Fast-Tracking Your UC Plans in a Recession

Unified communications is one of the many projects that seems to be getting delayed during the downturn. Why? As I talk to IT practitioners about the projects they're putting on ice, there's a common theme: organizations will spend money on IT projects and services to cut costs, drive tangible benefits, or maintain current business level-that's it.

Simply put, in order for a budget item to be approved, IT folks must show it's necessary for business continuance, or that it will offer a clear return-on-investment within a year or less. As one IT director said, "We'll spend money to keep the lights on, and protect ourselves against disaster, but that's about it."

Unsurprisingly, many companies see unified communications as a "nice-to-have", rather than a "must-have." IT folks have trouble creating a compelling business case. Even when there's a perceived ROI, they haven't been able to quantify hard-dollar cost savings. And UC vendors don't make it easy by bombarding the market with conflicting marketing messages, architectures, and services.

So how can you fast-track your UC project in this recession? The first step is to understand that UC isn't just "unified messaging." There are multiple components. At a high level, Nemertes views unified communications as comprising Voice Over IP, conferencing (audio, video, and Web), unified messaging, instant messaging, IP contact-center applications, and other social-computing or collaborative capabilities. All can be extended to mobile devices and integrated with enterprise applications. And key to everything is integrated presence, which provides the context of when to use which method of communication.

In today's economic climate, those pushing for UC need to be able to speak to the value of each component-in addition to being able to position the value of integrating them all under one UC umbrella. That said, some elements are an easier sell than others. Take conferencing: Most organizations are putting the kibosh on travel-which spotlights the value of both Web and video conferencing.

And in fact, I'm seeing a dramatic uptick in interest in videoconferencing solutions, particularly at the low end. Organizations already were increasing their evaluations of video conferencing to provide a richer meeting experience for distributed workers and partners. Now they're highlighting the real cost savings, reducing the need for in-person meetings and travel.

Similarly, the value proposition of contact-center applications may be facilities savings: Companies can save millions of dollars in facilities costs by enabling remote agents and virtual contact-center workers, and shutting down (or deferring) physical construction. Finally, VOIP may deliver real hard-dollar savings if it's used to enable SIP trunking, thereby cutting carrier services costs.

Not every UC component delivers such easily-quantifiable benefits, though. Some-though not nearly all-enterprises say they're delaying telepresence due to the high price point. (Others say the payback justifies the price point, and are forging ahead with telepresence plans, however). And user interfaces, such as real-time communications dashboards that provide users with a single view of multiple UC applications integrated with presence, may also be put on hold, due to the costs associated with integration and rollout.

So to fast-track your UC project, cherry-pick the components that clearly deliver value today, and drive them forward. But balance the need for hard ROI today with the goal of an integrated strategy downstream-make sure each application is standards-based, that multiple UC applications interoperate, and that presence is part of the plan.

Unified communications architecture

Elements of UC

When Nemertes talks UC, we first define architecture, so enterprises have the understanding of where the array of products fits in the buzz of “unified communications.” UC is a model for understanding how organizations can integrate various communication and collaboration applications into an integrated set of interfaces, gateways and functions.

Nemertes’ UC model defines multiple components. First, are UC applications, the services that employees can use to communicate and collaborate, both internally and externally. This move underscores the growing desire of enterprise IT managers to reduce operating costs and boost the productivity of mobile users.

Services are accessed by user interfaces, the methods that provide access into various UC services. Interfaces may be stand-alone desktop or mobile clients (a real-time communication dashboard such as IBM Lotus Sametime, Microsoft Office Communicator, or other client), or they could provide UC services access via a portal, office application (Microsoft Office or IBM Lotus Notes) or through custom-written applications designed for a specific organization, vertical, or job function.

They often use common protocols, the standards for linking various services to each other, as well as to external applications via gateways, or application interfaces. Presence is considered the “glue” of unified communications, enabling applications to share information about user status and availability. We also include interfaces to external systems, such as legacy PBXs, external wireless networks, or business applications via Web services or service-oriented architecture (SOA) frameworks. And of course the core infrastructure to support UC: management, directory and security services.

This framework provides a reference that organizations can use to classify UC components, and determine how each of their vendors fit into an overall UC architecture. From the vendor perspective, this architecture captures the major components of UC, providing a common framework by which to classify product and/or service offerings.

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.