Unified Communications Prove Disruptive but Constructive

September 2007
By Maryann Lawlor
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Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate vice president of the unified communications group at Microsoft, shows the multitude of devices today’s business professionals rely on to stay in touch. Unified communications ties together many of these devices on the desktop.
Merging capabilities onto one platform enhances user experience.

Alliances between complementary companies are changing how industry will use the myriad of communications devices that evolved during the past decade. Mismatched pieces that once appeared to belong in different toolboxes now are falling into place, and converged communications is delivering one multipronged tool that is more useful than the sum of its parts. Easy access to the right people at the right time tips the scales from technology that takes a lot of work to work that takes advantage of technology.

Industry giants such as Nortel Networks, Toronto, and Microsoft Corporation, headquartered in Redmond, Washington, are partnering to bring order to communications chaos. Their offerings actually move beyond converged communications and are called unified communications. While the former refers to a technical achievement, the latter takes the next logical leap to user friendliness and usefulness.

Nortel and Microsoft signed their four-year Innovative Communications Alliance agreement in July 2006. Corporate officials at each company agree that the partnership was formed out of mutual respect for each other’s expertise in specific areas: Microsoft in software, Nortel in telephony. The partnership goes deeper than just integration and interoperability. It involves development cooperation, patent cross-licensing and a joint go-to-market approach for sales and marketing. However, both companies realize that interoperability is a critical part of communications solutions and say they will work with many partners to offer customers choices in how they deploy unified communications solutions.

Siafa Sherman, director of technology, chief technology office, Nortel Government Solutions, Fairfax, Virginia, notes that the arrangement, at least in part, came about because both corporations are observing an evolution in the marketplace. “Telephony is changing. It’s no longer this siloed technology in the back room. It is an application running over a common infrastructure along with a variety of multimedia types of services to communicate effectively,” Sherman says.

Nortel has been delivering voice services for more than 100 years. It moved into the digital world in the 1980s, and in the 1990s moved from a time division multiplexer-only solution to one that is Internet protocol (IP)-enabled. It connected the private branch exchange (PBX) to the IP network, put in a gateway and enabled the device to transmit voice over a data network. “That would be the hybrid. Where we’re moving to now is a totally IP-based environment where inevitably we will deliver to our customers a CD with our voice software application and then define common off-the-shelf hardware on which to run it,” Sherman explains.

For customers, the new communications approach means access to services through a single portal and reduced costs because they do not have to invest in proprietary hardware. They can leverage their hardware for other services being delivered to their networks because it is now an open, purpose-built application server.

Sherman describes how the unified communications capability will bring about a quiet yet powerful revolution in the way people conduct business, using tools they are familiar with and have used for several years. One of the primary tools is “presence,” or the ability to see who is online. A feature of the unified communications client is a window on the desktop similar to buddy lists on instant messaging (IM) services. When someone is online, sending an e-mail or IM is one way to communicate. When someone is not online, placing a call using the computer is another option; if the person is out of the office, the call can be forwarded directly to a cell phone. Or, when an e-mail includes a Microsoft Word document as an attachment, clicking on the sender’s name opens a return e-mail to the sender, while clicking on the telephone number initiates a telephone call to the sender. Unified communications brings together all of these capabilities, which have been available through different vendors and devices, on the desktop.

When employees have these capabilities literally at their fingertips, it will be easier for them to collaborate, Sherman adds. For example, Shell Oil Company with its 120,000 employees located around the world already was using the Microsoft desktop and Nortel’s PBX. With the additional level of unified communications software, the company can now bring its teams of employees together without relying on independent communications silos.

“You can’t put any quantitative value on this capability. How do you place a value on being able to talk to someone quickly? That communication could be a gating factor to closing an agreement,” Sherman proposes.

And although getting in touch with someone in seconds is sometimes paramount, speed is not always necessary, so unified communications enables users to determine the most effective way to employ today’s communications capabilities. When speaking with someone immediately is crucial, a telephone, cell phone or IM can be used to connect. However, not all communications are critical; some are a matter of assigning a task or checking on the progress of a project. In this case, e-mail may be the most efficient use of time and resources. Or when employees working in different locations need to discuss a program, perhaps NetMeeting is a better solution than traveling to one site.

In addition to access to people, unified communications facilitates quick access to data. For example, when a question arises during a meeting that requires specific information before a decision can be reached, discussion often must be tabled until the data can be obtained. If meeting attendees can locate the data, deliberations can continue and decisions can be made.

 
Mike Zafirovski, president and chief executive officer, Nortel (l), and Steve Ballmer, chief executive officer, Microsoft, discuss the companies’ shared vision during the announcement in New York City about a joint road map for unified communications.
Users also have access to additional services. By integrating a number of separate elements, unified communications enables a user with the Microsoft desktop connected to a server to log into the network and access the telephone system. Communications take place via a session initiation protocol (SIP), the underlying protocol for multimedia communications. Unlike other solutions that Microsoft has been integrated with, the Nortel connection is the only one with a direct SIP trunk between the two systems. “That means that the Microsoft desktop can be linked—we call it twinned—to the hard phone on the desk. So if I call you on your desktop, typically your phone will ring; however, if you’re teleworking that day, your home computer rings, but it’s your office phone. That’s what we mean when we say we’re linking them, we’re twinning them,” Sherman explains.

Today, this capability is not considered unique, but Sherman notes that the PBX features controls such as choosing the best path on which to place a call over the public switched telephone network (PSTN), ensuring the security of outbound calls and checking that no one is abusing long-distance service. The layers of security are built into the PBX and are directed to the handset of a traditional telephone. “Now that we’re in the converged world, potentially all of these desktops have access to the PBX. We’ve leveraged those same capabilities from the Microsoft desktop,” he relates.

Despite the word “unified” in the name, communications in this approach actually supports dispersed networking, an important capability during national crises or natural disasters. A unified communications system can help ensure continuity of government when personnel cannot get to their office buildings or headquarters because they can access their organizations’ resources from a remote location. Using a laptop or BlackBerry, they can leverage the same capabilities they would in the office, assuming the home office backs up data at a disaster recovery site. “It’s much less expensive. You don’t have to build a whole new voice infrastructure to support your disaster recovery or your business continuity because you’re leveraging the investment that you’ve already made,” Sherman points out.

This benefit also applies to companies that have a mobile work force. Moving, adding or changing the status of employees is easier because the client stays the same. On-site visits are not necessary because the hardware remains constant. This can result in operational cost savings. “Can you quantify it in dollar terms? Maybe not, but you’ll find as is the case with all technology that we’re using today, it tends to make things a little easier to do,” he states.

Sherman says the quality of voice communications on the system depends on the underlying infrastructure. Often, voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) is derided as Internet calling with a lot of static. But it is up to companies to ensure that VoIP is as dependable as the traditional telephone service. The infrastructure may not be infallible, but it must be resilient, reliable and carrier-grade.

“The Verizons and AT&Ts of the world would lose billions of dollars if they could not deliver reliable services. You have to bring that mindset into your data network. You have to ensure that voice has a higher priority than data traffic because they’re using the same highway. It’s the express lane for voice and the rest of it is best effort—it will get there when it can. We refer to it as business quality, because if we’re conducting business and there’s static, I’m going to hang up the phone and find some other way, if at all, to stay in touch with you,” Sherman offers. One way to ensure quality is to conduct network assessments by simulating voice traffic and adjusting the system to improve the quality of voice communications, he adds.

Communications is not the only area that experiences a boost in quality as a result of the unified approach. Sherman contends that the opportunities to use technology in different ways also improve the quality of life for employees because it facilitates options such as telecommuting. “So, from a business perspective, it means having employees who are motivated,” he points out.

“It’s this simple: We’ve got all this technology that’s meant to do a lot of different things. But from an end-user perspective, I just want to get on the network and do my job. I don’t want to learn different interfaces; I don’t want to learn the nuances of my PC; I don’t care about Windows and the inner workings of my computer. I just want to know where I click to get where I want to go. Unified communications removes the complexity of technology from the end users so that they can be more effective and efficient,” Sherman says. One big plus for many people will be that unified communications means one user name and one password to access a multitude of services.

Greg Saint James, director of worldwide sales, marketing and partners, Real Time Collaboration division, Microsoft, says his company predicts that unified communications will transform how companies do business in two significant ways. First, it will increase productivity. “Phones, IM, e-mail work today, but the problem is you don’t have an integrated experience. All of us take for granted that we have to spend a lot of time just trying to reach people and leaving voice mail messages. So how long does it take to connect with someone, and how do you make sure you connect quickly and with the right person and even have a sense that they’re available? We think there’s a huge opportunity to eliminate the wasted time of communications where people are searching to find the right person, assuming that they’re there, and waiting for them to respond,” Saint James says.

The second benefit is how it enhances customers’ experiences as they interact with a company. They will be able to request the information they need via telephone, e-mail or IM to ensure that the correct company expert gets back to them. “There’s a better chance for a strong connection and for customers to get the right response the very first time,” he states.

Saint James relates that at Microsoft unified communications has made e-mail more useful for its personnel. When one employee wants another to take time to review material, it is sent via e-mail. “That’s an appropriate use of e-mail. ‘Is Joe coming to the meeting? Have you seen Jack? Where’s the document?’ That’s a good use of IM or a phone call. You don’t need a static version of that. Or if the person’s not available and I’m looking for something quickly, I can move on. It’s making these existing forms of communication more useful,” he says.

Web Resources
Nortel Government Solutions: www.nortelgov.com
Microsoft Corporation: www.microsoft.com
Gartner Group–Exploring Unified Communications: www.gartner.com/it/products/podcasting/asset_149277_2575.jsp