The unified comm challenge: Products that work together

Devices are evolving toward universal interoperability, but they're not there yet

When it comes to IT investments and communications, the fundamental business theory is that any IT investment must increase efficiency or reduce costs. The evolving mobile world, increasing obsolescence of the desk phone and demise of the private branch exchange system are all steps in one of those directions.

In theory.

When it comes to PBX functionality in the mobile realm, one of the first companies to come up with an integrated hardware system was BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion.

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It was a natural progression for RIM. Since its early days in the personal digital assistant era, RIM has been a company geared to the enterprise. The BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) was introduced with original BlackBerry devices in 1999 and, with the ability to push e-mail messages to mobile devices, was one the first steps into the world of unified communications.

The BlackBerry has evolved as a UC device during the past 12 years, eventually moving past e-mail to data and mobile Internet browsing and social networking. One of its more significant developments was the Mobile Voice System (MVS), launched by RIM in 2007. With it, an employee can dial a four-number extension to reach a co-worker or access features such as call forwarding, call waiting, conference calls, switching and other PBX functionality from a BlackBerry smart phone anywhere in the world.

“We have achieved a wireless integration into a PBX which, if you think about it, has enormous ramifications,” said David Heit, director of product strategy at RIM. “I was once on top of the Eiffel Tower and somebody called my extension and asked if I could come by their office before I left that night. I said that I would, but I am actually in Paris on top of the Eiffel Tower, and they were like, ‘Get out of here.’ They couldn’t tell the difference, they thought I was at my desk.”

In enterprise infrastructure, MVS has its limitations. It has to run through a BES, which in turn runs through a PBX system, and only supports BlackBerry devices. As Android-based phones and tablets and iPhones/iPads take market share from RIM in the enterprise, organizations will find it more difficult to justify using only one type of server system that can support only one platform.

That challenge highlights the lack of standards and infrastructure. UC platforms are built around a server and a series of ways to communicate. For instance, Cisco Systems' UC solutions do not integrate with Avaya's UC solutions. BlackBerry supports both of them — or any PBX system — but cannot support iPhones and Androids.

“I think what undergirds all of this, these new modes of communication, is a requirement for an infrastructure that is always available, resilient and scalable,” said Siafa Sherman, director of technology at Avaya Government Solutions. “To deploy a successful integrated UC installation requires a scalable and always available data infrastructure.”

Mark Bissell, Cisco director of marketing for UC, said he sees all the software application aspects of UC functionality going the way of virtualization. All applications that can be run on a desktop and extended to a smart phone or tablet will be routed through a communications hub in the enterprise that will augment the PBX structure and then be virtualized in a data center before skipping back down to users.

“We are working toward also virtualizing at the desktop level,” Bissell said. “We've been able to extend that process to media processing. You were able to virtualize things like your PC operations, but you were never able to virtualize voice because the media processing was actually happening at that phone. So we are working on virtual desktop technology that will be able to pull all of the compute power back into the network and then extend those services back to the desktop and that would be the virtual desktop environment.”

Cisco recently released its new Jabber platform, which will provide software as a service or on-premises hosting of UC client applications.

The idea is to make communications ubiquitous among Apple products; Windows-based PCs; and Android, Nokia and BlackBerry devices. The company also unveiled a suite of video products that it calls Pervasive Video for the enterprise, which fits into Bissell’s idea that soon all point-to-point and conferencing communications will be done via video.

“We believe that every point-to-point real-time communication will be video, and that is becoming more feasible as Moore's Law goes through its iterative cycles and that call control that used to be just a PBX for voice should be connecting everybody for voice as well,” Bissell said.

Besides Cisco, Avaya and RIM, a lot of options are becoming available in the UC market. Google Apps, such as Google Voice, Google Talk and Google Chat, which has video capabilities, are geared toward the consumer side of the market. Facebook’s idea of a universal inbox for text messages, chat, e-mail, messages and wall postings has the potential to be a major factor because of its gigantic user base., which has social media-like products for the enterprise, could move into certain aspects of UC, too.

The more traditional enterprise contenders also remain strong. Microsoft has evolved its UC offerings from its Live Communications Server product to the Office Communications Server and finally to Lync, which attempts to incorporate every aspect of UC as software applications.

IBM remains a force with Lotus Domino, which provides an access server and complement of software. The size, history and ubiquity of IBM and Microsoft in the federal enterprise make them likely candidates to take the lead in the government UC as it evolves.

Although fully realized universal UC is still a couple of years away, infrastructure replacement timetables will spur UC integration.

But it will be a long and expensive process.

About the Author

Dan Rowinski is a staff reporter covering communications technologies.


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