Making Unified Communications Truly Unified

By James Whitemore

The term “unified communications” gets bandied about rather loosely by both vendors and IT departments today. Truthfully, what many organizations consider “unified” is still not unified at all. The problem is that many companies are still trying to make a square peg fit into a round hole when it comes to their networks. Large to medium enterprises are finding out – often very painfully – that they can’t just throw UC apps on a standardized network.

Instead, they should be looking to a multiprotocol label-switching (MPLS) network in order to fully optimize the benefits that can be achieved by converging voice and data traffic. And, if the network wants to be able to deliver cloud-based applications, it needs to be “application-aware” and designed for use in the cloud.

Yet in today’s telecom world, companies are discovering that their level of insight into what is happening within their networks is still too narrow to be effective. That makes it extremely challenging for IT and telecom to make the business case for a wide-scale unified communications migration that can really help grow the business.

What are some of the barriers to adoption? Very often, legacy infrastructure prevents distributed enterprises from truly unifying communications across the network. Also, many companies lack the staff and budget to get the most out of their existing communications infrastructure. The sheer complexity of converging voice, data, and video communications – and managing all of the vendors supporting those systems – often holds back the deployment of applications and services that could drive business growth.

That approach is very shortsighted. A cloud-based approach, combined with a hosted application-aware network, addresses the most significant barriers to benefiting fully from unified communications, including:

  • Legacy MPLS network services and a multitude of service providers
  • Legacy TDM (time division multiplexed) PBX equipment that they intend to keep in service
  • On-premise IP PBX systems that they also intend to keep in service
  • Contact center platforms and services that must be incorporated into a unified communications solution
  • The need to add new locations in places where they don’t yet have the infrastructure built out

A common myth in corporate America is that companies have to overhaul their entire network in order to migrate to unified communications. Nothing could be further from the truth; there is no need to rip and replace. What they don’t realize is that a hosted approach to managing the network environment actually makes it easier to deploy a converged, all-IP network as a fully-managed infrastructure. That hosted approach provides unparalleled application performance, flexibility, and resiliency, as well as a level of insight into the network that has never been possible before.

A successful migration to unified communications begins with a multi-phased migration, not the “rip and replace” myth. The multi-phased approach enables companies to ride the power of the cloud for their software as a service (SaaS) applications – as well as for their voice, unified messaging, network services, conferencing, and collaboration needs.

One gigantic advantage for companies dealing with multiple vendors is that a single, application-aware network eliminates the overwhelming complexity that it currently takes to manage legacy network infrastructure and services with multiple carriers. Taking this approach, distributed enterprises more easily phase in cloud-based unified communications through the hosted managed services approach – all without the huge capital investment of buying an entire new phone system. That’s a lot easier to sell upstairs to the CFO and CEO.

Still, for some CIOs, the thought of moving their communications into the cloud remains unsettling. What many still don’t understand is that hosted systems can and should provide them with better visibility and control. Hosted systems also provide more enhanced security from external threats such as hackers, network intrusions, viruses, phishing, spoofing, and spam though centralized managed security. These applications have traditionally been provided by different vendors and have not been unified on one platform.

Now, hosted providers are able to converge these apps on one communications platform. This allows companies to easily gain visibility across their applications, providing information through utilization reports, performance statistics, and a wealth of information about the applications they use every day.

This visibility is especially critical when it comes to network performance. Most MPLS networks today have QoS (quality of service) capabilities, but those are based on prioritizing already-tagged packets. By using a hosted application-aware approach, tags being assigned to traffic can now be based on packet analysis, source, and destination, as well as business use. Instead of just making a standardized laundry list of prioritized packets or not tagging packets at all, analysis based on the real needs of the enterprise dictates packet tagging and leads to maximum network coverage with greater flexibility.

On the other side, the managed service provider needs to couple that visibility and control for the customer with its own proactive network monitoring and management in order to eliminate the need to over-provision dedicated Internet access and other services. This level of support is critical in a fully converged environment, where companies are looking to integrate voice, data, video, and Internet services into a single network architecture.

The application-aware network also enables companies to achieve the most effective, dynamic bandwidth allocation possible for all applications – including Internet access – based not only on needs, but also on application layer prioritization. For large to medium enterprises, it is important to be able to balance the competing needs of the customer relationship management (CRM), supply chain management, and other enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems without adversely affecting business performance. The high quality, QoS-enabled network connectivity of an application-aware network ensures that the company has the bandwidth it needs at all times, especially for the most important, time-sensitive applications.

The bottom line is that a hosted application-aware network makes it possible to deliver true unified communications and improved network performance while still using legacy technologies. By deploying a hosted application-aware network, unified communications can finally be unified across the board for everyone, delivering real-time communications, centralized applications, and cloud-based services much more efficiently and effectively across even the most widely distributed enterprise.

James Whitemore is executive vice president of Smoothstone IP Communications, a provider of cloud-based communications for enterprise-level companies. He can be reached at jwhitemore@smoothstone.com.

[From the February/March 2012 issue of AnswerStat magazine]