Unified comms help agencies cut costs by streamlining networks

Agencies embrace UC to respond to rise of telework, cloud computing, other trends

Intense budgetary constraints, the administration’s advocacy of data center consolidation, cloud computing, telework and a rush to adopt mobile computing throughout government are hastening the migration to unified communications solutions.

The concept behind converging voice, data, video and images has been around for many years. However, a confluence of factors is now driving government organizations to explore mobile computing technologies, cloud-based services, application delivery alternatives and wide-area network optimization tools.

As the largest consumer of IT worldwide, spending more than $76 billion each year, federal departments face intense pressure to reduce IT expenses. Several recent initiatives, such as the Office of Management and Budget’s 25-point implementation plan to reform federal IT management and the Federal Cloud Computing Strategy launched by federal CIO Vivek Kundra, advocate data  center consolidation and the migration to cloud computing as viable ways to cut costs and streamline IT operations. Kundra estimates $20 billion of the federal government’s IT spending budget is a potential target for the migration to cloud computing. The savings could “be used to increase capacity or be reinvested in agency missions, including citizen-facing services and inventing and deploying new innovations,” he said in the Federal Cloud Computing Strategy report.

Separately, President Barack Obama signed the Telework Enhancement Act in December 2010, setting a deadline of June 9 for the implementation of far-reaching strategies for embracing telework throughout the federal government. (See related story in this Snapshot Report.)

Government oversight organizations, including the General Services Administration, National Institute for Standards and Technology and OMB have drafted guidance, and GSA has launched new procurement vehicles to support agencies as they strive to achieve greater efficiency and adhere to the new mandates.

As a combined result of the new initiatives, the administration hopes to help federal agencies overcome challenges that they have faced for years in managing disjointed systems, networks and burdensome legacy platforms and applications. 

Unified communications can help contribute to productivity gains and significant cost reductions, according to industry observers. UC not only provides more reliable and cross-functional communication but also increases resilience against network disruptions. In addition, UC enhances a sense of belonging and affinity among remote or mobile workers.  

According to Brian Kopf, manager of unified communications for CDW, parent company of CDW-G, the definitions of unified communications are as plentiful as the companies that provide component technologies. “There is no such thing as one-size-fits-all in UC,” he said.

The definition CDW uses is "the convergence of enterprise voice, video and data services and software applications to achieve greater collaboration among individuals or groups and improve business processes."

There are several broad categories of approaches to unifying communications on a single platform. Many agencies are pursuing either rich-media or telephony-centric approaches to implementation, he explained, while others are focusing on e-mail- or instant messaging-centric approaches. The array of available technologies make selecting a UC solution a complex undertaking, Kopf said. “There are many things to consider when deciding what is right for your agency, including the nature of your organization’s work and its physical structure,” he added.

Even though there are few industry-standard UC approaches, the range of solutions available enables government organizations to create tailored solutions that fit each organization’s individual needs, he added.  

UC research underscores expansion 

The results of a new 2011 CDW-G survey of 150 federal IT managers who contribute to decisions on the adoption of voice and telephony, conferencing, or messaging technologies, included several important findings.

  • 59 percent said their agencies have developed a business case and/or strategic plan for the adoption of unified communications.
  • 26 percent said their agencies have not developed a business case and/or strategic plan for the adoption of unified communications.
  • 15 percent said they were unsure.
In the same survey, federal agencies already planning or implementing unified communications said they are leveraging one of the following approaches:
  • An e-mail-centric approach 24%
  • Rich-media conferencing approach 24%
  • Telephony-centric approach 16%
  • An enhanced business processes approach 15%
  • Mobility-based approach 8%
  • Instant messaging and presence approach 5%
  • Unsure 8%
 As far as the component technologies of unified communications, of the 150 federal IT managers surveyed: 
  • 79 percent said their agency has fully or partially deployed videoconferencing.
  • 66 percent said their agency has fully or partially deployed voice over IP.
  • 64 percent said their agency has fully or partially deployed instant messaging.
  • 60 percent said their agency has fully or partially deployed unified messaging, meaning access to e-mail, voice mail and faxes is delivered via a common computer application or by telephone.
  • 49 percent said their agency has fully or partially deployed presence technology. These are solutions that detect and convey information about a user’s status, such as the type of device they are using, its operating environment, location and local time, and other messages the user chooses to announce.

With the convergence of communications technologies, the advent of greater mobility and cloud computing, federal agencies should expect to gain higher levels of convenience and efficiency in their network operations. Input published a new report in late February titled the "Federal Communications and Network Services Outlook, 2010-2015," examining trends and obstacles and identifying UC as pivotal to resolving infrastructure barriers for communications systems and practices within the federal government.

“These technologies provide tremendous benefits to government networking and communications in and of themselves," said Input senior analyst Richard Schum about the report. "We now see that even stronger enhancements occur when they are teamed together to create a cohesive, unified system. We believe these synergies will be a crucial factor in minimizing interoperability issues and improving the timeliness of communication for government agencies."

The Input report outlines how federal agencies that have not yet updated their communications backbones will likely move toward streamlined infrastructures that merge voice and data communications in the near future. A supporting survey conducted by Input revealed that only 36 percent of respondents said their agencies had already implemented some type of unified communications solution. Further, 61 percent claimed their agencies had not yet started moving toward unified voice and data communications, even though almost all participants said they would do so in the next five years.

Input analysts say an accelerated adoption of UC is expected as the synergies related to the interconnectivity of mobile and cloud-based computing technologies continue to grow. “Cloud computing offers the promise of providing unified communications-as-a-service to be accessed through existing clouds,” said Lauren Jones, principal analyst for Input. “Especially for those civilian agencies that have been slow to consider unified communications and may not have a UC architecture and infrastructure fully in place to support it, moving to UC as a managed cloud service might make a lot of sense."

The report is available on Input’s website at FedCommunications.input.com.

Getting to a UC platform requires careful thought and planning. Without a single, standard solution for UC, agencies are instead pursuing rich-media or telephony-centric approaches to implementation while others focus on e-mail- or instant messaging-centric approaches.

There are many things to consider when deciding what is right for any agency, including the nature of the agency’s work and its physical structure, Kopf said. 
CDW-G’s UC experts offered the following advice to successfully implement UC:

  • Identify the weakest link in the chain. If the current network is not strong enough to handle an increase in traffic brought on by UC, it's not likely an agency can achieve optimal results. This is why it’s so important to review the organization’s current network environments, assess current and future needs, and incorporate those requirements into a scope of work for design and implementation. Because UC is not a one-size-fits-all, packaged solution, it works best to take a phased approach. What is best for any agency is a network and UC solution set that can keep running, even when the weakest link is at or near maximum capacity. 

  • Don’t shortcut the training. Training employees on the maintenance and use of UC components is essential.  Begin preparing them for implementation during installation and configuration. The goal should be to launch a reliable system that won’t disrupt daily operations.

  • Implementation is easier than one may think. It’s not easy to sell the idea of a revamped, agencywide communications system, while recovering from the toughest economy since the 1930s. However, once management understands the benefits and compelling operating efficiencies that UC brings, agency executives will quickly overcome many of the early apprehensions they might have had about network security, equipment and capital cost requirements.

About the Author

Barbara DePompa 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 [email protected]