Rosenberg, whose blog, “The Unified View”, has tracked UC for quite a while, recently advised me as to what to include in this intro, urging that I should mention, “…how the complexity of UC convergence is causing great confusion at all levels of an enterprise organization, what UC is supposed to do and how, where the ROI metrics will come from, who will make implementation decisions, who will be the main technology provider(s), services vs. managed service vs. traditional CPE, device independence vs. software clients and operating systems, integrating automated business processes, security protection of the IP software environment, supporting different end user needs, migration strategies and priorities, the politics of reorganizing IT responsibilities to support end users, lack of IT experience, etc. What’s a CIO to do?”

Certainly, there’s a lot to this UC phenomenon. At some point the telecom and messaging industry decided to label all forms of integrated person-to-person business communications and the integration of these communications with business process applications as “unified communications”, whereupon confusion reigned over definitions, migration strategies, and hardware/software interoperability.


The UC with a Thousand Faces

Sphere Communications ( is a leader in software-based enterprise telecom and perhaps the first company to deliver IP PBX technology as a business application for Service Oriented Architectures. Sphere’s SVP, Todd Landry, says, “Everybody uses the term, but what does ‘unified communications’ really mean? To me, the communications capabilities we refer to in ‘unified communications’ includes many things, such as abilities that allow you to place and receive voice calls, to pick up voice messages in various ways, to have text messaging, to have video, and all the different ways of interacting with people. But it’s not just people-to-people interaction, it’s people-to-system too. We look at the definitions of communications convergence, or unified communications, and we say, ‘All types of communications are converging into common packages — or, in our view of the world, software — that, as a result of being converged together, offer additional benefits and leverages to the business or consumer user. They offer unique benefits working together as opposed to being disparate forms of communications’.”

“As an example,” says Landry, “you can today go and buy a presence engine and place that in your business. Then you can buy email and install that. You can install IVR, a PBX, etc. In short, you can buy different components and put them in place, but I think the industry in general would agree that many of these capabilities are coming together in common offerings, and these offerings are really becoming just software. I always say that the scenario of six guys with tool belts in a moving van pulling up in front of your business to deliver a PBX, are gone. Nearly anything you can do in a traditional PBX can now be done in software, and done in a way where it runs on industry-standard servers and operating systems. And because of that, the speed at which you can bring communication methods together increases and the whole economic situation changes dramatically.”

“We look at UC even a step further than that,” says Landry. “The ability to have voice and data on your network, the ability to have communications on your computer and have forwarding of calls to your mobile and being able to pick up your voicemail message out of your email, is all interesting stuff. Many vendors are bringing all of these technologies together, including Sphere. We use the term ‘converged applications’. In some respects we think that ‘unified communications’ is stuff that’s already been defined and, indeed, has already occurred in technology. For many businesses, if UC is about having multiple communications methods for users, then that technology already exists in the marketplace.”

Landry continues: “It’s really interesting when unification makes its way into all kinds of other applications. It could be something used every day, or it could be different applications used from moment-to-moment. The point is that they all become unified with communications capability. So, looking at my client in CRM, I can see a workgroup related to that client in my business, and I can see their status: Are they online? Are they available? Will they remain on the phone? Are they in a meeting? I can now arrange conference calls on-the-fly and I can interact and create communication scenarios very easily and within the context of any application I might be running with others.”

“If you think of the whole service-oriented architecture [SOA] initiative going the enterprise, communications must really become a business application, and indeed it is becoming a business application, and it will participate in SOAs,” says Landry. “A year ago when addressing audiences at events I would ask for a show of hands of those who knew what SOA was. Even at a telecom/IP show, no one would raise their hands! Nobody knew what it was. In the past six months, however, you go to a show and it’s on the agenda. It has clearly become part of the venue of discussion. Communications is becoming an important part of SOAs in business.”

“The telecom industry naturally talks about what they offer in the context of telecom ‘stuff’,” says Landry. “But until recently we haven’t talked about it in the context of how it’s going to interwork and play with other business applications. How often have you gone to a telecom show and talked about CRM? Or the HR system interacting with the phone system? And when you talked about making Moves, Adds and Changes [MACs] easier — always a hot topic — you heard, ‘We’re going to make it easier and this GUI application can do it’. But why not just make it part of the HR system? MACs have to do with moving people around. HR systems move people around. Why do you need a human system to do that? So that’s what’s happening — when we talk about communications becoming unified with business, it’s about the communications system being open enough to unify with other business applications. You solve real business problems. In our industry we tend to say, ‘Oh, UC! You can make a phone call from your mouse!’ Okay, well, I’ve been able to do that for 10 years. The question is, what business value does it serve?”

“That brings us to how UC will affect the devices we use,” says Landry. “For example, phones will be on people’s desks for some time to come. It’s not a question of whether telephones will go away, it’s a question of what role the telephone will have in the user’s workday. How will it make work more efficient? Do you need a new IP phone merely because you need to change the wire on the back? That’s not very interesting in terms of unified communications. Debatably, it isn’t UC at all, it’s just another telephone. But these devices sitting on people’s desktops are becoming more than just telephones. We’ve been demonstrating concepts of how a range of different information can be made available at your telephone. I love to ask people, ‘What else do you use your telephone for?’ It’s something that you don’t even normally think twice about. For example, people often look at their phone to determine the date and time. That’s not so interesting but it’s an example of how devices will ultimately be used in different modes.”


Underlying Foundations

Of course, the more sophisticated the UC system, the more you need an infrastructure having high QoS and rock-solid reliability. Operators and providers may have to upgrade. As Bruce A. Chatterley, president and CEO of Speakeasy ( says, “QoS for all forms of communications are extremely important. That’s why Speakeasy owns its own national all-fiber private network, which uses MPLS for quality of service. We have eight data centers in the eight largest markets in the country. We connect those with our all-fiber MPLS network. Moreover, in each data center we have brand-new Juniper ERX M20 router installations. In general, we will not sell our VoIP without our last-mile connectivity. That’s because we do inbound QoS on our network through our Juniper routers. So we do packet-marking and prioritization over data traffic, and we require a device on the customer edge to do outbound packet-marking so that we can take that packet and make sure it gets priority across our entire national network. The problem with companies such as Vonage is that they don’t control the last mile and therefore can’t prioritize the voice traffic over the data traffic, unlike Speakeasy. We’ll soon extend our diagnostics capabilities out to the customers, and the whole system will be even more powerful.”



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