Riding unified communications to the core

Published: May 7th, 2008

As technologies relentlessly converge, market opportunities for IT resellers expand, and one of the hottest areas today is that nebulous creature known as unified communications (UC).

“Unified communications is the buzz du jour in our industry, but there are a lot of different ideas out there about what it actually is,” says Matthias Machowinski, directing analyst, enterprise voice and data at Campbell, Calif.-based Infonetics Research. “What everyone seems to agree on though is that there are two key components that form the cornerstone of UC: unified messaging, which stores all message types, and communicator, a presence-enabled directory that shows contact availability by communication mode. A true UC user will have both, and in fact they are the top two applications being deployed by IP PBX adopters.”

Of course, commented blogger The VAR Guy, an anonymous industry observer who has been sharing his sometimes irreverent insights about the IT channel with readers on a number of sites for over a year, while most vendors at the VoiceCon conference in March were touting some sort of UC solution (he counted over 70 press releases in one day), many were simply voice over IP (VoIP) products with a new marketing spin. And what’s the difference between VoIP and UC? “Most customers and quite a few VARs probably couldn’t tell you,” he blogged.

In fact, companies almost always emphasize their own strengths when defining any emerging technology, to give themselves a competitive advantage, so both customers and VARs must exercise caution when choosing products. “UC is reaching peak hype,” VAR Guy blogged, “which means many of these initial products may not meet customer expectations.”

Nevertheless, the market has gone wild for UC. Analysts at IDC predict the worldwide UC market could hit US$17 billion by 2011, and Frost and Sullivan says North American enterprise voice and unified messaging (which it describes as a stepping-stone to UC) will hit US$1.03 billion in 2013, up from US$699 million in 2007.

Vendors scrambling aboard the UC bandwagon

All kinds of companies have hopped onto the UC bandwagon: hardware vendors, software vendors, and service providers. Even telcos are getting into the act – Telus, for example, offers extensive services to help customers implement UC solutions that (naturally) include its wireless products, and Bell’s Converged Office solution involves the merging of presence, calendaring and communications applications through IP connectivity.

VoIP is the key, and UC is closely tied to its proliferation in communications. Carter Kersh, director of North American UC marketing at Nortel Networks, says according to some analysts VoIP sales began to eclipse TDM sales in 2005 or 2006. Since then, Kersh says VoIP has continued to grow and customers are increasingly turning to other parts of their network and converging those platforms into a UC network.

“Customers are doing this not to save a few dollars on move/add/change costs, but to either reduce business costs with applications such as Remote Home Worker or to increase revenue by eliminating wasted time from communications delays with clients and customers,” says Kersh.

Nortel’s definition of UC is broad and all encompassing: the integration of real time communications infrastructure and communications applications (voice, video, data, presence, and productivity applications) made available wherever you are, whenever you need them.

Kersh adds in the past year Nortel has seen a significant increase in customers interested in converging their desktop environment (Microsoft Office / Exchange / and OCS or IBM Lotus Notes / Sametime) with their communications environment.

“This has driven up demand for VoIP migrations and for services to handle complex network integration efforts,” says Kersh.

IBM has also seen a “huge growth” in demand for UC in the past 12 to 18 months says Adam Gartenberg, senior offering manager for UC and collaboration software at IBM.

“Because of the focus on migrating to VoIP, the focus has shifted from just telephony systems to how all this can be integrated for users at the desktop level, and integrating the communication capabilities and collaboration capabilities,” says Kersh.

As far as Cisco Systems is concerned the key is mobility says Robb Berger, senior manager, business development, worldwide channel. “UC is being able to take all of the tools you use every day in the office and use them in a unified fashion. People should have the same experience they have in the office when they work from home.”

And the device you’re using doesn’t matter either says Carmi Levy, senior vice-president, strategic consulting with AR Communications Inc.

“UC breaks down the barrier between formerly disparate technologies. You can access a common inbox and a common method of communication regardless of the channel or the device you’re using,” says Levy. “Switching to UC you’re accessing a converged, consistent datastore.”
Of course, you’re also becoming much more accessible, regardless of where you are, which can present challenges. “Like any advances in technology, there are shifts in the work/life relationship,” Gartenberg notes.

However, for a mobile worker having a system that automatically re-routes calls to their current location can be invaluable. Later this year, IBM is launching integrated telephony for Sametime, which can be set up to perform intelligent routing of calls. “We’re finding a lot of demand because of the amount of time people spend tracking each other down,” says Gartenberg.

That’s definitely a step forward, but cautions Levy, “in companies without a telework policy or mobile device acceptable use policy, each employee will decide what is acceptable use. Companies need policies in place beforehand. UC will change how people use mobile devices.”

On the positive side, this does provide companies with an opportunity to review their mobile device contracts. “If a significant part of the business shifts to mobile telephony, and voice shifts to data, companies should make sure their contracts and plans take this into account,” Levy says. “It’s a golden opportunity for resellers to offer a value-added service and not just implement infrastructure, deploy devices, and walk away.”

The move towards UC drives two things for Nortel and its partner community, says Kersh – equipment and services.

On the equipment side, customers are looking to refresh their communications networks, and are also looking to Nortel for its UC-ready data infrastructure. And on the services side, customers increasingly need help with initial network assessments, installation and integration, and then they continue to need maintenance and connectivity or advanced networking services.

“These are both great opportunities for our partners from a revenue and margin standpoint,” says Kersh.

A stepping-stone, UC with a PBX

Even if a customer doesn’t want to rip and replace its existing PBX there’s still the opportunity to sell UC says Vincent Guihan, director of marketing for Ottawa-based Objectworld Communications. In addition to traditional VoIP-based products, Objectworld’s product portfolio includes software solutions designed for SMB customers with an existing PBX that want to get into UC without replacing their phone system. Objectworld UC Server Standard Edition supports PBX systems from Avaya, Mitel, Nortel, Cisco, NEC, and others – about 95 per cent of PBXs sold in North America.

“It allows existing telco VARs or IP data VARs to deliver UC on top of an existing PBX,” says Guihan. “Like Microsoft, we very much have the mantra, don’t rip and replace unless you have to.”

Indeed Microsoft’s take on UC is, no surprise, software-based.

“A company can invest in software, marry it with existing hardware, and teach an old phone new tricks,” says Erin Elofson, Microsoft Canada’s senior UC and collaboration product manager.

It’s an opportunity all resellers can capitalize on, she says. Any partner Exchange Server and Outlook expertise is very well equipped and positioned to think about the broader UC opportunity.

“Microsoft is over-investing in UC training – we know there is a lot of momentum in the marketplace right now, but we don’t expect customers are going to turn around and purchase right away,” says Elofson. “They need a lot of information across all of the UC workloads before they can make a decision.”

Guihan says Objectworld sees the market shaping in two ways. It will probably evolve short-term with two kinds of vendors: those who say “if you want UC, you have to switch to VoIP” and companies such as Microsoft and Objectworld that say, “don’t replace the PBX, add UC on top.” In the next 12 months, Guihan believes adding UC on top will be a more popular option. “For VARs, it’s an opportunity to deploy UC without knowing a lot about traditional telephony – it’s all point and click,” says Guihan. “In the mid-term we see UC moving into the data centre.”

Levy adds with the landscape shifting from voice-only analog to digital, where voice is the new data, customers don’t know where to start looking, and will be turning to their trusted channel advisors for help.

“They look to resellers to provide a measured conversation, to be a trusted advisor from start to finish,” says Levy. “UC will be the pillar on which the business of tomorrow operates. It’s a perfect opportunity to get right to the core of that business.”