21 May 2016
Not everyone is convinced by the unified communications (UC) concept. One media pundit recently described it as a networking notion that has ‘been around for 20 years and gone nowhere... despite incessant promotion by the tech industry’.However, the market for this ‘going nowhere’ technology is estimated to have been worth $26.5bn (£18.5bn) globally in 2015, and set to rise to $62bn by 2020 (BCC Research). And a 2015 study by Ovum and Dimension Data reckoned that some 78 per cent of IT decision makers indicated that they now have both a ‘current strategic plan’ and budget for some components of collaboration-based UC, which suggests that basic value-recognition is on the up.
Typically, UC deployment can be on-premises (in-house), cloud-based (sometimes called ‘unified communication as a service’ – UcaaS), or a hybrid combination of the two. BCC Research’s Unified Communication and Collaboration: Technologies and Global Markets report, published last January, forecasts that the market for on-premises deployment should grow from $18.2bn in 2015 to $37.8bn in 2020, while adoption of cloud-based services should total nearly $18bn by 2020, up from $6.5bn in 2015. It predicts the fastest-growing category of deployment is hybrid: the value of this market totalled $1.8bn in 2015, and is set to reach $6.2bn by 2020.
If accurate, these look like healthy figures, with continued build-outs of enabling technologies (cloud, 4G, Wi-Fi), and the new penchant for coupling UC with enterprise collaboration tools, further contributing to UC’s renewed popularity.
Yet suspicions persist that uptake revenues could be even higher if more enterprise strategists didn’t find UC’s broad remit difficult to pin down. Todd Carothers, executive VP of marketing and product at CounterPath, suggests shifting definitions of what precisely constitutes a ‘UC solution’ have, down the years, kept customers and vendors confused: “Historically, the term ‘unified communications’ has been very nebulous and poorly-defined – any communications tool in the enterprise would fall under the umbrella of UC. More recently, however, the definition, particularly to end-users, is becoming more stringent, and communications are finally becoming unified within a single experience.”
Frank Barr, head of UC at Capita IT Enterprise Services, says previously organisations have set UC strategy as covering anything from implementing an office VoIP PBX, to delivering a collection of applications providing messaging and video. He adds that projects have been tactical, and justified on notions of cost saving.
Rob Bamforth, principal analyst, business communications at Quocirca, supports this view: “At one time, UC looked more like ‘unified plumbing’ in that the focus was mostly about converging the network, and rationalisation, and a lot of emphasis was on the benefits of saving money by making calls [via] VoIP.”
The definitions issue stems partly from the fact that ‘unified communications’ has been ascribed as a catch-all industry buzzword as much as a standard category of ICT. Just to paraphrase its Wikipedia entry, UC is described as (deep breath): integration of enterprise end-user communication services that are both real-time – (IM, presence info, mobile and IP voice), mobility features (extension mobility and single number reach), audio, web/video conferencing, fixed-mobile convergence, desktop sharing, data sharing (collaboration tools), call control, and speech recognition – and non-real-time, such as unified messaging (integrated voicemail, email, SMS, fax).
And that’s just for starters. Little wonder that packaged to cover so many bases, UC might have left networking practitioners uneasy about what they would be buying-in to.
“I don’t think that the standard UC concept holds relevance for enterprise network managers and other ICT practitioners,” says James Arnold-Roberts, CEO at Genius Networks and G3 Comms. “The technology has gone through two game-changing transformations – cloud and virtualisation – and now bears little resemblance to ‘standard’ solutions.”
Alexander Seyf, partner at Sytel Reply, agrees. Because the term ‘unified communications’ seems all-embracing, he reckons many organisations don’t understand the breadth of the technology, nor the benefits it can bring. This has often resulted in misguided approaches to UC, with many organisations adopting it as a way to unify legacy equipment, unify disparate teams, or just cut costs, without focusing on the strategic business benefits UC can deliver.
So how should these strategic business benefits best be gained? According to Adrian Brooks, corporate solutions technologist at Avaya, with the current generation of UC solutions network managers now have to realise that they are, in effect, seeking to deploy real-time communications ‘mechanisms’.
“It’s not just straightforward deployment. Network managers need to understand which of these mechanisms should be prioritised on the network, as there are now so many.
“Users now have their own important applications. These will include voice, video, instant messaging, collaboration tools, and engagement-based technologies. Each one is different, but each one ensures company productivity and has to be supported by the network team.”
Capita’s Barr also points out that with UC, network management strategies need to be agile in adoption, with a defined framework of service interconnection and security management architectures to maintain business robustness, and ensure completeness of experience.
“Network managers will always face the challenge of balancing complexity and cost, as well as forecasting user capacity requirements in an increasingly dynamic, flexible working world,” says Barr. “Many WAN provider products available to them still use concepts that follow fixed circuit bandwidths. Let’s [also] consider products that follow SDN technologies provisioned on demand – capacity provisioned ‘just-in-time’, and decommissioned immediately when surplus to requirements. Having the systems in place to authenticate, audit, and account for the SDN orchestrations will be key [for future deployments].”
When it comes to delivering UC globally, voice remains one of the biggest challenges, according to Arnold-Roberts. The issues are with SIP, the network protocol for delivering voice.
“The ability to find good quality SIP that actually works has been a long-running problem. Although it has been developed to a point where it became a reliable alternative to, say, ISDN, when it comes to voice, latency is a problem when networks are connecting globally. So making a call within the UK would be fine but calling international customers can be a big issue if you are not using reliable SIP local in that country.”
So that’s not good news for users who want to use UC to collaborate with overseas clients. But Arnold-Roberts goes on to say that the issue can be managed with intelligent routing across carriers selected for their latency performance. “UC has had to adapt – but it is arguable that networks have faced the bigger challenge.”
Drivers for change
This use of collaboration tools to work with external partners as well as for internal interactions is a force for change in the development of UC deployment, says Chris Nunn, head of customer experience and collaboration
at Dimension Data.
“Many organisations are highly distributedand employees need collaboration tools to interact with people outside the company. So they’re more likely to turn to collaboration technology to support complex multinational operations.”
Nunn believes they’re also more reliant on collaboration tools to help them connect with a global base of customers. He says companies that Dimension Data has surveyed have stated that they support a highly-distributed set of customers and partners. “[For them], a collaboration strategy that extends beyond the enterprise to stakeholders around the world is essential.”
The growing desire to implement collaboration-based work models for internal deployment is providing uplift to UC products equipped with collaboration-enabling features. Mark Lewis, EVP of communications and connectivity at Interoute, says this is because the benefits of enhanced collaboration are deemed to equate with individual productivity.
But at the same time, IT decision-makers are wary of building-out an extended and scalable system that succeeds in unifying enterprise communications requirements but is also onerous to manage. According to Lewis, the challenging questions ambitious IT leaders are generally asking are: “Where do we start? And can it genuinely all be integrated, piece by piece, without becoming the mother-of-all IT programmes with years to run, and vendor lock-in happening somewhere after six months?”
User buy-in key
End-user take-up is a critical determinant of any new UC deployment’s success. That sounds obvious, but unlike other varieties of enterprise application, nowadays users are more likely to have their own preferences when it comes to voice and data options, and therefore may be inclined to stick to them rather than switch their to a new UC system.
“Employee expectation is higher than ever before when it comes to technology, and UC brings together a wide and diverse range of different modes,” says Avaya’s Brooks. “However, to make all these different communication streams workable, you still need a single inbox, which is what UC does. And therefore, modern UC – which incorporates so many more streams – is more relevant than ever to network managers.”
The message is plain: a new, incoming UC system has to prove itself as providing features and services that are ahead of the incumbent applications it replaces. This is a challenge for network management function because very often such migrations are not a straightforward matter of migrating from like-to-like. An employee’s personal preferences may be ingrained, and call for more effort on the part of IT in sorting out the migration of individual users, not just interest groups or workload-specific departments.
“Nowadays, people aren’t interested in new technology just for the sake of it – they want something that makes life easier for them. So even the best UC solution on the market may be pointless if there is little user need for it,” says Dean Manzoori, VP product management at Masergy. “So it’s a case for the IT teams, and UC providers, to make sure employees find and understand the value of the solution.
“For instance, if you take a regular office worker, they may not immediately find the benefits of a new instant messaging client. But for a mobile worker who doesn’t want to miss taking a call, UC with a mobile client apps is compelling. Knowledge workers tend to be among the early adopters, and then become key influencers to others in an organisation.”
Because of this reality, Quocirca’s Bamforth believes enterprises are mostly coming round to the fact that UC should be more centred on the individual rather than the technology. “The next step [can then be] more emphasis on the business process and group impact of UC. I like a definition of good communication I heard years ago: raising the level of mutual understanding – a shared value among participants.”
The BYOD debate is a concomitant factor in the successful management of end-user UC acceptance. CounterPath’s Carothers says users may want total device independence and don’t want to be dictated to when it comes to using a specific device. “This can prove particularly difficult for network managers in large organisations that want to keep foreign devices off their network for security reasons.
“Enterprise mobility management tools allow users to remain independent in what devices they choose to use, but protect the network at the same time.”
He goes onto warn that ‘BYOD’ is segueing into ‘BYOA’ (bring your own app), thus creating a much riskier situation for UC security.
Maria Grant, product director at Intercity Technology, says that when UC meets BYOD, organisations typically experience a significant change in business process and work-life balance designed to improve user engagement. But she points out that buy-in from users for any newly rolled-out technology is crucial.
“BYOD is more likely to succeed because [an organisation is] allowing employees to keep familiarity that comes from a personal choice. Therefore, in theory, BYOD should improve the speed of UC implementation while reducing costs, and thus lead to the collaboration and productivity gains businesses are after.”
Dimension Data adds to that by saying the challenges of BYOD have to be met as part of an overall mobility strategy, rather than regarded as a rogue phenomenon predisposed to impair efficiency rather than enhance it. Nunn says: “Ideally, BYOD should be part of an enterprise mobility model which treats device ownership status as just another parameter, [similar to] employee type, device type, mobile operating system, tariff plan, and remote access management.”
Boosted in part by the requirements of extended collaboration and beneficent BYOD, the market for UC products looks assured. And it seems the elusive ‘standard’ definition will remain in flux. Alexander Seyf at Sytel Reply argues that business requirements will always evolve, and the scope and definition of UC should change accordingly.
“Organisations that need employees to be always contactable – including those in disparate locations or regularly travelling – have opted for a single-number solution, delivered under the guise of fixed-mobile convergence – with varying success.”
Other businesses have dispensed with hard-wired desktop phones for the entire workforce, and negotiated aggressive tariffs for mobile phones to replace them. So in Seyf’s view, the cost of consolidation moves down the list of priorities going forward, and the nub of the UC value proposition, for now, is driven by the rise of more capable collaboration solutions.
“UC began as an internal IT system and has grown into a B2B collaboration tool,” adds Jon Seddon, head of product at Outsourcery. “Within the UC industry, we are seeing ever-greater specialism, with custom applications and technologies being brought to bear. Examples include healthcare, where UC is being used to aid remote diagnosis, or in the legal sector, where it provides the same level of compliance for document review by using touch and video technologies.”
For Quocirca, some bald patches on the fabric of the UC concept still need to be fixed before it delivers on its full potential. Bamforth says: “There’s probably still a bit of a gap in some UC solutions in the connection to mobile, when for many, mobile is becoming the norm, and wearables will only push this further along. We almost need new metaphor to connect and make use of multi-modal communications paths between several people who might be using very different endpoints to join the same ‘conversation’.”
But no matter how compelling the UC application, the future focus should always be brought back to network capacity planning and provisioning.
While Capita’s Barr believes UC represents the evolution of networking technologies, Avaya’s Brooks reckons the first thing network managers must now always do is to make sure that sufficient capability and capacity is delivered to the application.
“For example, voice is far less tolerant to network degradation than video calls. It’s vital that network managers and engineers ensure that each element of the UC application is delivered as a premium service – and stays unaffected by any other service.
“Whether it is video calls, HD conference calls, or whatever, network management needs to make sure that everything works together in that environment.
“In short, the core technological challenges of unified communications deployment are still the same today as they were 10 years ago – maintaining and relieving complex networks.”