Getting unified communications without the fuss


Death of the PBX?It seems everyone wants a unified communications and collaboration platform – industry research shows this is a growing priority and the technology for it has radically evolved in recent years, making the business case even more compelling.

The trouble is, many organizations are weary about investing the time and costs of actually building it. The wide-spread perception is that doing so requires massive overhauls, and that’s not always feasible.

Indeed, since Lync’s release last year, we’ve had over 100 organizations come to Softchoice specialists asking how to update voice infrastructure without ditching legacy PBXs.

In other words, people want the advantages of a modern communications system — one combines the most productive functions of your phone, your computer, your instant messaging, etc… — all without the  “rip and replace” nightmare of scrapping an existing or traditional voice investment.

But what many organizations might not know, especially those with rights to Microsoft Lync (which is now included in most volume licensing agreements, including the freshly updated Core CAL),  is how easily they can deliver a jaw-dropping collaboration infrastructure, simply by building on top of existing systems.

We’ll explore this concept below. However, if you’re more inclined to getting live advice, this happens to be the topic of our upcoming Discovery Series, a Softchoice-hosted event touring across parts of the USA in June. There will also be a webinar in July, in case you can’t attend the live events. Both will feature live demos of this technology in action.

The silos of communication and the situation today

Communications silos

Technology has brought us a very long way in terms of how we communicate in the business world. E-mail, telephones, IM, and conference calling enable us to do things that were unthinkable 20 years ago. But as these technologies have evolved, they have done so independently, in parallel with one another, creating communication silos. These independent silos have led to redundancies and inefficiencies for both the end user and the administrator.

It has become difficult and expensive to maintain these silos and to ensure each is in compliance with business and government regulations.

For most companies today, telephony, e-mail, IM, audio conferencing, video conferencing, Web conferencing, and voice mail all live in their own disconnected silos. Each has evolved a separate operating platform—often with proprietary third-party technology—separate authentication, separate administration, and separate storage and compliance.

This comes with a huge price tag and an equally enormous headache for the end user, who has to remember separate phone numbers, account names, and passwords. Plus, these users have limited communication with each device—for example, not being able to make audio calls from their computers. Ultimately, their communication is disconnected, and their collaboration and innovation are hindered.

Microsoft’s Unified Communications Vision

Microsoft’s solution, and UC in general, reduces complexity by putting people at the center of the communications experience. The goal is to integrate all of the ways we contact each other in a single environment—using a single identity, presence, and inbox— while providing businesses with the power to choose how they provision those services—whether on their own premises, as cloud services, or in a hybrid fashion.

3 reasons why the time is now for UC

#1: Needs are changing. Teams are more distributed and people are on the go, working from just about anywhere. It’s difficult to connect fully when people are not physically together.

According to the Forrester, Inc., 2009 Workforce Techno Graphics survey, 41 percent of information worker’s demonstrated a high need for mobility. 90 percent of employees work in locations other than headquarters, and 40 to 70 percent of employees work in different locations from their supervisors. The number of virtual workers (people who work in offices geographically separated from their supervisors) has increased by 800 percent since 2000 (Nemertes Research, 2005).

#2: The technologies are not integrated. This can lead to problems with multiple identities, overlapping investments, and an overall sub-optimal experience.

Businesses average more than six communications devices and almost five communications applications per employee (Sage Research for Cisco, September 2005). It is costly for any organization to support a complex web of non-integrated systems. The result is often high costs for the organization and low adoption and usage by employees.

#3: There hasn’t been much innovation in the most entrenched areas, like telephony. The phone as a device has not changed a lot since it came into common use, and people have rapidly switched to other forms of communications.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, one of every six households has given up the phone line. Likewise, a Nielsen Mobile research study indicates that U.S. mobile users are sending 1.7 times more text messages than making phone calls.

Building with what you got: integrating with existing infrastructure

So it’s pretty clear why organizations are interested in attaining UC. But that still doesn’t make building it any easier. The question now is: how can you integrate with existing investments and extend your communications platform to transform business processes?

A unified communications platform based on the Microsoft Office system is one approach that can help to extend investments and adapt to changing business needs. Here’s a few examples of how:

  • Exchange and Lync Server embrace interoperability, across multiple workloads, so organizations can smoothly deploy and migrate their customers over time
  • Lync Server supports federation between Lync Server customers and with public IM networks such as Windows Live, AOL, Yahoo, and Google Talk – this allows customers to connect to thousands of other Lync Server customers in a secure way and to reach over 500 million public IM users.
  • Lync Server also works with your existing PBX either through Direct SIP or qualified gateways.
  • Conferencing interoperability is available so customers can integrate with their existing room based and high end video conferencing solutions – connecting the specific use rooms with every user in your organization with a video camera, which is becoming the default configuration for laptops in the consumer space today and is making its way into the enterprise.
  • Many service providers are providing SIP trunking and other services that help organizations save costs. There are currently 10 qualified SIP Trunking vendors including Verizon, Swisscom and Sprint.
  • Microsoft embraces interoperability – as a founding member and active participant of the Unified Communications Interoperability Forum (UCIF), Microsoft is committed to enabling interoperability of UC hardware and software across enterprises, service providers, and consumer clouds.

When adopting Microsoft Unified Communications, you can take advantage of existing investments in—and extract additional business value from—both Microsoft and third-party vendor technologies.

On the Microsoft side, as you integrate UC technology into your existing environment, you can continue to take advantage of Active Directory as your single source of user data and provision users with a single user identity. You can also extend the value of your investment in Microsoft Office by accessing collaboration and real-time communications from within Office applications such as Microsoft Word, Outlook, and Excel.

Another benefit is that you can easily leverage third-party applications to build the solution you need without tremendous costs. Two common examples of this are,  first, connecting your existing room-based conferencing systems with Lync Server 2010 to improve use and visibility into the availability of conferencing resources. And second, reducing hardware and service-provider costs by connecting Lync Server 2010 to existing telephony systems or your service provider through SIP trunking.

Final thoughts

Reaching a more unified voice and collaboration platform is high on the priority list for many organizations. But building it is another issue altogether. Organizations may be able to integrate and extend existing infrastructures to cut down on costs while delivering next-generation performance.

To determine what your options are, and to see if you might be able to leverage existing investments in both Microsoft and third-party technologies to get the solution you want, we advise speaking to a technology specialist. You can also explore this question with Softchoice in person at our upcoming Discovery Series , which will feature live demos!

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About Tobin Dalrymple

Tobin Dalrymple is a longtime Softchoice contributor and the IEF program writer living in Montreal.