Unified Communications brings IT together

Unity is a word often heard in the public sector, with myriad agencies and departments looking to foster collective thinking around some of today’s most pressing issues. The word, however, doesn’t usually get mentioned in the same breath as technology. That’s a situation, though, that might soon be changing, thanks to a new software platform known as unified communications.

Although the UC moniker is often used to refer to a number of different concepts (which has helped seed undue confusion about what exactly it is), at its heart, UC is about the joining of various communications elements, such as voice, video, personal messaging and others, into one interface. An example of a UC device might be a cell phone through which you can access a text transcription of a voice mail sent to another phone back at the office.

Evident benefits
One of the primary promises of the technology is an ability to reduce the number of touch points employees use to communicate with his or her peers, constituents or partners. Instead of having to tote multiple devices, or being restricted to carrying out certain forms of communication in set physical spaces, public sector workers are now able to use one device to interact in all forms from anywhere they choose.

The implications for improving productivity and the speed with which work gets done become clearly evident.

“You can also tie [devices] into other resources in the organization to provide better service,” says Jayanth Angl, senior research analyst for Info-Tech Research in Toronto. “That type of business integration is something we’re seeing to a certain extent today – something like a kiosk where a user can have access to subject experts via voice and video. It’s available today.”

Angl adds that UC can be of great assistance to workplaces that feature distributed enterprise team members.

“You’re seeing more and more multi-site organizations with employees working from home or in international locations. It makes a lot of sense in those areas.”

A single UC desktop client is typically used, which provides access to a buddy list where users can see their colleagues and can launch a phone call or a video chat or any type of group activity “from that single console rather than different clients or consoles,” he says.

The software has a place in many areas of the public sector, Angl adds.

“For distributed teams, it makes a lot of sense, as it’s an opportunity to streamline dealings between colleagues and agencies. The opportunity is there for a single agency but also for federating UC across the government. And with the government, there is the opportunity to standardize across them.”

While traditional telephony system vendors such as Nortel Networks and Avaya are strong players in the UC market, other large outfits such as Microsoft and Cisco Systems are definitely in the mix as well.

According to Jack Santos, executive strategist at The Burton Group and a former CIO, much of the functionality that makes unified communications what it is is based on the concept of voice over IP (VoIP) – essentially phone conversations transmitted over the same pipe that brings the Internet to our computers.

By removing the shackles of a traditional phone infrastructure – notoriously expensive and difficult to implement and maintain – government offices now have a newfound flexibility to do what they want with their voice networks and to make them the foundation for infrastructures such as UC.

For the Peel District School Board, which serves the Ontario municipalities of Caledon, Brampton and Mississauga, VoIP was an obvious choice when it came time to implement a new voice system. The old infrastructure often crashed at the most critical times – such as on days when heavy snowfalls generated a flood of calls from parents wanting to find out if their child’s school would be open or not.

According to Laura Williams, CIO for the PDSB, going with VoIP made economic and technological sense.

“We replaced our private branch exchange (PBX) with a Cisco Voice over IP solution and it cost probably the same as an analogue solution. But the beauty of going to VoIP is that you can keep adding these new features and it’s not a huge additional cost. So for us, VoIP was very strategic; it’s a starting point and we will add in these other things.”

Making moves, adds and changes to the phone system got incredibly easier, Williams says.

“It simplified our cabling, too. We also took the opportunity to create internal call centres, including one for our HR group, one for our busing group, and others. We put some logic in for call routing and monitoring capabilities. We’re still in pilot mode but we are starting to provide mobile phones that way.”

Countryside conundrum
From a logistics standpoint, the PDSB was also faced with a problem that needed to be remedied.

“A number of schools are located in rural areas and can’t afford more than three or four phone lines,” Williams says. “At lunch and at the end of the day, when teachers want to call out to parents, these schools suddenly need 40 lines. So for those peak times we’ve started to look at providing a telephone that essentially attaches to your computer. We’ve tried to keep the same form of a phone to make it seem as intuitive as possible.”

For the unified communications features that accompany such VoIP infrastructures, Santos so far sees only a gradual adoption pattern. For many offices that aren’t faced with any major kind of telephony tribulations, the old phone system is the least of their worries.

“A lot of [CIOs] aren’t messing around with their bread-and-butter applications,” he says. “Phones have traditionally been pretty reliable and there isn’t a CIO on earth who wants to mess that up. Whatever UC is, it is making slow progress in core applications and is probably more in the five- to seven-year time frame (for deployment).”

For many, arriving at a firm cost-benefit paradigm is extremely hard to do, and is thus proving to be a deterring factor toward UC adoption.

“It’s tough to get your head around the ROI of it,” Santos says. “It’s extremely hard to quantify (the value) and, for that reason, a lot of the things people are doing with UC are still in the playground mode.”

For those agencies and departments that are seriously looking at deploying some form of UC, Santos recommends appointing a steering committee to begin preparing for what he calls a “convergence onslaught”. It then becomes not so much of a technological issue but “more a sociological management issue.”

At the very least, “a CIO certainly has to keep an eye on UC and should identify someone on staff who is a point person for it because this does have the potential to go out of control,” he adds. “You could easily have everybody doing their own thing, every department doing something different, and then three or four years from now you’re presented with a completely different problem.”

One of the most intriguing aspects of the coming of UC, says Santos, is the idea of “presence” – the ability of a communications system to indicate the availability and location of team members to others in a group in order to schedule or conduct meetings and information exchanges.

“This is kind of where the world is going in terms of always knowing where you are, what you’re doing and what your availability is. The only way this can happen is to have (each person’s) data being captured. Once everything is captured in bits, there is an awful lot that can be done with that and that’s where it’s going.”

Security factors
As with most cutting-edge technologies that rely so heavily on networks, security soon becomes a top concern for those looking to deploy unified communications. In this case, says Bruce Cowper, security lead for Microsoft Canada, the convergence of different devices presents a number of issues that CIOs and IT managers should be aware of when venturing down the UC path.

“UC is designed to let employees stay in contact and collaborate, and it really facilitates the convergence of devices. A lot of the devices might not be the traditional ones you might expect. We’re essentially taking a communication that was deemed as being relatively secure and now, with the convergence of devices, you’re taking that communication and extending it to a number of different areas.”

With this in mind, Cowper says, Microsoft encourages people to understand how security is built into their system to help them deal with the task of securing their communication channels but also to look at how the devices are maintained and managed, and what areas of exposure they might introduce.

Out of control
“For example, your cell phone is using a network that you don’t manage or control, but that’s also a device that is not managed and controlled in the same way that you would your PC infrastructure,” says Cowper.

“We’re finding that a number of consumer devices are being connected to corporate networks and are being used as part of the communications channel, and these are devices that are completely beyond the control of a lot of IT departments.”

In general, users are being enabled to connect through many insecure channels, such as an employee out of town on business who is connecting through a hotel’s network.

“Can you trust that network?” Cowper asks. “The integrity of that data becomes paramount.”

As greater amounts of sensitive data are put out over the wires that form a UC infrastructure, those nefarious elements looking to get their hands on it could target that information.

“If I can target cell phones or laptops, especially those that are less protected, and if there is money on those devices they will become more and more of a target,” Cowper says.

“Where we’ve got the convergence of devices, where our cell phones contain important data such as e-mail or that may provide a connection to the office, they suddenly become an endpoint that really does need a security focus.”

As advice, Cowper recommends governments look at security as something that is architected into every part of a UC rollout, and gain a clear picture of the vulnerabilities they may present.

“Understand who is connecting to your network, how they’re connecting and what services they’re connecting to. As a result, identity management becomes a really big part of this.”

Cowper also advises IT managers to assume that users are going to be connecting over, and from, untrusted sources. “So rather than leaving the end user to make decisions for me, the more I can do to proactively deal with and apply security policies, the better.”

Related content:

Security is top concern for government telecom managers

Virtual intelligence

Six quizzical VoIP issues

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