While sat the other day in yet another unified communications (UC) presentation, it struck me that a lot of the discussion was centred around specific features and technical detail. Moreover it soon became apparent that quite a lot of the people in the audience were being turned off by all the  techno-speak  and hadn't really "got" UC at all. So much so that I thought it worth taking a step back to put together this short summary about what unified communications is (or should be)all about, and to list some of the benefits such solutions have to offer.

From the network up

First a re-stating of what ought to be obvious, and that's to say that unified communications is all about taking advantage of a converged IP network, capable of handling not just data, but voice, video and other forms of traffic. And that, in practice, means a local Ethernet switch network and either the Internet or a private or leased Wide Area Network (WAN) to link those networks and their users together.

Without a converged infrastructure, UC just couldn't exist. However, it's not the only requirement. Indeed, for UC to work you also need communication applications able to leverage the IP network for their particular needs.

Typically those applications will fall into one of two categories. Either simple store-and-forward programs, such as email, or more immediate real-time applications, one of the most common of which is IP telephony (also known as Voice over IP or VoIP).

Email and IP telephony are typical starting points for any IP-based communications system, but can a network equipped with just an email server and a VoIP switchboard really be described as a unified communications solution?

Possibly not. However, it is a move in the right direction as it does consolidate two communications applications onto a single supporting infrastructure. That said, it's really only a first step and, to truly deserve the label "unified communications", a lot more apps are needed along with extra layers of functionality and intelligence to bring them together and add extra value to the proposition.

Typical apps

When it comes to extra applications the usual suspects include instant messaging, video calling and voice and video conferencing. Collaborative working, including the ability to share desktop applications and displays will also be high on the list, along with (increasingly) support for social networking using Facebook, Twitter and so on.

In terms of the extra functionality needed to help integrate these applications and add value, you're looking first at the ability to access any or all of these applications from commonly used productivity tools such as Outlook.  Access via a browser is important too, as is support for remote working and mobile integration, using smartphones and wireless tablets, plus the ability to take information from one application and use it in another, for example, to automatically display a customer's history when a call is received.

And then there's the killer feature called "presence", the final, over-arching, piece of the UC jigsaw.

Presence defined

It's important not to get too bogged down in how "presence" is implemented, just understand that it effectively describes the ability to do two things:

1.       To be able to see whether people you want to communicate with are available and how they can be contacted.

2.       To be able to respond to communications in the most appropriate and effective manner, preferably, without having to decide this yourself.

A good UC solution will integrate presence across all available client interfaces or, at least, as many as possible. For example, most will show user availability status both in the corporate directory and within tools such as Outlook, based on whether people are logged on to the network domain, the PBX, instant messaging server and so on.

A good UC solution will also use presence to route communications by the most effective technology, for example, by using a single contact number which can be routed to a PBX extension or mobile depending on availability; switching to voicemail when the phone goes unanswered; transcribing voice messages to email and vice versa; escalating IM chats directly to other communication channels and so on.

And the advantages are?

In essence, a UC solution integrates together all your communications applications, using a common IP infrastructure to connect applications and users together while adding additional features such as presence, and automated call routing/escalation across different communication technologies. All of which can be translated into some or all of the following benefits:-

Reduced infrastructure costs - everything goes over the network and/or the Internet with no separate cabling needed for telephony or video conferencing.

Greater efficiency - presence information means that users are much more likely to make contact with the people they want to communicate with on the first attempt. They can also choose the most appropriate method and not have to worry about how to set it up - it's all done by the supporting UC technology making video conferencing, for example, as easy as making phone call.

Reduced travel costs - voice and video conferencing can deliver face-to-face meetings without the need for expensive travel and subsistence.

Greater productivity - by integrating and simplifying communication, employees can make much better use of their time, for example, by scheduling online meetings rather than have to book a room and arranging for remote staff to be in the office. They can also work together collaboratively over long distances without the need for travel.

Leverage of investments - everyone has a mobile, smartphone or notebook these days and UC can make full use of these devices to enable remote and mobile users to, be "in the office" even when they're out.

Social networking support - by integrating social networking technologies into a UC solution staff can communicate using familiar interfaces with a much wider audience.

So there you have it. Not an exhaustive treatise on unified communications by any means but a starting point and (I think) a good overview of what UC is all about. How that gets translated into actual products is, of course, another matter and, possibly, a subject for another overview some other time.

This article is written by Alan Stevens and sponsored by Avaya. The opinions reflected in this piece are solely those of Alan Stevens and may not reflect those of Avaya management