Vendor hype has devalued the promise of unified communications and threatens to cause confusion with the move to cloud computing. In the absence of clear and unambiguous explanations of the benefits of embarking on such projects, end users could be forgiven for thinking that these are technologies without a purpose. However, a revolution is underway, bringing with it real benefits to enterprises and to workers alike.

Convergence Promise

Over the last ten years, there has been a rapidly accelerating series of convergences in the communications world, from IP Telephony and unified communications to fixed/mobile convergence and the merging of communications into IT. Some of these have delivered on their promises; others are still a work in progress. So just how has convergence really transformed communication?

While IP telephony has been broadly adopted, the overall benefits to the enterprise have been questionable. Rationalisation of two separate networks into a single infrastructure has simplified the corporate network architecture. But often this has just meant replacing one set of proprietary appliances with another.

Maintaining high quality voice calls over a shared data network has also proved to be a challenge; and communications application suites designed to enhance the user experience with IP telephony systems often have been no more sophisticated than similar applications used with traditional TDM systems.

The promise of unified communications has been similarly disappointing. The concept of converging methods of communication and collaboration between two or more people, from any application, using any device, at any location, via the most appropriate route, with business-grade security is compelling. But few organisations have actually achieved the desired effect. Instead, the concept has been diluted and hugely devalued by an avalanche of vendor product announcements, hijacking and redefining the term ‘unified communications’ to reflect the feature sets of their products.

More positive benefits have been achieved from the phenomenal pace of change occurring with the convergence of fixed and mobile technology, offering advantages to the increasingly flexible and mobile workforce of today. Some organisations have looked to drive down costs by replacing the enterprise PBX with mobile phones; others are exploiting more sophisticated solutions that allow seamless handover from mobile carrier networks to enterprise networks, using wireless LAN infrastructure or femtocell technology.

Two Dimensional 

More recently, many vendors have become aware of the growing opportunity arising from the convergence of the IT and communications worlds. However, while communications-enabled applications are now emerging, especially at the desktop, the underlying technologies are still not well integrated.

Vendors are struggling to escape the confines of traditional products and achieve any market differentiation. One approach has been to promote ‘communications-enabled business processes’ (CEBP); but scratch the surface a little and it becomes very clear that most vendors are unable to explain what this means. Businesses’ processes have always required communication and collaboration between people. CEBP suggests that this becomes more automated in some way. But where are the new examples?

Ignoring the hype, organisations are now faced with a converged IT and communications zone that is very flat and uninspiring – in many ways two-dimensional.

Cloud Strategies 

So how does communications now fit into the overall IT strategic plan in an organisation that is heavily focused on the use of virtualisation and exploring cloud computing in order to drive down costs?

Communications vendors have jumped on the virtualisation bandwagon but this is not innovative, it is essential. All communications activity needs to be capable of being virtualised, just like any other IT application. Communications servers and applications need to be virtualised, and capable of being deployed over thin client virtual desktops – enabling both cost reduction and the creation of new, flexible working models.

Under a centralised model enabled by virtualisation, new cloud services can be provided quickly, supporting utility pricing and new deployment models. And reusing components enables rapid adoption of rich functionality ensuring innovative applications can be brought to market relatively quickly.

For example, the user friendly design of Web 2.0 applications provides new aggregated functionality often built from a number of component parts including some provided by third party service oriented applications and services. Components are ‘mashed’ together to form new ‘mashups’ with an intuitive interface that end users find very appealing.

These applications take an open standards approach and are designed to be accessible from mobile as well as desktop devices, embodying the concept of anywhere, anytime computing, communications and collaboration.

Single Device

This is key in a business world where, increasingly, everyone has one mobile computing and communications device, always connected, and which can be linked to other devices (such as centrally managed virtual desktops) in different locations to provide an enhanced IT and communications experience.

As cloud-based services proliferate, the management and location of core applications and user-facing computing environments become irrelevant; while the low cost and availability of these services accelerates the usage on mobile devices and virtual desktops.

Building a communications and collaboration infrastructure that is totally integrated as a cornerstone of IT allows an escape from today’s flat, uninspiring two dimensional converged IT and communications zone.

Using service-oriented communications software platforms built with open standards and interoperability as design objectives, new mashups can be developed quickly and cost-effectively with web 2.0 collaborative capabilities. These can be deployed on virtualised platforms on enterprise premises (including private cloud services) or for use as public cloud services. They provide workers with the right tools at the right time irrespective of whether they are in an office or remote location or mobile environment.

Reduce costs, improve efficiency, empower people

The business driver of cost reduction in the current economic climate has accelerated the move towards virtualisation and cloud computing. At the same time the cycles of communications convergence provide a platform for change, driving additional cost reduction possibilities but potentially much more.

The concept of ‘unified communications’ is still compelling and valid in today’s fast changing world. Providing workers with next-generation communications-enabled applications, delivered quickly and cost effectively, can significantly improve the efficiency of the organisation’s business processes. And by developing applications to reflect Web 2.0 techniques, organisations can empower employees and gain critical buy-in to the new model.

Adopting cost reduction strategies without considering innovative ways of improving efficiency is a missed strategic opportunity. Enterprises that understand and embrace this model will create real competitive advantage.