Who Knows What When

By Frank Ohlhorst  |  Print this article Print


Desktop-as-a-Service Designed for Any Cloud ? Nutanix Frame

Opinion: Properly integrated unified communications can bring order to chaos.

Business is all about communications, and as businesses add advanced communications technologies, information that is shared grows exponentially. Today, many knowledge workers are awash in voice mail, text messages, e-mails, bulletin—board posts and so on. While managing all that information has become a real chore for many, the bigger problem is that more and more information falls through the cracks.

Solution providers are challenged to identify those problems and offer technology to reduce the pain. While that may offer a tremendous opportunity, the situation also creates a burden to properly solve customer problems with the disparate technologies available.

Many vendors claim the solution to this problem comes from unified communications, one of the latest buzz terms floating around the market, while others tout unified messaging, a subset of UC, as the path to communications nirvana.

Many have used these two terms interchangeably. Despite the perceived similarities, UC should not be confused with UM. UC encompasses real-time communications and how those communications should be delivered via the preferred method to the location of the recipient, while UM is about gathering messages from various sources and delivering them in a consistent manner for retrieval at a later time.

The trick to attaining messaging nirvana is combining UC and UM. But it's going to take much more than buzzwords, vendors' good intentions and wishful thinking to build a solution; it's going to take savvy VARs to make it all work.

Becoming a VAR that offers effective UC/UM solutions is no easy task. When considering the number of technologies involved, the challenges may seem insurmountable. What's more, selling UC/UM solutions becomes a challenge in itself.

To successfully sell the technology, VARs will have to point out the inadequacies in current communications schemes, along with demonstrating the loss in productivity caused by inadequacies, and finally, demonstrate the return on investment of a UC/UM solution.

Immediate benefits to customers include the streamlining of information delivery and improved ease of use. Over time, users should experience a reduction in delays caused by human activity, better and faster customer interaction, and improved service delivery. Collaboration among co-workers, suppliers and even clients will also be improved, even if those individuals are scattered around the world.

Interested solution providers will have to learn about several technologies, which will become the components of the solution, including instant messaging, telephony, video, e-mail, voice mail and short message services. Solution providers also will have to grasp the concept of presence—in other words, knowing who is where and their availability.

All this takes place in real time, so network integration skills also will be of the utmost importance. The trickier part of the equation is understanding how the various communications vendors fit in and which ones to take on as partners.

Key players here include Cisco Systems, IBM, Avaya, Nortel Networks, Alcatel-Lucent and Mitel.

Cisco is the 800-pound gorilla with its Unified Workspace line, which it offers as a platform to integrate communications over intelligent networks. Cisco is well-equipped to support VARs willing to commit solutions to the UC market. Cisco offers all the hardware, including complete VOIP (voice over IP) and software necessary for a total solution. Add to that the company's software platform, and a complete solution can be had from a single vendor, but the total cost of the solution can be well beyond some customers' reach.

Right behind Cisco is IBM, with its UC2 (unified communications and collaboration) product. UC2 extols the benefits of IBM Lotus Sametime, which delivers unified communications and collaboration to the desktop, combined with—once again—intelligent networking. The IBM solution requires hardware and software from various vendors to be complete, which may add complexity.

Interestingly, the theme among Cisco and IBM, as well as most others, is to leverage IP networks, add intelligence and then build a UC solution. Those turn out to be prerequisites that suit the typical VAR well, especially one that has spent years working with IP networks and the associated infrastructure.

While it may sound like the UC/UM market has stabilized, nothing could be further from the truth. The disruptive factor here comes from Microsoft, which is looking to carve out a large share of the UC/UM pie.

Microsoft announced Oct. 16 the availability of Office Communications Server 2007 and Office Communicator 2007, a one-two punch of technology that aims to change how UC is delivered. Microsoft is hoping to differentiate its products from others by leveraging its investment in communications as a platform, something the channel should appreciate because of the opportunities this brings to a broad set of partners in its ecosystem.

Microsoft's play can be a game changer, allowing VARs to build UC on top of the company's existing technologies, which have significant market penetration.

Appreciation for Microsoft's head start comes with a look at how Office Communications Server 2007 and Office Communicator 2007 integrate into the network. The key technology is Microsoft's Unified Communications stack, which has Active Directory and presence at its core.

The different modes of communications are layered above that, which allows the messaging infrastructure, IM, voice and conferencing capabilities to be integrated together rather than being siloed as individual entities, which previously has been the case. This lets customers use any of those communication modes from within any application.

Microsoft Exchange provides the core messaging infrastructure from mobile messaging to the unified messaging found in Exchange 2007, which gives users their e-mail, voice mail and faxes in a single inbox.

Exchange 2007's unified messaging then integrates with components of OCS (Office Communications Server) to give a complete voice solution, while OCS delivers conferencing through audio, video, Web, IM and VOIP capabilities. Ideally, this creates a single set of management tools that will significantly reduce administrative overhead.

While this all sounds good on paper, there is still a major challenge for VARs: Will their customers be willing to give up proven PBX technology and switch to Microsoft's PC-based voice and Web conferencing platform?

One thing is certain: UC can only grow, and so will opportunities for solution providers. But providers must make sure they understand the technology, partner with reliable vendors and educate their customers properly, or that communications nirvana can quickly become a can of worms.

Frank Ohlhorst Frank J. Ohlhorst is the Executive Technology Editor for eWeek Channel Insider and brings with him over 20 years of experience in the Information Technology field.He began his career as a network administrator and applications program in the private sector for two years before joining a computer consulting firm as a programmer analyst. In 1988 Frank founded a computer consulting company, which specialized in network design, implementation, and support, along with custom accounting applications developed in a variety of programming languages.In 1991, Frank took a position with the United States Department of Energy as a Network Manager for multiple DOE Area Offices with locations at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPL), Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), FermiLAB and the Ames Area Office (AMESAO). Frank's duties included managing the site networks, associated staff and the inter-network links between the area offices. He also served at the Computer Security Officer (CSO) for multiple DOE sites. Frank joined CMP Technology's Channel group in 1999 as a Technical Editor assigned to the CRN Test Center, within a year, Frank became the Senior Technical Editor, and was responsible for designing product testing methodologies, assigning product reviews, roundups and bakeoffs to the CRN Test Center staff.In 2003, Frank was named Technology Editor of CRN. In that capacity, he ensured that CRN maintained a clearer focus on technology and increased the integration of the Test Center's review content into both CRN's print and web properties. He also contributed to Netseminar's, hosted sessions at CMP's Xchange Channel trade shows and helped to develop new methods of content delivery, Such as CRN-TV.In September of 2004, Frank became the Director of the CRN Test Center and was charged with increasing the Test Center's contributions to CMP's Channel Web online presence and CMP's latest monthly publication, Digital Connect, a magazine geared towards the home integrator. He also continued to contribute to CMP's Netseminar series, Xchange events, industry conferences and CRN-TV.In January of 2007, CMP Launched CRNtech, a monthly publication focused on technology for the channel, with a mailed audience of 70,000 qualified readers. Frank was instrumental in the development and design of CRNTech and was the editorial director of the publication as well as its primary contributor. He also maintained the edit calendar, and hosted quarterly CRNTech Live events.In June 2007, Frank was named Senior Technology Analyst and became responsible for the technical focus and edit calendars of all the Channel Group's publications, including CRN, CRNTech, and VARBusiness, along with the Channel Group's specialized publications Solutions Inc., Government VAR, TechBuilder and various custom publications. Frank joined Ziff Davis Enterprise in September of 2007 and focuses on creating editorial content geared towards the purveyors of Information Technology products and services. Frank writes comparative reviews, channel analysis pieces and participates in many of Ziff Davis Enterprise's tradeshows and webinars. He has received several awards for his writing and editing, including back to back best review of the year awards, and a president's award for CRN-TV. Frank speaks at many industry conferences, is a contributor to several IT Books, holds several records for online hits and has several industry certifications, including Novell's CNE, Microsoft's MCP.Frank can be reached at frank.ohlhorst@ziffdavisenterprise.com

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