July 2008 | Volume 11/ Number 7
Inseparable: Presence and Unified Communications
By: Richard “Zippy” Grigonis
Unified Communications (News - Alert) without presence is just unified messaging with mobility. Presence can determine if a person at any moment can be contacted and how. In contact centers, presence makes first-call resolution a reality, enabling a company expert to be found immediately who can help close a sales call or resolve a customer service inquiry. Presence saves time and increases productivity by enabling users to communicate more efficiently across the entire organization. In the most advanced systems, presence tells you where people are, what meeting they’re attending and when they’ll be back at their desks. This kind of presence status information now available changes everything, making phone tag (News - Alert) and “voicemail jail” a distant memory.
Those who pooh-pooh unified communications say that, in many cases, UC complicates things more often than not, and doesn’t live up to its hype. Such naysayers should take a look at Zeacom (News - Alert), which has worked with contact centers and enterprises for years, providing cost-effective UC solutions that make high-end functions, such as rich presence, mobility and Microsoft (News - Alert) Outlook integration, accessible to small and medium-sized organizations, not must big ones.
Rich presence is an integral component to Zeacom Communications Center 5.0; it gives you a complete view of your organization by providing real-time information on the whereabouts and availability of staff regardless of their location. For example, “Presence Pages” allow users to view the status of all other users within the organization. These Presence Pages allow users to access Global, Personal and Microsoft Outlook Contacts buttons for one-touch and speed-dialing. Users enable presence so that when they are in the office, their availability is recognized and displayed (“At my Desk”, “Away from my Desk”) for all Desktop and Console users across the network. A user is seen to be available if they use their mouse, keyboard or telephone. After 10 minutes (or a configurable period) of inactivity, the user is considered to be away. Moreover, desktop and console users can request return notification for any presence user. This activates a screen pop to notify the user when the person they wish to speak to becomes available.
If a user’s current Profile is ‘forwarded’ (i.e., the user’s phone is diverted to voice messaging) and their presence is detected, the desktop module pops a reminder to the user so they can update their Profile (e.g. change it to “In the Office” so that they can receive calls at their desk). Presence users can also choose to display the subject of their active Microsoft Outlook appointment for other users to view. This is particularly useful for keeping operators and receptionists informed of staff whereabouts and availability.
One of the first companies to make major R&D efforts in both UC and presence was Avaya (News - Alert). Avaya recently unveiled new distributed UC solutions that support both remote workers and branch offices. Avaya says their new video-capable Unified Communications for Teleworkers solution costs less than 15 cents per day per employee (when costs are spread over a three-year period).
Avaya is also now introducing the Avaya one-X Communicator and Avaya Intelligent Presence Server. Avaya one-X Communicator combines telephony functions, desktop video, visual voicemail, presence, email, IM, conference bridge integration, directories, and contact history into one desktop client software package that supports both SIP (Session Initiation Protocol (News - Alert)) and H.323.
As for the Avaya Intelligent Presence Server, it can aggregate presence information from not only Avaya systems but Microsoft’s and IBM (News - Alert)’s too (it integrates with Microsoft Office Communicator and Exchange, and IBM Lotus Sametime). It supports SIP/SMPLE and XMPP.
Since presence is the adhesive of unified communications, it makes sense to talk to a UC provider such as Dialcom (News - Alert), which offers its Spontania, a real-time, enterprise-grade, premise-based collaboration platform that seamlessly extends IM, voice, video and data in real-time to any user, over any device or network, regardless of geographic location.
Dialcom’s President, Bob Johnson, says, “Spontania facilitates the execution by any user of any number of communication modalities so he or she can collaborate with one or many people directly from the workplace, specifically the PC or an end-device such as a smartphone or a PDA. Spontania can deal with VoIP, so people can talk with each other; it essentially operates as a phone bridge, if you will, directly off the PC. It supports video so you can share video. You can share and transfer files. You can act on a common file, do a whiteboard, and so forth. This is all tied into a presence engine that has its own chat capability too.”
“In a sense,” Johnson continues, “the nature of the software resembles a middleware-enabler of a number of means of communication that may exist in an organization and can be amplified through this, and if they don’t exist it actually provides some of those to the organization. We don’t have a ‘switchboard’ but we do work with switches, if you will, and we can pipe collaboration through standard switches. We’ve had a number of business process integrations where we installed this capability and we were able to tie it into an actual business application serving a contact center or some other ERP capability, and via our tool, people can communicate much easier than before, as well as more rapidly and more broadly.”
“Instant messaging I think has been slow to be adopted in business, but is gaining ground because of the demographics that are shifting to young people, who have grown up with things such as cell phones in their ears, as well as social networks and chats”, says Johnson. “Those people when in the workplace want to know what this technology can do for them, and how they can socialize and work with other people.”
“What’s key is, when you tie all of this into a business process, you have to ask yourself how you can get real contextual presence based on subject matter or a particular procedure within a business process in which you may be engaged,” says Johnson. “Who are the subject matter experts, and so forth, and how do you go from a general presence engine to something that may be very specific awareness, and how do you bring that in so that you can have a really effective way of communicating without having to look people up somewhere and figure out how to communicate with them? And I think context presence will be one of the exciting things in the future that starts to tie all of this together in a very elegant way, but I also think it’s a long way away. There are too many ‘moveable parts’ right now for most people to deal with. But when it actually comes into being, it will be great, but we don’t have an answer for an ultimate presence system yet.”
“Another key thing is the whole business of unified communications and collaboration,” says Johnson. “There are many ways to approach and define these ideas, but there are so many ‘moving parts’ to UC that I think most businesses are overwhelmed at the thought of it and don’t know how to start adopting it let alone know what they can gain from it. There are so many players in UC and collaboration that come at it from different angles, and yet they all make the same claims, including us, really. But what we’ve been able to do as a company is to say, ‘Look, we don’t have every piece that you need, but we have a way to talk to most of those pieces and we have a way to unify some of those within your organization so that you can actually use them effectively, at least in certain contexts’. It’s the ‘crawl-walk-run’ scenario, and we’re all now somewhere in the middle of that evolution, so businesses can start to experience what can happen as this technology starts to expand and evolve. What we offer is almost like a ‘starter kit’ so companies can get a head start on being able to adopt the capabilities and achieve gains from this mysterious thing called unified communications and collaboration.”
Tighter Integration with Business Processes
Ron Temske, Vice President of Cisco (News - Alert) Solutions at Logicalis, says, “We work within the UC space, primarily with Cisco, so most of my statements will be somewhat specific to their products. We’ve done quite a bit with presence. With most of our customers, presence is primarily a simple ‘Are you on the phone and at your desk?’ kind of tool today. Customers are still in their early phases with this, but they’re intrigued by it. Obviously, we haven’t fully explored all of the capabilities and possibilities of UC and presence. It’s very much in its infancy. In related areas, you’re seeing the integration between instant messaging voicemail, email, collaboration, and its becoming more seamless to, say, stop IM-ing each other and click-to-call each other, and things like that.”
“Presence becomes more interesting when it can incorporate many sources of data into determining presence status, because then it becomes more useful,” says Temske. “It can also become a bit scary. We’ve heard customers say it would be great if they could extend presence from their wireless carriers back to their system such that if you’re at your desk and you forgot to forward your calls, the system knows that your cell phone is in a car doing 55 miles per hour down the freeway, so it’s either been stolen or you’re not in your office. Our customers also ask us when they’ll have carrier-federated presence.”
“We’ve seen not just a lot of integration among what I call UC applications but also tighter integration with line-of-business applications,” says Temske. “The call center was the first wave of that, with very simple screen pops and the ability to transfer information. But now people want their whole CRM system integrated. An account manager may want click-to-call out of Siebel or even just Act. We’re seeing a greatly increased demand for that. Many new technologies go through this phase. When phones appeared that could run applications, you naturally saw a lot of people writing phone applications that had no real reason to be there. There were there because they could be, not because they should be. We’ve gone past that craze and people are asking how they can better leverage the combined capabilities, where the objective isn’t just to run an application on my phone but to seamlessly share data and information from my business applications and whatever devices I may use.”
Let’s Get Together
Paul Lopez, General Manager of Marketing and Services at NEC Unified Solutions, says, “Presence has existed for quite a while. We’ve had it in contact center products. A typical use case is when someone calls in and an agent needs to verify or see if some expert is available to take the call or conference someone in. Those basic features have been available for a while and only recently is presence now getting more prominence from an IP perspective, such as in IP telephony solutions. We see it has a foundational building block to get other benefits. Presence in and of itself is just a utility. It’s not an end-all be-all. The real utility comes with what you construct on top of it.”
“What we see now with presence is the ability to provide more robust communication capabilities at the desktop and at the end-user level, whether they’re mobile or at a desktop,” says Lopez. “So all of our products are presence-enabled, and all of our software that we’ve introduced is presence-enabled. That includes everything from our mobile client that runs in a variety of PDAs to our soft client that runs on the desktop, which we call our Unified Client, as well as products that are shrink-wrapped in a total solution for SMBs. For example, we’ve had a lot of success recently with a UC for business solution. It’s a really nice comprehensive package that includes everything from a contact center, conferencing, unified messaging, unified communications, all in one shrink-wrapped box solution. For small businesses, it’s been a real plus. They no longer have to worry about configuring Active Directory and presence and extensive management tools, like a larger enterprise would do.”
Lopez continues, “When thinking about presence, you have to ask yourself, ‘Do I really need to know the finite, granular presence of everybody in the enterprise?’ For example, if you and I work at the same company and you take a business trip and you’re out of the state or country, maybe I just need to know that you’re out of the office. Do I need to know that you’re in Japan and in a particular venue? Probably not. When you’re designing your network and your solution, you need to consider the impact of presence in a network environment, and how many hits will be taken by an SQL server, Active Directory, and all the enterprise applications that are running to maintain and access the presence status database.”
“At NEC we’ve included a little more enhanced presence capability versus some other solutions,” says Lopez. “For example, we do have the ability to offer some additional layers of presence within our mobile or unified client. If you have a PDA device with our mobile client installed and you leave your workstation, taking your PDA with you, our system knows that you’re not at your desk or laptop, but you’re accessible by your PDA, and that has certain features and functions such as instant messaging or voice or whatever to allow communications. Single Number Reach is another great feature that has attracted many of our customers. It’s quite useful. For example, in a health care environment, where a doctor was going to call back a patient to check on surgery, they’re calling after hours, and they’re on their cell phone. They don’t necessarily want their cell phone number to appear on a Caller ID device at the patient’s home, so through presence and our mobile client and gateway solution, what comes through when the call is made is actually an extension on the enterprise telephony system. We know the doctor’s presence and he can set his status with his PDA, and there is a level of privacy that we can offer to that type of user.”
Nortel (News - Alert)’s Wes Durow, Vice President, Global Enterprise Marketing and Strategy, says, “Until recently there was considerable investment in tools for discrete-productivity gains, tools such as email and cell phones, voicemail and unified messaging and business process applications, all built by Oracle and SAP (News - Alert) and others. They’re all great individually, but we’re now in an environment where it’s almost like there’s a cyber Kudzu around our corporations and their business processes, so today you’re in a much different environment. After all, different studies indicate that 70 percent of our outgoing voice calls end up in a message box. Then consider the number of inboxes you have: a voicemail inbox, a cell phone inbox, and a personal email inbox. And you have to deal with middleware and HR solutions to okay somebody’s raise, vacation or salary, and purchasing online solutions where you go in and approve somebody’s purchase orders. Same thing with IT – who has remote access authorization capability? Who gets a PC and where is it moved? So, on average, you have about seven different kinds of inboxes that you’re managing during the day. We’re adding latency to the system, which we want to reduce. That’s where we see the drive and the interest in the first phase of UC at the desktop level, and then the evolution of that into the middleware application level and business process application level.”
“Fred Weber is an 800-person construction and materials supply company out of St. Louis, Missouri,” says Durow. “They realized they had finite resources, it terms of labor and various raw materials, but they wanted to be able to interface with all of the materials suppliers to ensure that, when they’re on-site, they don’t want workers on-site getting paid for not doing any work. At the same time they don’t want to have materials on-site with no workers there, because then they have to do things like run and get a second concrete truck because the first one is starting to harden. So their whole business case about why to move to UC purely had to do with resource optimization, enabling presence, and making sure they had the right people and the right job set at the right time with the right information to be effective. Weber’s entire business case is built on this.”
“Heathcare has also been highly active in this space,” says Durow.
As more and more disparate devices and networks become “unified”, security and policy decisions become extremely important for any company wanting to harness the abilities of UC and presence. Enterprises must be able to detect unauthorized VoIP system use, prevent service disruptions and eavesdropping, and monitor for new threats against the converged infrastructure, while at the same time ensuring reliability and quality of service.
For example, Enterasys (News - Alert) Networks, a company heavily into network security, and whose convergence, connectivity and compliance solutions deliver business-oriented, policy-based visibility and control of individual user and application priority and security to businesses worldwide, recently announced that it was the first networking company to complete certification for ShoreTel (News - Alert)’s Technology Partner Program. ShoreTel is a major provider of pure IP UC solutions. ShoreTel enables any-sized company to seamlessly integrate all of their voice, data and messaging with their business processes.
Rather than approaching VoIP security in a piecemeal, slapdash fashion, Enterasys recommends an intelligent, automated and integrated approach to enable and secure wired and wireless VoIP communications. The Enterasys Secure Open Convergence (News - Alert) solution can sense and automatically respond to security threats against the IP telephony infrastructure, enforce network access control policies, and comply with regulations for monitoring and safety such as CALEA and E911 in the U.S. Advanced Enterasys Dragon security applications have the ability to detect specific threats against the voice infrastructure by using a strong set of VoIP attack signatures that include decoders for H.323, H.245, SIP and Media Gateway (News - Alert) Control Protocol (MGCP). Once threats against voice services are detected, NetSight automated security management can locate the exact source of the threat and take appropriate action.
The Enterasys Matrix and SecureStack switches are network switching and routing devices which automatically discover, classify and prioritize ShoreTel UC systems and traffic. Embedded security, priority and bandwidth control is provided for every user, device and application while maintaining performance. The Enterasys open architecture interoperates with the existing infrastructure.
Like Two Peas in a Pod
Unified communications and presence are two inseparable items that will dominate the business world, and perhaps even your personal lifestyle. More efficient communications are good for everybody – unless they occur in wee hours of the morning, of course. IT
The following companies were mentioned in this article:
Enterasys Networks (www.enterasys.com)
NEC Unified Solutions (www.necunified.com)
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