Presence a big trend for unified communications

* Talking with Dave Hart, CTO of systems integrator Presidio Networked Solutions, about trends in unified communications

Is your company implementing unified communications? If so, consider how "presence technologies" can add value to your enterprise applications. Dave Hart, CTO of systems integrator Presidio Networked Solutions, says presence technology enables collaboration and mashups in ways that weren't possible before.

Is your company implementing unified communications? If so, consider how "presence technologies" can add value to your enterprise applications. Dave Hart, CTO of systems integrator Presidio Networked Solutions, says presence technology enables collaboration and mashups in ways that weren't possible before. 

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Dave Hart about the trends in unified communications. Hart oversees technology and strategy for Presidio Networked Solutions, a value-added solutions provider with an extensive portfolio that comprises unified communications, wireless, security, storage, and network infrastructure solutions. Presidio is immersed in numerous unified communications projects for corporate and government clients, and Hart shares his observations of how those organizations are using unified communications to create business efficiencies.

“In the past decade, unified communications has transformed from simply putting your voice on the IP network to where we are today,” says Hart. Where we are, in fact, is at the stage of integrating disparate communications systems, media, devices and applications. The result is that there is greater potential for people to collaborate and for companies to automate the workflow of sophisticated business processes.

Hart is especially excited about what “presence” can do to help us work in new or better ways. Hart defines presence as “real-time information about a person’s availability to communicate and the modes and preferences for reaching that person.” A presence engine holds the rules and drives the communications based on what a person defines as his preferences.

A presence-aware application such as an IM client can tap into the presence information and assist in making the communication happen, such as "click to dial" to call a cell phone or office phone, or to set up a PC to PC video call.

As an example, here’s how an integrated presence-enabled communication system could work. Say you want to reach a coworker who defines his regular “in the office” hours as 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. You simply call his desk line, and the communication system will find him, whether he’s at his desk or not. The system will call his desk line first, unless his calendar indicates he is at an off-site appointment, in which case it will call his mobile line or send an IM text. If the coworker is unavailable, the call can route to a colleague. The rules can be defined in many ways to ensure that calls or tasks are attended to promptly.

Hart says presence systems aren’t just for locating a specific person, but also can be helpful to find particular expertise. This could be especially helpful in the field of telemedicine. Say a rural doctor needs to speak to a specialist in pediatric cardiology to respond to an emergency situation. This doctor can access a directory that has an “expertise” attribute for each person listed. The call can go to the closest expert, or to the doctor with the most relevant experience, so the two medical professionals can collaborate real-time to help the patient. If the two professionals had access to a presence-enabled collaboration system, critical data such as results from an EKG can even flow automatically from one person to another to support the task at hand – in this case, diagnosing a medical condition. Hart adds that regulatory issues would need to be worked out, but “in its purest form, this is a much more efficient way to work.”

There are numerous vendors offering presence engines, including Microsoft, Cisco, IBM, Avaya, Mitel, Nortel and NEC. One of the problems with this market is that the companies often provide technologies that are incompatible with each other, which limits the ability to route calls across platforms. Hart says that corporate America is demanding this capability, so he expects federation of presence servers to be a hot button. In fact, Microsoft and Cisco have already pledged to make their technologies work together, even as they compete for market share.

Hart says the real benefit of unified communications and presence technology comes when companies integrate them with their existing enterprise applications to speed the workflow of business processes. This squeezes time delays out of the processes, making people and companies more efficient.

Hart and Presidio have lots of experience with unified communications. He says working through the pitfalls is mostly common sense if you’ve worked in IT for a while. To wit, here are his pieces of wisdom for anyone getting started with unified communications:

1. Realize that it’s complex technology, so plan well before jumping in. For every hour you spend planning, you will save 20 hours in implementation.

2. Look at the current infrastructure you have today and think about how you will get to where you want to be with unified communications. Consider your existing players (i.e., staff members, vendors, partners) and how they can help you.

3. Be wary of biting off more than you can chew. Phase the implementation. Unified communications products offer tons of features, but bringing all of them online at once can overwhelm your staff as well as the end users. Stage it so you introduce new capabilities gradually.

4. These are customer-facing technologies that go way beyond “just a phone system.” Think through the training aspects and help users understand how to use the new features and processes.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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