This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of INTERNET TELEPHONY magazine.
Over the last decade, there has been an incredible amount of excitement and hype around unified communications. UC was the darling of the technology industry for a long period of time, promising to streamline communications effectively in our fast-paced work environment by allowing people to select easily the mode of communications that best suits their needs at any given time. As the excitement for UC reached a fevered pitch, more and more vendors jumped on the proverbial UC bandwagon, and customers were faced with differentiating across a huge selection of UC offerings available.
As this technology entered the market, various definitions for UC entered the dialogue, creating a great deal of confusion for customers. Not surprisingly, every vendor said it could deliver the most functionality at the lowest cost. While some of these claims were a stretch, others were inherently false. Businesses of all sizes embarked on the journey of implementing a UC solution – a process that could take two years after defining the need, evaluating the different offerings, choosing a vendor, and actually deploying the solution. UC adopters soon learned implementing the software was only half of the equation once they realized their solution was either too expensive or too difficult to use in their organization. So, they found themselves back at square one – evaluating the various vendors and technology options once again.
The reality we face today is that UC has become a daunting proposition. Businesses are more confused than ever and – in many cases, having tried and failed – they are essentially disillusioned with the promise of UC. With all the marketing spin today, it’s time to address some of these falsehoods and set the record straight. A lot of the problems with UC arise when customers are seduced by the notion of saving money through the promise of low or even no acquisition costs. There’s an old saying: If it’s seems too good to be true, it probably is. This is especially relevant in the UC market.
In particular, there are three myths about UC that are prevalent in the market today:
Myth No. 1: UC is a simple plug-and-play solution
A lot of UC vendors are guilty of the classic bait-and-switch approach. They will initially show a compelling UC scenario, such as a multi-stage demo where a user determines a colleague’s availability using presence, then initiates an instant messaging conversation, which easily escalates the conversation to video. Businesses will see the inherent value for improved communication and collaboration, inquiring about the realities of implementation. Generally, the vendor will say deployment is a breeze and sell them on a UC server with a license to support it.
However, the problem is just brewing when customers deploy the server and realizes they only have baseline functionality, not the full vision of UC they felt was promised. When customers want to expand their UC functionality, they learn all the other UC elements need to be purchased piecemeal. They are then required to purchase separate servers and licenses for each component; IM; video; voice; presence; etc. The journey to obtaining and utilizing a comprehensive UC platform becomes expensive, very quickly, after purchasing all the individual servers, licenses, and – in many cases – hundreds of client access licenses for their users. These complex and convoluted solutions are also incredibly complicated for IT to deploy and maintain on the backend.
How did UC get so complicated? In many instances, today’s UC providers began selling other products such as switches or other networking components several decades ago. As they saw the market opportunity for UC growing, they essentially bolted on new capabilities such as voice, presence, IM, video, and now social as individual modules attached to their existing software. While this was a profitable endeavor for the vendors, it becomes easy to see how complicated life becomes for IT administrators who are required to manage all these disparate technologies that were never truly engineered to work together.
Customers should select a vendor that approaches UC holistically with a purpose-built solution for UC. If all the components are tightly integrated, it not only provides a better experience for users, but also simplifies deployment and management for IT. In the end, getting a solution that is built from the ground up can save a bundle on acquisition costs, licensing and CAL support in the long run.
Myth No. 2: Softphones will save you money
There is a tremendous amount of excitement around softphones today – and with good reason. Offerings like Skype (News - Alert) and iChat have proven to be popular with consumers, and now professionals want to know how they can benefit from these inexpensive applications. However, prospective business customers should be cognizant that there is more to consider than the purchase price of this software for their organizations.
While softphones are great in many respects, they are very taxing on a computer’s resources. Before deploying softphones company wide, an organization needs to ensure every desktop computer is equipped with a quad core processor and the latest operating system. Without the proper hardware and software in place to support the softphone, the application will run slowly and the audio experience will be compromised. In addition, each employee should possess Bluetooth noise cancelling headphones to reproduce the quality and experience of using a desk phone. Once the hard cost of these investments is taken into account, along with the IT resources needed to upgrade every desktop computer, the notion of an inexpensive softphone soon becomes much more costly than the low cost of admission.
Before going much further, it’s important to acknowledge that softphones have many great features and opportunities to transform the way professionals communicate. However, the reality of an organization prioritizing the upgrade of all its desktops to provide a business quality phone experience can be unrealistic. Rather, businesses should select a vendor that can provide a combination of both softphones and desk phones across an organization, so they can pick and choose where to deploy which phone based on their IT investments on the desktop.
Myth No. 3: Hosted UC is ready for primetime
As is the case with softphones, a lot of businesses today are attracted to the promise of dramatically reducing costs with a hosted UC solution. While cloud-based solutions represent real savings for many business applications, the calculations are more complex with UC.
In most businesses today, internal phone calls going from one desk to another represent 40 to 60 percent of all the calls within an organization. With a traditional PBX (News - Alert) system, a company can utilize its internal network to connect colleagues and does not require the public telephone network for all these calls. However, with a hosted UC solution, calls made within the organization to employees are no longer considered internal from an infrastructure standpoint. A call from one desk to another now utilizes the external network and effectively goes out to the hosted platform, then comes back into the organization. As a result, the system requires much more bandwidth to accommodate all the additional network demands from the internal calls.
The hidden cost for hosted UC is in the upgrades required for the corporate network. This is not only unnecessary, but also an inefficient use of limited bandwidth with so many other competing demands on the network today. A private cloud model is good alternative because it provides the cost savings benefits associated with a hosted solution without placing increased demands on the network.
Choosing a UC solution that will work for you
While there have been a lot of promises and claims made about UC, the bottom line is businesses are only going to realize the value once they find a solution that truly works within their organization.
The best choice is a converged system designed from the ground up to provide all the functionality of UC including voice, presence, IM, conferencing and video. An integrated solution will ensure customers are getting the rich functionality of an integrated UC solution while simultaneously avoiding huge licensing costs and dramatically reducing complexity for IT.
In addition, businesses must consider the real costs of deploying softphones across their company. Most organizations today will need a combination of desk phones and softphones to avoid the significant costs of upgrading every desktop to support the software. They should choose a vendor that can provide phone options that work within your existing organization to prevent hidden expenses down the road. Finally, they should look for a cloud offering that can provide the cost savings of a hosted solution alongside the network bandwidth benefits of a premises-based offering.
UC is an area where the buyer needs to beware. IT decision makers should ask the right questions to distinguish between a vendor’s promise and the reality of a UC deployment in their organization. Unified communications can provide a tangible advantage in today’s competitive business environment. However, they must understand the true costs to ensure they select a viable UC solution that delivers streamlined communications, increased productivity, and the ability to communicate with colleagues, partner and customers on with any device, anywhere they are.
Thomas Beck is director of marketing and business development at Teo (www.teotech.com).
Edited by Stefania Viscusi