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The Evolution of Unified Communications

6 Oct, 2014 By: Kathy Vogler, PERRY proTECH

The office communication world used to be split into two primary areas - the phone and the computer.  In that environment, synchronous communications, such as making a phone call, depended on one network like a private branch exchange (PBX) or a key telephone system provided by a local phone company. Asynchronous, or message based communications such as email, depended on a separate, non-compatible network like Ethernet. Two very complex systems, they’re often controlled by different departments (maintenance and IT), and both with major costs associated with purchases, maintenance and upgrades. 

In the 1980’s, before cell phones and mobile devices, voice mail systems were an important feature for mobile workers.  Around 1985, email became more widely accepted in the workplace and voice mail service providers realized a need for email reading features. A major drawback to this solution was the reliance on the phone company to manage the system along with the expenses required for changes such as adding a new employee. Privatization drove the development of powerful software that increased usability and manageability.  As companies deployed IP (Internet Protocol) networks in their environments in the early 90’s, they began to use this mechanism to transmit voice instead of relying on traditional phone networks. Some vendors used circuit packs or cards for their existing PBX systems to interconnect. Other vendors, new to the voice scene, developed equipment that could be placed in routers to transport voice calls across a company network. The termination of PBX circuits is often called Voice over IP (VoIP).  This type of IP solution was software driven and eliminated the need for switching equipment at the customer site except for the equipment necessary to connect to the outside world. 

The new technology was called IP telephony (tə-ˈle-fə-nē).  This allowed the phone to live on the network as another computer device.  Transmitting voice now meant encoding the conversation and transporting it with RTP or Real-Time Transfer Protocol. The flood gates opened for advanced features by allowing other computer applications to communicate with the phone in a wide variety of ways.

Wide Scope

The term unified communications, or UC,  appeared in the late 90’s and is the integration of real-time communication service such as instant messaging, presence (online visibility to the availability of a co-worker), telephony, video conferencing, desktop and data sharing, integrated voice mail, email, SMS and fax.  UC is not a single product, but a wide range of products that provide a consistent unified user-experience across multiple devices and media. UC also allows for integration through software to business processes. 

I am fortunate to work for a company that not only implements cutting edge technologies for our clients, but also provides those same technologies to all of us at work. We definitely eat our own dog food.  I can be on the phone with a client and open a chat with a colleague to help answer a question, instantly. There is no back and forth of voice mails or emails and no waiting. I can access the right resource at the right time. 

I did an informal poll at our Sidney location that houses the IT/Networking team to find out their favorite part of having UC at work. The technicians nearly all chose instant messaging while others appreciate the web interface for online meetings either from our phones, video conference, PC/Laptop/Tablets or a combination all of the above in one meeting.  Admin appreciate having a directory search right on their phone, and the sales team members appreciate a single number reach so their clients don’t have to remember their work number, their cell phone number or their email address – one contact rolls through all. My personal favorite is that I can retrieve voice mails left on my office phone from my cell phone at anytime from anywhere through my email and can save the file or forward it to a co-worker if need.  It’s all on the network. “We have a plethora of collaboration resources” as one of our network design team members stated.

Digital Data

Aside from the obvious time and productivity benefits, UC is comprised of digital data that is transmitted through high-speed connections … it’s not only faster but it’s more secure. This connection allows for encryption of data coming and going so it keeps a message private and stored on the network. UC often lowers operational costs with reduced travel costs and windshield time driving to and from meetings, and provides network transport such as intelligent call routing and SIP gateways using a WAN connection that can manage other business applications too.

The legacy phone system has moved from a capital expenditure and now ties to the Internet of Things.  Total Cost of Ownership comes from a different perspective. The expense of UC should be considered for the full anticipated lifespan of the UC solution – typically around 6 years. According to Aberdeen Group’s study on the Total Cost of Ownership for Unified Communications published in 2012, the deployment of a UC solution should be based on the expected headcount at the end of the life cycle rather than the beginning.  If you plan ahead and take advantage of lower cost per unit at larger deployment counts, you can potentially reduce the deployment cost. Additionally, Aberdeen Group found that 76% of IPT deployments had a concurrent LAN (Local Area Network) deployment and 53% conducted a WAN (Wide Area Network) upgrade. Both of these increase bandwidth and support a higher quality of service. UC requires ongoing support including maintenance contracts, software assurance, cost of service orders, systems management, power backup plans, training and time and labor associated with Moves, Adds, Changes and Disconnects (MAC-D).  Communication systems now require a holistic view throughout the entire organization. 

The enhancements in data security, employee productivity, customer satisfaction, and reduced operational costs realized by moving to unified communications allow businesses to map out a technology strategy that gives them access to current and future capabilities and the flexibility they need to support their success. I can’t imagine working without it.

Kathy Vogler is the Marketing Director for PERRY proTECH, a leading provider of business technology solutions and products throughout north and western Ohio, northeastern Indiana, and southern Michigan. Visit http://www.perryprotech.com for company info or http://kvogler@perryprotech.com

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