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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.