Making Sense of Unified Communication

By George L. Koroneos — February 28, 2011

At one time, communication between employees in the same company was net0211.jpgsimple—you picked up the phone and called the other party. Then came fax and e-mail and communication became faster and more efficient, but in the past few years a deluge of new communication tools have made it harder to reach out and touch someone.

Video conferencing, virtual meetings and cellular phones allow employees to work around the world without having to work under one roof, but to do that businesses both big and small must rely on a strong unified communication backbone to ensure that all the disparate means of contact are up at all times.

“What we see with unified communication is people communicating using the most appropriate way for that particular moment in time,” says Don Girskis, senior vice president of worldwide sales at ShoreTel (www.shoretel.com). “When I need to get a hold of our director of channel marketing I can use voice and call her on the phone, I can e-mail her, or I can send an instant message. What’s really nice about UC is that depending what mode you’re in, you have that capability.”

Unified communications is—at its core—the ability for end users to communicate with other people within and outside an organization using a variety of channels (voice, video, e-mail, instant message, mobile, etc.) on the same network.

“The benefit [of a unified communications model] is increased productivity for your company, because employees are able to communicate quicker and collaborate easier,” explains Buck Baker, president of ScanSource Communications (www.scansource.com).

The mainframe of any unified communication system is a communication manager, such as Avaya’s Aura (www.avaya.com) that acts as a
central server for voice, video and data communications and allows analog, digital and IP solutions to connect through the same system. Similarly, Microsoft’s latest UC offering, Lync (lync.microsoft.com) acts like a traffic cop or a software PBX (private branch exchange) system that controls different communications, much like how Microsoft Office controls all the different
messaging options.

While unified communication sounds like an easy technology to resell, solution providers must navigate a myriad of vendors offering voice, video and data connections, not to mention the service providers needed to pipe in bandwidth for all the technologies to run on. Most UC resellers started out as communication installers or video providers and evolved into unified communications as the customer demand increased and as new technology matured.

“[VARs that sell communication systems] must evaluate where they are today and determine where they want to be as a UC practice,” Baker says.

Resellers jumping into UC for the first time must determine what communication management platform to use, such as Microsoft (Lync), IBM (Sametime) and CISCO (Communications Manager), and then work with a distributor of that platform to learn about all the different modes of communication that can be branched off that PBX. Companies like ScanSource Communications recently launched a social network, dubbed SUMO, to help resellers partner with other solution providers or vendors that are stronger in another communication field.

Mobility & Video
Two areas that are getting a lot of attention as part of a unified communication approach are video and mobility. Just about everyone has a smartphone in their pocket and the amount of business conducted through these devices is growing as more and more bite-size applications are designed for everything from word processing to salesforce automation.

“It’s rare to sit down and talk with an IT director without them asking, ‘what kinds of mobility solutions do you have for me,’ Girskis says. “As you can imagine, the size of a mobile phone bill expense for IT managers is growing all the time and they are challenged with how to integrate smartphones into the company’s PBX system.”

For years, sci-fi buffs have watched people communicate through video conferencing devices (albeit from their wrist), but few ever thought that the technology would gain widespread acceptance. With the recent addition of Facetime to Apple’s latest iPhone, just about anyone can video chat with each other from hundreds of miles away. This combination of mobile and video has been a huge breakthrough for remote conferences and is quickly permeating the enterprise market. This technology is also creating a ton of bandwidth challenges as more data is needed to pipe video back and forth.

“A lot of the vendors, like Polycom and Shoretel, see video conferencing as a big opportunity to make video more pervasive in the market place,” Baker says.  “Companies can have video not only in the conference space, but they can also use it on desktops.”

More data, voice and video over a network means the need for more bandwidth, which will be a huge boon for vendors piping Internet into networks.
“The infrastructure guys are licking their chops, because they know that voice and video are big bandwidth hogs so that gives them the ability to push for upgrades to data network centers,” Baker says.

Gauging Needs
The big question is “How much communication is really necessary?” Just because video or instant messaging is hot right now, doesn’t mean that your customers necessarily need it.

“Our resellers must sit down with their end users and evaluate where the end user is today to make a road map for where the user wants to go to in six months to two years from now,” Baker says.

It’s in the best interest for customers and solution providers to draw up a UC business plan from the onset of the relationship and slowly phase in new communication tools and bandwidth as they are needed.

“A lot of resellers are having to do more consulting up front to determine what the end user wants to get to and then back them into the technology to get them to where they want to be in two years,” Baker says.

This strategy also leads to a nice reoccurring revenue model where the customer can purchase service contracts for the hardware as well as licenses. Down the line, the solution provider becomes the go-to reseller for upgrades or modifications since he or she built the system from the ground up.

“What we are seeing happening is that there’s a lot of add on business to be had after that initial sale,” Girskis says. “We estimate that if a customer purchases $50,000 in equipment initially, there’s going to be another $50,000 in add-on sales afterwards through a variety of different applications.”

For example, professional services and training can be an ongoing reoccurring revenue stream as the end user opens up additional locations and rolls out new technologies.

“A lot of people ask, ‘Is Unified Communications the technology of the future?’” Baker says. “No, this is happening now. All these vendors are talking about the benefits of UC, the productivity gains through communication. Will UC explode this year? I don’t think we will see one big boom, but I think it’s already moving along and we will see it gain more acceptance [in the next few years].” 

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