Unified Communications adoption strategy tutorial

Implementing a unified communications strategy affects everything from IT operations to employee communications to wide area network (WAN) performance.

Optimizing the network for unified communications, though, requires a unified communications strategy of significant planning and effort prior to the start of any actual product implementations. Often, network and telecom staffs rush to start the project when instead they should slow down, consider the unified communications strategy, and make sure all the pieces are in place to ensure a successful project — for those operating the unified communications (UC) support system and for those using it.

Network teams must start with something that, on the surface, seems simple — defining what UC means to their company.

Nemertes Research defines UC as an architecture, rather than a product, application or service. UC is a model for integrating various communications and collaboration applications into a streamlined set of interfaces, gateways and functions that enable internal and external communications. User interfaces to these applications include IP hard phones, real-time communications dashboards, mobile devices, productivity applications, or customized devices or applications for a specific industry.

Presence is the “glue” of UC, enabling applications to share information about user status and availability. Also included in the architecture are interfaces to external systems, such as legacy PBXs, external wireless networks, or business applications, via Web services or service-oriented architecture (SOA) frameworks. And the architecture includes the core infrastructure — management, directory and security services — to support the applications.

Given this broad definition, it’s easy to see why UC is not something IT staffs implement within a short time frame; it’s an architecture that evolves over time and one that many say is never truly complete, because there are endless ways to integrate applications, communications and collaboration capabilities.

Though defining UC may appear to be straightforward, in reality, it’s not an easy task. Expect disagreements over which applications will be part of the UC architecture, which vendors should be on the short list, how security and compliance will play a role, and whether enterprise applications will be integrated with collaboration applications, among other things. What’s more, the definition is likely to change over time. Other factors — such as business-unit buy-in and plans for related IT enterprise application or security projects — will affect how the company’s definition of UC evolves.

Understand that UC will change how companies integrate applications and services, as well as how individual users work. It also puts a huge strain on the network, considering that a bevy of real-time and non-real-time applications compete for finite resources. As companies are defining UC, they may include any combination of IP telephony, video conferencing, audio conferencing, Web conferencing, unified messaging, instant messaging, presence, wikis, blogs, social networking and more. Any of these applications then can integrate with enterprise applications, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer resource management (CRM) and sales force automation (SFA). The network and apps teams could decide to extend any combination of capabilities to mobile devices.

So how do companies take the network, which historically has handled fairly predictable and non-delay-sensitive traffic, and equip it to handle a combination of real-time and non-real-time applications with varying levels of performance mandates? Using the right network technologies, management tools, and optimization devices is key once the network is up and running.

But successful IT and network teams must follow these best practices for pre-deployment of a UC strategy. Included on the checklist should be:

  • Benchmark performance of the current state. This is a key step IT staffs often overlook until it’s too late. Any time the staff plans to deploy a new application, it should evaluate the performance of the application or business process it’s replacing.

For example, prior to an IP telephony implementation, determine the before-and-after metrics of TDM compared with IP telephony. Consider metrics such as capital and operational cost (particularly moves, adds and changes, which go from about $300 per MAC with TDM down to $10 per MAC with IP telephony), mean opinion score, uptime, and ability to transfer calls and do abbreviated dialing, and so on. Measure the current status in order to compare it against future performance.

The reason to do this is to document success or failure of the application and network performance, user satisfaction and cost. The goal, of course, is to demonstrate success.

  • Conduct pre-UC deployment testing. Before moving any new application to the converged network, conduct pre-deployment testing.

The pre-UC deployment test should include the following:

  • Check to see whether all the routers and/or switches will be able to handle real-time traffic over the network, in terms of capacity and quality-of-service (QoS) requirements.
  • Assess the current average and peak utilization of the network. This information helps to determine spare capacity available for real-time traffic, such as voice and video. Average utilizations range from 30% to 60%; peak utilizations range from 40% to 80%. Typically, voice traffic increases overall loads by 30%.
  • Send simulated voice packets over the network to model how it might perform once the traffic is converged, and adjust the network accordingly.
  • Measure the performance. Measurements should include latency, packet loss, jitter and overall availability. Consider developing a MOS specific to your organization.
  • Evaluate the need for network-optimization tools that can leverage existing bandwidth through compression and latency-reduction techniques. Also, consider QoS features that can help prioritize traffic and reduce latency.
  • Assess Power over Ethernet (PoE) capabilities and requirements. The lack of PoE can increase costs considerably.

Acknowledge that the one constant in network is change. Don’t stop tracking network performance once the pre-deployment assessment is complete. Continue to benchmark network performance, preferably monthly or quarterly, and make changes accordingly.

Optimizing the network for UC

When optimizing a network for unified communications, it’s important to maintain effective management and monitoring. But effective management and monitoring are usually the biggest oversights when creating a unified communications strategy for UC deployments.

IP telephony is one of the first applications of typical UC deployments, so it is a good indicator of issues that could arise with future UC applications. Consider these facts, from Nemertes’ research benchmarks:

  • Telecom managers say it takes anywhere from one to four times longer to isolate and resolve problems with IP telephony than it did with TDM — at least for the first two years of usage.
  • 43% of companies don’t buy tools to manage IP telephony until three years after deployment.
  • When companies do address IP telephony management, they buy one to five tools just to manage that application.

The message: Converged IP communications aren’t a cinch to manage. In fact, they are quite complex, given that there are multiple moving parts. It may seem counterintuitive for problems with IP telephony — which was supposed to be easier to manage — to take one to four times longer to resolve, but there are many more moving parts in the IP world. Problems could be the result of a router, switch, quality of service (QoS) setting, optimization device, other applications contending for bandwidth, or a host of other issues. (TDM, in contrast, is a closed network run by experienced teams who know the short list of causes to any problems that emerge.)

Now start integrating IP telephony with unified messaging, video conferencing, instant messaging and Web conferencing, and the complexities multiply, particularly considering most of this integration happens with multiple vendors that may or may not be following standards and almost always have proprietary extensions. Without a proper UC strategy for optimizing the network for UC, there are too many moving parts that could cause major problems with the process.

Optimizing the network for UC requires knowledge of what’s happening on the network. It sounds simple, but it’s one of the biggest problems that experienced network and telecom practitioners cite with UC.

Most companies enter the world of UC without a UC strategy, believing that product vendors will provide the tools they need to effectively monitor and manage their products. Indeed, vendors of individual applications such as IP telephony, video conferencing, Web conferencing and so on do provide tools to manage their own products.

Problem No. 1 with this approach is that management and monitoring aren’t the vendors’ core areas of expertise. So the tools often lack decent graphical user interfaces (GUIs), detailed performance data, correlation between performance of the product and other factors (such as the network or bandwidth utilization), and general usability (such as integrated management information bases).

Problem No. 2 arises when companies build a multi-vendor UC solution. Management and monitoring tools must follow. That’s why IT staffs start building an arsenal of monitoring and management tools to help with the task. They use any combination of application, event, configuration, network and optimization products to help them manage the UC environment.

Also, IT staffs are relying on optimization tools not only to compress traffic or accelerate applications but also to provide visibility into the application performance. Some of these tools allow administrators to set and enforce policies as well.

IT staffs must decide whether to spend budget on the tools, annual maintenance, training and the staff resources to use the tools — or turn toward managed services. (hyperlink article #3 to managed services) Nemertes has seen a significant and consistent growth in the past five years in managed services, in part because IT and telecom teams do not want to devote the staff or budget to building an internal arsenal.

Whatever the approach, it’s crucial for companies to develop a UC strategy for optimizing the UC network early in the process. In evaluating real-world costs, Nemertes documented that companies which use specialty IP telephony monitoring tools spend significantly less (about 75%) on operational costs than those that use only IP PBX-provided products. Obviously, other factors, such as staff expertise and complexity of rollout, may play into the figure. But the correlation between the data is clear and compelling. Given the future increasing complexity of UC, management and monitoring should be high on the list to ensure that the network is as optimal as possible.

Using MSPs for VoIP implementation

Forging a relationship with a third-party managed service provider (MSP) has become an increasingly popular option when creating a unified communications strategy to optimize networks for unified communications applications.

In Nemertes’ most recent research benchmark, 46% of organizations said they were using MSPs for their VoIP implementation, up from 33% last year. (The growth in the past four years has been steady, going from just 6% in 2005 to 14% in 2006, 22% in 2007, 33% in 2008 and 46% in 2009.) We expect this growth trend to follow with other piece parts of UC as application demands become increasingly complex, require custom integration, and need a myriad of management tools to ensure optimal performance.

At the same time, IT departments are faced with decreasing budgets, along with increasing demands from the business units. As the virtual workplace continues to expand, it creates challenges for an increasingly centralized IT staff. Consider these trends:

  • 54.3% of companies have decreased their IT budget in 2009; 30% were flat.
  • 89% operate a “virtual workplace,” meaning that some percentage of their employees work remotely from supervisors or workgroups (on average, 21% of the employees work remotely).
  • The number of branch offices grew by an average of 9.2% from 2004 to 2008. In 2009, they are decreasing by 3.2%, but companies expect significant growth — 17% — in 2010 as merger and acquisition activity picks up and growth in emerging markets increases.
  • Only 18% of branch locations house any sort of technical expertise.
  • 85.7% of companies plan to expand the number of telecommuters they support in 2009.

The expanding “distributed” or “virtual” workplace is placing demands not only on bandwidth and network but also on the staff that must manage IT application delivery to all end users.

Individuals or a group are responsible for making sure that dial tone exists, call features work across all locations, and call quality is solid (providing pertinent information is available to determine when there is a problem and how to resolve it). The only way for the teams to scale with the growth in devices, applications and virtual workers is to add more headcount or obtain the monitoring/management tools that provide the data for central and remote locations. Headcount, at least for now, isn’t increasing at most companies.

Alternatively, they rely on MSPs to do the same. MSPs include a variety of companies. They range from the major network carriers (AT&T, BT, Qwest, Sprint, Verizon Business) to competitive carriers (Global Crossing, Masergy, XO) to large systems integrators (IBM, EDS, CSC) to thousands of local value-added resellers (VARs). The managed-services business is one area of IT seeing positive results from the recession, with annual growth between 25% and 30%.

IP telephony managed services are the furthest along in the UC space. MSPs sometimes develop their own management and monitoring tools, either solo or with the help of a traditional management vendor. Almost all of them use the same specialty IP telephony monitoring tools that enterprises use to monitor their own internal networks.

Many of these IP telephony monitoring tools can support IP telephony products from multiple vendors (including Alcatel, Avaya, Cisco and Nortel). Some have or are adding support for Microsoft’s and IBM’s UC platforms as well. The MSPs doing VoIP implementation rely on these products to manage multi-vendor systems from the same interface using a single product rather than having to buy or use multiple products to monitor different IP telephony manufacturers’ gear.

Because MSPs have a 24/7 staff dedicated to managing UC and its components, they are up to speed on the latest issues, problems and resolutions. IT decision makers should evaluate MSP services to help augment the IT staff as they forge ahead with their UC plans.

About 60% of organizations say they consider IP telephony to be the first of many UC applications. They expect additional collaborative applications such as Web conferencing, video conferencing, instant messaging, blogs, wikis, and social-networking sites to integrate with their IP telephony system. Doing so requires expertise and the management/monitoring tools to create an optimized network to support the integrated UC architecture.