Published in IT/AV Report, Fall 2008

Unified Communications
By David Danto

Stepping into the future...without abandoning the past.

If you type “Unified Communications” into a search engine such as Google, you’ll find almost nine million responses. There is no shortage of definitions or opinions about the subject.

Generally, they all revolve around the claim that a person’s communication technology is “aware.” Something knows if you’re there, finds you if you’re not and figures out what network and/or device to use to reach you.

Voice and video calls magically transfer from your office to your mobile phone to your home, following you around. You have just one number, or maybe even one directory entry without a number, for voice and video at all your locations. Your mobile devices seamlessly transfer your communications from cellular bands to WiFi services when they come into range.

Yeah, Right

Yeah, right. For the most part, this has been just about as real as those magic beans the kid made up when he lost his family’s cow....If you could find systems that pretend to provide these features they would function only if you exclusively used products from just one firm.

Recent developments have brought this great myth closer to reality. Amazingly, just like our kid with the beanstalk, it’s taken a giant—in this case, two giants—to be the catalysts for this monumental change.

• Fe, Fi, Fo, Fum...CM and OCS aren’t having any fun (together): Although there are lots of other manufacturers and service providers in this space, Cisco and Microsoft play the role of our giants in this story.

Cisco, one of the leaders in VOIP technologies with its Call Manager platform, has long coveted an exclusive in-the-office communications territory. This giant is the champion of the IT network guys: a formidable force at any firm. Cisco unified communications, with Cisco Call Manager as the voice and video engine, makes a strong case for handling all communications needs in an enterprise—an all-Cisco enterprise, that is.

Microsoft, with its Office Communications Server (OCS system), is positioning itself to take over the voice and video communications space from the traditional PBX. This giant is the champion of the IT desktop/PC guys, another formidable force at a firm. The vision here is to dump all the phones and video endpoints and run all the communications on your (Microsoft OS) PC, controlled by a Microsoft server. This is also a strong case for meeting an enterprise’s communication needs: an all-Microsoft solution.

The challenge comes from the fact that the Cisco and Microsoft systems do not work together well. Each system really wants to be the heart and brains of your solution, and neither takes a secondary position very well. This challenge, and the potential business represented by the enormousness of the two players creating the gap, essentially has opened the door for third parties to come along with solutions. Here is where the excitement begins.

RCC, Proxy Servers

• RCC, Proxy Servers and all that glue: A number of firms have created hardware and software products to fill in the gaps and meet these new needs. For example, Remote Call Control applications will let you take a standard or VOIP telephone set and control it from the OCS interface. Click your buddy’s name on your PC and he will come in on your phone instead of your PC’s speakers. The RCC software tells your phone to connect to the right place and rings it through to you.

As another example, Proxy Servers will allow you to take your legacy voice and video endpoints and connect them into an OCS server. Your old videoconference unit can show up on your PC’s directory just like your buddy’s. A single click then connects your desktop video unit to your legacy room, or your Cisco VOIP phone to your OCS PC.

With the rules of the game changing like this, the task of designing the communications system for the next century is falling on a firm’s IT network administrators, not traditional players in the AV and media space. Although this team’s knowledge of things such as data communications, bandwidth and email is strong, team members may not fully understand the requirements of voice and video on the network.

Big Picture

• Retaining high value with legacy conferencing equipment: In light of all of this, it is urgent that AV systems designers, consultants and integrators look toward the big picture when recommending and installing conferencing equipment. Do the intended users have a published unified communications strategy? If not, you probably should point out that they should get one. If they do have one, do they have an understanding of legacy audio and video applications and how they present current and sustainable value?

You can be the hero here, by pointing out how everything that came before does not necessarily have to be thrown out to achieve new goals. Traditional conference equipment manufacturers have aligned themselves with Cisco and Microsoft in various configurations over the years. This will not change in the world of unified communications, as these firms align their products to work in a unified communications-enabled world.

• The difference between working and working well: How long after the novelty of speaking with their buddies on their PC ends will the end users realize how terrible the sound is from that PC’s speaker, the cheap headset and/or the crummy microphone typically used? Traditional players in the audio space, such as Plantronics and Polycom, already have innovative solutions available that are optimized for Microsoft’s OCS. Their devices do many things, such as deliver crystal-clear, high-definition, wideband audio and provide full access to the advanced presence-enabled features of Microsoft OCS.

On the video side, firms such as Polycom and Tandberg have a whole range of products available now and on their respective roadmaps that will allow their legacy systems (and other manufacturers’ legacy systems) to work as an integral part of an OCS deployment. Their efforts will make high-quality visual communication instantly accessible within unified communications environments.

The key point here is that you should make your customers understand that the move to unified communications does not have to mean the abandonment of the equipment and manufacturers that have supported communications efforts successfully in the past, and have gained tremendous expertise doing so.

Harnessing Synergy

Nor does it mean they have to throw away the equipment your clients have heavily invested in over many years. If designed correctly, users will be able to launch voice, video and telepresence calls with legacy, standards-based systems from within an OCS environment through Microsoft’s familiar interface. Taking advantage of this synergy will also give IT managers a tightly integrated solution that is easy to deploy and manage within a unified communications environment.

Future-Proof Choices

• Making good, future-proof choices: So, in light of the new unified communications world, it is now urgent to see past the current needs of your application as presented. When recommending and designing new systems and equipment for your client, how your equipment selections integrate within a unified communications plan becomes an important consideration to ensure future value. For example, can the videoconference equipment you’re considering register to either a traditional H.323 gatekeeper or an SIP server such as the kind Microsoft OCS uses? Is it capable of “dual registration,” or being available to both systems at the same time? Are these options available now…in the future…not on the roadmap?

These considerations become much more important now than ever before. For this specific example, the ability to dual register endpoints and MCUs with the OCS server and an H.323 gatekeeper greatly increases the potential calling scenarios while minimizing any possible disruption to an existing H.323 implementation. Dual registration also ensures widespread access to rich communication tools while simplifying the end-user experience.

In marketing babble, “The result is more efficient collaboration while, at the same time, reducing total cost of ownership and improving time-to-market for mission-critical applications.” The lesson here is that a feature not necessarily required on Day One becomes an essential part of “future-proofing” a current videoconferencing design.

As the buzz about unified communications grows, and your clients look to get into the space, your ability to incorporate their legacy rooms and systems into their new plans will truly add value.

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