Guide to unified communications

Unified communications involves a series of technology decisions and this is where users will consider IM, presence and unified messaging options and the best methods for attacking rollouts and integration.

Mike Gotta, an analyst with the Burton Group, says a best practice is to think about these decisions not in terms of single projects but as part of a program, a program that could take up to three years to complete.

"Users have to get together the desktop team, the collaboration team, the [unified communications] teams, they have to get the compliance people involved, they have to work with the business units on decision rights, they have to determine how much of this is centralized, how much wiggle room the line-of-business units have, there will be touch points with wireless carriers, there are a lot of pieces, so the biggest thing is organization and governance," he says.

A study on unified communications by Osterman Research found that 45% of organizations reported that they anticipated some level of political difficulty if they migrated to unified communications, while another 7% expected 'lots of difficulty.' And all that comes before users even get a whiff of technology choices.

Gotta also points out that development tools need to be considered for creating original communications-enabled business applications or extensions to a vendor's platform.

Another key is to develop service-level agreements and determine hardware requirements for desktops that will turn from computing resources to communication devices akin to the telephone and mobile devices. And remember that messaging and telecom are distinct groups that manage separate systems so migration strategies should take both architecture and organizational factors into account.

The best of the best practice, however, is to slow down. So measure twice and spend once.

How does unified communications work?

Today, instant messaging, presence and unified messaging are fairly well understood.

IM works by creating a network of users who can choose to make themselves available to the entire network or to a select group of "buddies." Users sign on to a centralized server, which then shows the rest of the network they are online. Users, however, can control that information from their client by indicating they are "busy" or "away from my computer." The server also brokers connections between users wanting to chat with one another.

Enterprise-grade management tools have helped companies manage consumer IM systems employed by users, and enterprise class IM platforms such as those from IBM and Microsoft have given IM the management and directory integration IT has desired. A collection of compliance and auditing tools from third-party vendors rounds out the picture.

The biggest draw back, however, is that there is not a unifying standard protocol similar to e-mail's SMTP that lets users on one system interact with users on separate systems. Today, contractual deals involving combinations of vendors including AOL, Google, IBM, Microsoft and Yahoo provide some level of IM integration.

Presence has long been thought of as a feature of IM. Presence allows users to see who is online, but presence in its own right has become a key technology for unified communications overall. The management problem has been how to centralize presence information so users can get accurate data on which device a user is currently using: desktop, soft phone or mobile device. But it also provides integration benefits in other areas such as showing if the author of a document is online and available to be contacted.

Unified messaging is a concept that has long been pushed by vendors, coveted by users, but only sporadically embraced by IT. The ability to have e-mail, voice and fax in a single in-box, or listen to e-mail messages from a telephone foreshadows efficiencies for users.

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