UC Performance Management

Ensuring UC Lives Up to Its Promise

By Paula Bernier, Executive Editor, TMC  |  November 12, 2012

This article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of INTERNET TELEPHONY.

Many organizations are spending big bucks on UC rollouts ­– whether we’re talking about full-featured unified communications solutions, all or parts of Microsoft (News - Alert) Lync functionality, desktop video, telepresence, or other communications, conferencing and collaboration tools. But performance monitoring tends to be an afterthought. That’s unfortunate, as it can lead to UC implementations failing to live up to their promise.

UC Uptake

Blair Pleasant (News - Alert) of UCStrategies in a recent report comments that:  “The need for unified communications and collaboration has never been greater, and the technologies continue to evolve to meet changing user needs.”

And she says that “Trends such as worker mobility, the virtual workforce, the consumerization of IT, bring your own device, and virtualization are helping to propel the UCC market.”

The worldwide mobile worker population will increase from one billion in 2010, to 1.3 billion in 2015, accounting for 37.2 percent of the workforce, according to IDC. As a result, most, if not all, businesses will embrace some type of bring-your-own-device program in 2012, Tim Wagner of Samsung, commented at ITEXPO (News - Alert) East earlier this year.

The use of video in the workplace is also accelerating.

Bob Romano of RADVISION last year commented to me that he thinks we’ll really see things heat up in the video and unified communications space this year.

“While there has been a lot of talk about disruptive technologies lately, I think we’ll see steady improvements in the quality, price performance and interoperability of video solutions, which will drive adoption across all market segments instead of what has been a predominately large enterprise, conference room-only solution,” Romano told me. 

Ken Dolsky, program director for InfoTrack, agrees. And he points to the fact that Cisco (News - Alert) and others recently introduced desktop video phones that make setting up a video call as easy as making a phone call.

This ease of use is sure to drive user adoption of video.

In the next year, 90 percent of businesses surveyed by IDG Enterprise said they plan to invest in or update unified communications systems. And the firm says that the average annual UC spend is $383,000. IDG Enterprise adds that 74 percent of businesses plan significant investments in UC and collaboration systems over the next three years.

Meanwhile, a recently released InfoTrack five-year forecast on IP telephony and unified communications indicates U.S. spending on these technologies will increase by an average of 10 percent per year.

Pleasant also has put out estimates for what she calls the worldwide total or UC-capable market for premises-based UC and the worldwide net, or true UC, market. She says the worldwide total or UC-capable market for premises-based UC was $12.2 billion in 2011, up 8 percent from 2010, and that that will grow to $20.8 billion in 2016. However, she says these numbers don’t necessarily represent the true UC market, because if someone purchases an IP PBX and a conferencing/collaboration product, even if they’re from the same vendor, that is not necessarily considered a UC sale. That said, in 2011, the worldwide net, or true UC, market was $2.7 billion, up 20 percent from 2010, she says. And she adds that the component growing the fastest is conferencing/collaboration – which is experiencing a 50 percent compound annual growth rate.

She goes on to say that the difference in revenues between the total UC-capable market and the net, or true UC, market means that there is a huge opportunity for UCC vendors and resellers to seize upon. There is a large untapped market for UCC products and services, with many customers that have elements of a UCC solution but not complete solutions, she says.

Complexity Challenges

Blair’s comments illustrate the important point that while UC solutions aim to bring together different communications mediums to increase efficiency and potentially lower the cost of doing business, that doesn’t necessarily mean businesses buy all parts of their UC solutions at the same time or from the same vendor. In fact, many organization implement different UC functionality and systems at different times, or bring up different functions of their UC solutions at different points in time. At the same time, we’re also now starting to see a more diverse mix of UC functionality.

While early UC solutions tended to focus on bursty applications like instant messaging, today we’re seeing more real-time communications like audio and video enter into the mix. And that creates greater challenges at both the network and the application levels. More bandwidth-loving applications means more competition for bandwidth and other network resources and can result in an unintended drop in performance for UC or other applications on the network. That said, the argument for performing due diligence on the enterprise network to ensure it can handle new unified communications applications – along with the growing list of other enterprise applications like CRM, ERP and various other solutions – is more important than ever. And because networks, usage and applications are ever changing, it’s also key to do performance management relative to UC and other applications on an ongoing basis.

There are UC solutions – from Microsoft especially – that offer some level of baked-in performance management. That can give an organization a view into the usage of a particular application, but what businesses really need is a broader set of performance management tools and a view of their networks at large and all the UC applications and traffic running over them.

But most organizations don’t spend much time or money on performance management relative to unified communications and the underlying networks that will support UC. That can create problems, especially considering many enterprise networks are already being stretched to their limits.

The Network

Dimension Data’s (News - Alert) annual Network Barometer report indicates that nearly half of all enterprise networks will be obsolete within five years because they predate current megatrends like BYOD, mobility, pervasive video and virtualization. On average, 40 percent of all devices have been past end-of-sale status for the past four years, according to the report, which includes findings from nearly 300 technology lifecycle management assessments at organizations worldwide throughout 2011.

Bill Haskins, senior analyst at Wainhouse Research, seems to agree. He says that many enterprises he meets with that want to create UC experiences are already sweating their network assets. Sometimes networking folks at enterprises try to compensate for that by advising corporate not to deploy UC in full because their networks can’t handle it. Other times, companies deploy desktop video in mass and then see a spike in traffic that almost immediately trickles down to a subset of people who asked for that capability. These kinds of drop offs in usage, he says, can often be attributed to poor quality video experiences because the enterprise network just can’t handle the load.

Ken Dolsky, program director for InfoTrack, says that many organizations were turned off by VoIP early on because they failed to ensure networks were up to the task of supporting it.

If organizations don’t perform due diligence on their networks before introducing real-time communications like video they may have a similar experience this time around, he says.

Doing tagging at the switch or router can help address new real-time UC traffic like video and audio, Haskins notes, but he says not all enterprise switches and routers have QoS tagging functionality. And sometimes even if an organization has implemented policy for QoS, he adds,

that policy is so conservative that is brings down the level of video to an unacceptable quality without even looking at what network resources are available.

Haskins also suggests that enterprises go to the next layer down so they know who’s using what applications and what apps are contending with one another. All of the above, he says, will enable enterprises to access their networks, implement policies based on what traffic they expect, implement performance management, and then ease in to UC to validate their assessment assumptions.

While getting the network right is the foundation of any type of UC deployment, that’s not as easy as it sounds. Every organization has its own unique network and its own set of UC and other applications running over the network. But it can be tough to get visibility into what applications are having what impacts on the network.

Randy McGraw, vice president of technical operations at UC solutions provider West IP Communications recently noted, it’s amazing how little businesses know about what traffic is making up what parts of their traffic loads. He added that’s becoming an even bigger challenge in light of the growing number of business applications coming on to enterprise networks.

“I would suggest that most enterprise organizations do have tools in place to measure and monitor all the techie stuff – the switches and routers and the QoS flow and the capacity at the network layer,” says Kevin Kielle, a partner with EnableUC, which helps measure, monitor and improve UC and collaboration usage and adoption. “That’s relatively well established because of the voice aspect of UC; people mistakenly often think VoIP is UC; but I don’t think that’s really UC.”

The Application Layer

However, Kieller says that almost no one is measuring the usage and adoption of the different UC modalities. The traditional vendors that grew out of voice don’t provide a lot of the metrics necessary to answer questions like how many people are using various aspects of UC. There are a lot of tools that let users do billing-centric things like how many voice minutes are being used, he says, the problem is those things deal with usage but not adoption, so users don’t really know who is using UC and from what departments.

Bernard Gutnick, senior director of product marketing at ShoreTel, agrees, adding that it’s important to segment network usage by application type. 

A Complete View

Steve Shalita, vice president of marketing at NetScout, says that it’s important for organizations to consider UC at the network layer, the application layer and the signaling layer.

While the network is the foundational piece that controls everything, he says, “the network cannot be the proxy for UC services performance and ultimately user experience.”

Organizations do need to look at and understand network performance, because video and voice are delay and latency sensitive, he says. But organizations also need to look at and understand application or payload performance. Understanding signaling, or call control, performance also is key, he adds.

All of this can allow for a great end user experience and a view into the network to enable troubleshooting. To make that happen, it’s important to get a good call path and endpoint visibility, says Shalita, so core metrics are coming both from endpoints and network midpoints.

Endpoint metrics offer a sense of what end users are experiencing in terms of echo, voice quality and the like, he explains. Meanwhile, midpoint data offers information on what’s physically happening on the network so you can pinpoint the cause of problems.

Edited by Brooke Neuman