Unified communications: Here at last?

So far, IP communications that follow users across voice, IM, e-mail, and other media have benefited a narrow group. That may be about to change

While Todd Sharp is driving down the highway between Charlotte and Atlanta, a new sales order triggers a lookup for the customer phone number and salesperson (that would be Todd) assigned to it. The system then polls Siemens OpenScape UC (unified communications) software and checks Todd’s presence status, discovering that he’s working remotely and available only on his cell. OpenScape kicks off a VoIP call to Todd’s cell phone and, using a text-to-speech engine, reads the sales order over the phone. It then prompts Todd to press 1 to autodial the customer. Minutes after the order arrived, Todd is thanking the customer from his car.

This example is typical of how UC -- an amalgam of voice communications, e-mail, instant messaging, and presence that may also include video, Web conferencing, and calendaring -- can accelerate and enhance business processes, customer service, and mobile communications. But adoption has been slow. Todd is one of the lucky few to enjoy the benefits, mainly because he works for Engage, a UC services vendor.

“Unified communications is a very overhyped market,” says Mark Straton, senior vice president of global marketing at Siemens Enterprise Networks, “and one that will probably take another two to 10 years to roll out in the enterprise.”

Zeus Kerravala, a Yankee Group analyst, agrees. “The market is basically where it was two years ago,” says Kerravala. “Interest in the enterprise is high, but actual deployments are low.”

Why? In part because most organizations have only partly completed the transition from old TDM phone systems to VoIP, the essential ingredient of UC. Plus, ROI numbers for UC remain elusive. Benefits come in fuzzy areas like higher productivity and faster decision-making, rather than revenue and cost savings. As a result, most organizations apply UC to specific parts of the business where a severe lag in reaching certain individuals can negatively affect the business.

“We’re seeing early adopters in financial services where seconds lost trying to reach someone can mean lots of money,” says David Marshak, senior product manager for unified communications and collaboration at IBM Lotus Software. “We’re also seeing it used in the medical field for first responders, to help them quickly find a close, available doctor with this capability and equipment, and that level of clearance.”

Enter the software gorillas
Another obstacle to mainstream acceptance: Unified communications solutions have tended to originate with IP PBX vendors. Though IP-based, those systems were still largely proprietary, with software tied tightly to hardware and their own client software for UC functions, including instant messaging, VoIP calls, and audio or Web conferencing. Instead of accessing UC functions from the Outlook, Office Communicator, or Sametime clients they already knew, users had to learn a new client.

Today, however, IP telephony and UC are moving toward a more IT-centric software architecture, laying the groundwork for broader acceptance. A prime example is the software-based OpenScape solution, built from the ground up on SIP and SOA, and interoperable with a variety of third-party VoIP and instant messaging systems. But the traditional software players, including Microsoft, IBM, and Oracle, are also getting into the act.

Microsoft’s upcoming OCS (Office Communications Server), which replaces LCS (Live Communications Server), actually includes several SIP-based VoIP calling features typically found in such IP PBXs as Cisco’s Communications Manager, along with video and Web conferencing, telephony management tools, and speech recognition. All of that plus Microsoft’s trademark instant messaging has been rolled in a single package accessible from Microsoft’s Office Communicator client or Outlook. In OCS shops, Office users will be able to click on a person’s name in any Office document and instantly obtain presence information, including whether they are on the phone, and then launch an IM, a voice call, or an audio or Web conference. OCS interoperates with mainstream IP PBXs, but on its own, it can even serve as a small office’s VoIP system.

Microsoft is betting heavily that UC, including voice, will ultimately revolve around productivity software. “The movement of all communications to software is the uber-level thing that’s happening,” says Greg Saint James, Microsoft’s senior director of UC, “and it will benefit everyone, making it much easier to integrate communications with all your other processes.” And of course, Microsoft expects Active Directory to host the corporate dial plan.

Oracle’s Service Delivery Platform, an extension of its fusion middleware, provides a J2EE/SOA-based platform for building and deploying multiple IP communications software services, including IP telephony, video, IMS, and presence – all of which can be integrated with standard backend business applications.

One of the smallest players, BlueNote Networks, is also one of the most advanced in enabling IP communications as a service that a variety of applications can consume. The company’s flagship SessionSuite provides tools for building IP communications Web services and integrates with Active Directory and RADIUS servers. The capability of linking these services to CRM and other business applications is what could make Todd Sharp’s example a reality in many organizations.

The PBX guys go deep
On the other side of this convergence are the traditional IP PBX vendors. An increasing number, including Nortel, Mitel, and Siemens, are moving full speed ahead to build in interoperability with Microsoft LCS and OCS, IBM’s Lotus Sametime IM and conferencing package, and good old Outlook.

IBM recently announced it would license portions of OpenScape to bring connectivity and a single Sametime user interface to a number of different back-end IP PBX systems. This enables voice, video, conferencing, presence, and other UC features to be accessed from the software that users already know -- leveraging investments IT has already made, rather than forcing migration to Cisco, Avaya, or Mitel software.

Like Siemens, Mitel is looking to pull apart its hardware and software, allowing IT to run its PBX and UC solutions on Sun servers. Even Cisco is increasing efforts to integrate its communications solutions with those of its chief UC competitor, Microsoft, as well as IBM. “We recognize that no one vendor or developer can deliver all pieces of the unified communications puzzle,” says Rick McConnell, vice president and general manager of Cisco’s unified communications business unit.

Avaya is also investing heavily in supporting SOA architecture for its UC functions. Last March, the company announced its Communications Enabled Business Processes solution, which exposes an array of voice communications features as Web services.

Integration is the reason Fred Weber, a highway construction company and materials provider, chose a Nortel IP telephony system when it was time to upgrade its 20-year-old phone system and take advantage of UC. “We use Exchange and Live Communications Server and our staff all uses Office Communicator,” says Phil Hagemann, Fred Weber’s CIO. “The Nortel solution just laid right on top of what we had very neatly. We didn’t have to use a new interface or deal with a large learning curve. With the competing solution we would have had to use their own messenger and presence client.”

Fred Weber plans to take advantage of Nortel’s unified messaging to receive voice mail and faxes in Exchange, while using presence in LCS and Office Communicator to reach users when they are in the office, in meetings, or on the road. Office Communicator will also be available on staff-issued BlackBerry smartphones, so itinerant users can take advantage of find me/follow me features to route their office calls to cell phones or other preferred devices.

It’s all about presence
Whereas UC is about blending different communications media, presence is the engine on which UC runs. Presence is what makes it possible to reach the right person the first time, rather than getting stuck in a morass of e-mail and voice mail. “Thanks to presence, the number of voice mails I get has been reduced to just about zero,” says Marshak. “Nobody would even think of dialing me without checking my presence information first.”

With UC, presence goes beyond detecting whether a person is online or offline. Integrate presence with voice, calendaring, location capabilities, and find me/follow me features, you can actually locate where people are, whether they’re in a meeting or on the phone, and determine the best way to reach them at a given moment. It’s also about accessing that information from a variety of applications -- an Office document, a CRM application, or a mobile smartphone client.

With presence and find me/follow me capabilities, users can establish granular rules for who can reach them and how. “If I’m at my mother-in-law’s house for a family situation, I can pick up her phone, dial into the system, and associate her phone with my account,” says Engage’s Todd Sharp. Then all calls to Todd’s five-digit office extension are automatically routed to his mother-in-law’s phone.

If Todd doesn’t answer, calls can be routed to corporate voice mail, so that he has one voice mailbox to check instead of several. Or, Todd can set up rules that route calls from clients to their assigned project managers when Todd is not available. At the same time outgoing calls made from a cell phone or other phone can be bridged with the company phone system, so they appear to be coming from the main office. Global corporations with offices in several countries can save a bundle in mobile phone bills by using this capability.

Extending the reach of business

Clayton State University took advantage of bridging when gas pipeline problems from Hurricane Katrina led to gasoline shortages in the Atlanta area. Staff members simply worked from their home phones or laptop soft phones, but were still reachable from their five digit extensions as if they were in the office. And in fact UC promises to play an increasing role in corporate disaster recovery and business continuance plans.

Presence and find me/follow me features have actually allowed Kuepers Architects & Builders to expand its coverage from a 90-mile radius to 300 miles. By tying a Mitel IP phone system with Microsoft LCS and Exchange calendars, it’s now much easier for the company to keep track of and reach its widely dispersed sales people, project managers, job supervisors, and foremen, who formerly moved a peg on a sign-out board when they left the office. When users leave the office, they simply hand off desk phone calls to their cell phones. And if they bring a laptop, unified messaging allows them to receive faxes or voice mails in their Outlook inbox.

Everyone agrees that the increasing penetration of SOA and related integration technologies is setting the stage for increased UC adoption. But UC vendors, including Microsoft and Oracle, recognize this as a long-term process. “Everyone knows that the lifecycle for corporate phone communications systems is typically 10 to 15 years and most are not going to change them out any time soon,” says Siemens’ Straton. When UC truly arrives, it won’t be a platform on its own, but rather a set of services that can be embedded in many different applications.