To the Cloud: Cloud Computing is a Key Factor in Unified Communications

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The cloud is going to be the future home of UC

For federal agencies, moving their communications needs to the cloud is no longer an option. As a part of the 25-point plan recently published by the Office of Management and Budget to reform federal information technology management, agencies are required to consider cloud as a first option for accessing applications.

Over the next 12 to 18 months, agencies have to select three Web-enabled services that they have to move to the cloud. And they would have to choose a cloud-based solution first if one exists before beginning a new IT solution development in-house.

How this will affect agencies’ use of unified communications is unclear given the fairly basic level so far of UC adoption by government, but observers are enthusiastic about the potential agencies have for using the cloud for UC services.

The same restrictions that have so far slowed the growth of the cloud in the government space, mainly involved with security, are hobbling the growth of UC in the cloud, said David Hawkins, unified communications practice director with Iron Bow Technologies. But, in all other respects, UC has evolved to where it can take advantage of the virtual data center model.

“You can certainly now virtualize your call control environment, further reducing your costs,” he said.

UC is “very compatible” with the cloud, said consultant Jay Brandstadter, and some companies are already starting to offer unified communications through the cloud, particular service oriented vendors. It’s not really been taken up by federal government users yet, he said “but I would think a lot of agencies will eventually address UC that way.”

UC is also supportive of agencies’ use of the cloud to deploy applications and services for their workers, said Avaya’s Lawrence Byrd. The question becomes how those cloud resources can plug into an agency’s communications system. That becomes an architectural question so UC, which in the end is also more an architectural process, is supportive of agencies’ move to the cloud.

There are some early signs of how the move of UC to the cloud will happen, with various agencies’ recent decision to take their email needs to the cloud.

The Army will move 1.6 million email and calendar accounts to the cloud environment managed by the Defense Systems Information Agency by Sept. 2011. 
Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson, who was then the Army’s chief information officer, said in the announcement last October that Microsoft’s SharePoint collaboration tool might also be added to the cloud.

In December, the General Services Administration announced it would be moving its entire agency’s email needs, along with some collaboration tools, to the cloud, becoming the first agency to make such an agencywide move. It expects to cut its cost by 50 percent over the next five years by making the move.

And also in December, the US Department of Agriculture became the first cabinet-level agency to make its move to the cloud, opting for a Microsoft enterprise messaging service that will include email, web conferencing, document collaboration and instant messaging.

The USDA system will be at least UC-like, enabling employees to collaborate both within and across mission areas, see their colleagues’ availability, choose which medium’s are most appropriate to communicate in, and streamline messaging.

While this is a part of USDA CIO Chris Smith’s vision to consolidate disparate messaging environments onto a single, unified platform, thereby reducing costs and boosting productivity and collaboration across the agency, a Microsoft spokesman said, it’s also “part of a broader unified communications strategy that involves consolidating infrastructure, while providing added benefits to users in collaboration, messaging, calendaring, instant messaging, presence and audio, video and Web conferencing.”

Email service is increasingly being seen as a valid gateway for organizations into full-blown UC. In its 2010 UC Tracking Poll, CDW found that, while rich media conferencing was still the common way for organizations to approach UC, significantly more were preferring the email route, some 29 percent of organizations compared to just 18 percent in the 2009 poll.

“Is email UC?” said Brandstadter. “I guess that depends on who you talk to, but it’s definitely part of messaging at large, which is a part of the UC infrastructure.”

Government agencies moving to the cloud for UC won¹t happen anytime soon, observers believe. Given the nature of government procurement cycles, federal agencies are typically 2-3 years behind in their technology buys and security is still an issue for them with the cloud despite the Obama administration¹s mandate. But agency interest in how UC can work in a cloud environment is beginning to show.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer for 1105 Government Information Group’s Content Solutions unit. This Snapshot report was commissioned by the Content Solutions unit, an independent editorial arm of 1105 Government Information Group. Specific topics are chosen in response to interest from the vendor community; however, sponsors are not guaranteed content contribution or review of content before publication. For more information about 1105 Government Information Group Content Solutions, please email us at GIGCustomMedia@1105govinfo.com