Unified communications, technology that lets organizations combine applications such as telephony, e-mail, instant messaging and video conferencing on an IP network, is at an interesting point in its evolution.
On the one hand, the technology itself is mature. Several companies, including Avaya, Cisco Systems, Microsoft and ShoreTel, offer robust suites that are well integrated and interoperable. On the other hand, IT managers at state and local agencies are still trying to match their needs to UC's broad capabilities.
“There's been a lot of hype about UC for several years now, and it hasn't yet taken off as expected,” says Rich Costello, senior research analyst for unified communications at IDC. “UC is more of a gradual thing. It's a learning process.”
The good news is that analysts believe users have learned a lot in the past year. Both IDC and research firm Gartner forecast significantly greater adoption of UC in the near future, even as customers wade through ever-larger suites of UC products to figure out which applications work for them. In the August research note “Magic Quadrant for Unified Communications,” Gartner analysts Bern Elliot and Steve Blood wrote, “Although UC suites offer the full spectrum of UC functionality, in most cases, they do not offer best-of-breed functionality in all areas.”
As a result, UC has become something of an a la carte menu of options, with many state and local governments starting small, focused on specific communications needs and motivated by operational factors. They may not start out thinking they need unified communications, but for what they know they need, unified communications is often the best solution.
“The way things are with the economy and the way budgets have been stretched or reduced, there's a need to do things smarter. And there's a need to consolidate, whether it's people, locations or technologies,” says IDC's Costello.
Cost and Consolidation Drives Change
In Gaston County, N.C., CIO Brandon Jackson says cost and consolidation were the primary reasons his office moved to Avaya Unified Communications. “We wanted to get away from two diverged systems [network and telephony], rely less on two physical wiring models and lower the cost of new facilities,” he explains.
Before adopting UC, Gaston County performed a complete network overhaul with Avaya Ethernet routers and switches. Then it deployed UC across three sites. Today, users receive voicemail in their Microsoft Outlook inboxes, but the county has been slow to roll out other UC applications.
“The emergency management and health departments are looking at incorporating video, but for now that's a nice-to-have feature, not a need-to-have feature,” Jackson says. Meanwhile, his department saves Gaston County roughly $95,000 per year compared with its legacy phone system in terms of direct costs, support and maintenance.
On the other side of the country, staffers in Santa Rosa, Calif., enjoy a fuller UC experience, including the ability to manage their ShoreTel IP phone systems using Apple iPhone and iPad apps.
“With the ShoreTel Communicator software on their computers, people can view their call histories, check their voicemails or place calls from the computer,” says Ari Piotrkowski, senior IT technician for the city.
In Santa Rosa government, voicemail files are routed to users' Microsoft Outlook accounts, and city workers on the UC platform can see who is available online using the software’s presence features. The city has not yet rolled out video communications, but Piotrkowski says video apps are under evaluation.
“It's hard to say what our return on investment has been because we still have some legacy phone infrastructure in place,” Piotrkowski says. “But there has been tangible cost savings. Maintenance costs are down, as well as the cost of add/move changes. By using UC, we've been able to focus more on our department’s core functions, like broadening our VMware environment and upgrading our wide area network, because we're freed from our old phone system.”
Whither the Cloud?
Just when industry watchers agree that the traditional unified communications market has matured in terms of its breadth and functionality, the cloud serves up a whole new dimension.
Rich Costello, senior research analyst for unified communications at IDC, cautions that organizations will need to weigh the perceived cost savings of a cloud-based UC model against the need for a secure, UC infrastructure. “They'll want to ask things like, 'Are we sharing this cloud with somebody, or is it just ours?'” he says.
But the decision to deploy UC in a cloud comes down to whether service providers can guarantee an acceptable level of service, Costello concludes.
Organizations thinking of moving their UC to a cloud should also ask the following questions:
- How will the IT department ensure only authorized users can access its UC services? What forms of identity management does the cloud solution support?
- How does a particular cloud solution conform or not conform to any regulatory requirements that might govern the organization's IT and security systems? Are there any custom measures needed to comply with the organization’s unique requirements?
- How will the cloud provider handle any possible security breaches? What information will be relayed to the IT staff —and when — and how will the IT department maintain critical UC services even as it resolves any possible security issues?