August 1, 2012

In UC&C, Picking the Right Partners Matters

Unified Communications and Collaboration (UC&C) deployment calls for a wide range of elements, all of which must work together seamlessly to provide a positive user experience, and more importantly, to deliver the ROI that management will expect from the investment. However, no single vendor has the breadth of products to deliver all necessary parts. Cisco, Avaya, and Siemens/Enterasys probably come closest, but even large companies like these don't supply all of the relevant components like (for example) headsets.

So all UC&C suppliers must establish partnerships with other vendors to fill their product lines. These are generally symbiotic relationships because partnering with a larger UC&C firm can open market opportunities to smaller, specialized suppliers. However those specialized manufacturers will often develop versions of their standard products that include specific functions designed to work in conjunction with that specific UC&C platform.

Of all UC&C suppliers, Microsoft is most dependent on such partnerships. As a software provider, its Lync enterprise-ready UC&C platform requires partners to deliver servers, wired and wireless infrastructure, audio/video conferencing endpoints, gateways/SBCs, wired and wireless (Wi-Fi and DECT) handsets, and just about everything that involves hardware.  

A particular challenge arises when a vendor has partners for elements like gateways, session border controllers or handsets, but also manufactures its own versions. With components like session border controllers (SBCs), the UC&C vendor's version might be directly integrated into the call-management server, while the partner's implementation would typically be a stand-alone appliance.  So users must weigh the advantages of one-stop shopping (including the "one throat to choke" advantage) against the potential benefits of a best-of-breed solution where more of the systems-integration responsibilities fall on the buyer's shoulders.

In planning a UC&C deployment, users should focus their attention on several areas, to ensure that the resulting solution meets their expectations:

  • LAN/WLAN Infrastructure:  The wired and wireless LAN infrastructure is the foundation on which the entire UC&C solution is built. If this infrastructure is not up to the task, performance and reliability may suffer. Network congestion can impact the services users receive, so adequate capacity and quality-of-service (QoS) will be key. The UC&C system's overall reliability and availability will also depend on features like Power-over-Ethernet (PoE). Cisco, Avaya and Siemens/Enterasys have their own lines of switches and routers, but for other UC&C providers, the infrastructure will probably come from somewhere else. It's important to remember that infrastructure extends all the way down to the cabling and may involve solutions such as Phybridge, which uses ADSL technology to support IP handsets over Cat 3 cable runs.

  • Gateways/Session Border Controllers (SBCs):  Gateways and SBCs are key for connecting to public network services and to legacy devices like analog handsets, fax machines and modems. If SBCs don't work flawlessly, the UC&C system may not be able to connect to the outside world. A critical factor to examine is the range of analog gateways. Traditional telco loops support analog devices up to a range of 18,000 feet, but VoIP gateways may shorten this range to as little as 1,000 feet. This means you may have to locate VoIP gateways in wiring closets rather than in data centers, and you may need more gateways than you initially thought if your analog devices are scattered throughout the facility.

  • Handsets:  Handsets represent a significant portion of total system cost, and while many UC&C vendors manufacture their own handsets, they are often the most expensive available options. Many organizations opt to buy lower-end handsets from companies like Snom and Grand Stream to hold down their costs. Microsoft has a web page that compares various handsets supported for Lync as well as other parts of their partner ecosystem. Some of those models connect to Ethernet jacks and PCs, allowing users to make and receive calls regardless of whether the PC is powered on. Users can also display calendar and contact information without firing up their PCs. And don't forget "little things" like headsets; one bad headset can turn your ten-party audio conference into a nightmare.

  • Audio/Video Conferencing:  Audio conferencing phones are a specialty item, so Polycom models will show up in many deployments. Video conferencing presents a greater challenge as users now want to extend video beyond meeting-room telepresence systems to desktops and even tablets or other mobile devices. So ensuring that the vendor has a full ecosystem of compatible video devices will be critically important.

  • Deployment, Monitoring and Management Elements:  While most attention is given to the elements with which users come into contact, anyone who has worked in telephony knows the importance of operations, administration, maintenance and provisioning. In selecting a UC&C solution, it is critical to focus on the tools that are available to:  support moves, adds, changes and disconnects (MACDs); stress-test the infrastructure and ensure that it can support the volume of voice and video traffic it will be required to carry; troubleshoot problems; maintain records; and do all of the other myriad tasks involved in a business-grade communications service. That's where companies like Voss, Empirix, Integrated Research, NetScout and Touchstone come into play.

For users considering a UC&C deployment, the lesson from all this is that your shopping expedition isn't over when you pick the UC&C platform. To achieve a functional UC&C implementation, it is important to shop the whole solution and not just the core elements. Some buyers have initially focused on the core platform, only to find that once they made their selection, their job was only half done. To be successful in UC&C, you need to look at the whole picture.

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For successful UC, we seem to be "stuck" with a multi-vendor environment.

That's not inherently bad, but we do seem to be lacking the ability for even rudimentary cross-platform capabilities from the user perspective. For instance, integrating presence or IM is still pretty much application-specific. If you stick with a Google suite or a Microsoft suite, you're OK. But what about interoperability?

Ideas and commentary concerning what might be on the way (or already here) would be appreciated!

Monitoring and managing a UC environment with multiple technologies and devices is indeed be a major challenge, and Michael points out. Integrated Research shared a very insightful paper on this in March.

I would love to hear more from IT and others about how we will continue to address this issue.

How important is it to begin evaluating partners early in the UC&C selection process?

In most cases, very important, particularly if user facing elements like handsets are likely to be purchased from a third party. OAM&P solutions are typically left to the end, as are "small ticket" items like headsets and conference room phones (conference room phones are "expensive", but you're typically not buying too many of them so the overall spend is relatively minor). Third party video solutions are also important to consider early on as they will need to interoperate with desktop and other video endpoints (e.g. tablets).

So in deciding what elements to focus on early in the project think: 1) percent of total budget, and 2) impact on user experience.

Some excellent points. As UC matures into a true collaborative experience these become more relevant than ever.

From a recent Information Week CIO survey it states “The hottest project in IT is improving employee collaboration”…

We were early adopters of IP Telephony back in c2000 having deployed at the time the largest distributed Cisco Call Manager solution in Europe across some 150 locations. Since then I can report from the experience of deploying many other vendor solutions the system resource management, VOIP quality, system availability monitoring and integration challenges have changed very little over the years. Systems management vendors like Prognosis has some products for managing these types of operational metrics.

However, the quality of any deployed system - even when sophisticated management tools are in place - really comes down to the skill of the people implementing and managing it and the process they employ to organise themselves to provide both preventative and reactive systems support! This remains for some a black art and vendors don't add much to this requirement. They need to work harder to make operational best practices more accessible I believe.

UC&C more than ever is a business tool that affects employee productivity and thus business performance. However, it is increasingly a software not a hardware derived application, or more likely a set of applications, that are licensed per Server, per device or per user. To take a Microsoft comment from the past that’s still relevant now - "it's the software stupid" - that's the real challenge of managing you modern day UC&C environment!
Gaining intelligence visibility and control, usage and trends of employee and customer interactions, should be a key business intelligence consideration for managing the UC&C environment, especially when optimising any implemented system to ensure it derives an ROI. Additionally Toll Fraud detection is equally something that is often overlooked in operational management terms; managing security in a UC&C world is increasingly a management concern with SIP not yet mentioned in this debate. Overall systems management tools need to evolve to include a software asset and cost management approach UC&C management. Monitoring the prevailing ROI of any UC&C investment has to be a critical operational management task from a business perspective, doesn’t it?

Agreed there are technology interoperability concerns, there always has been and there always will be, but a unified management approach including user, system, and cost KPI's has to be the only way to overcome this perennial and prevailing UC&C management challenge in my view. Are vendor agnostic UC&C systems management tools like Prognosis keeping pace??

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