Unified communications (UC) -- also called unified messaging or UM -- is the new buzzword in the IT industry, but what does it really mean? In some cases, it depends on whom you ask; vendors tend to put their own spin on the definition depending on what they're trying to sell you. But by most definitions, UC refers to the ability to integrate different types of communications -- including voice mail, e-mail, faxes, instant messages, and video conferencing -- into one common interface and/or repository.
That said, there are many ways to implement a unified communications solution in an organization. In its simplest form, it provides a way for users to access their faxes and voice mail messages via their e-mail clients. More sophisticated implementations provide advanced features such as the ability to hear e-mail messages read to you over the phone as well as the ability to dictate a reply and send it as an e-mail, instant message, fax, or audio message.
You don't necessarily need VoIP to implement UC; you can use the regular phone system. But VoIP does make it easier: VoIP services already include mechanisms for forwarding voice mail to e-mail, Find Me Follow Me (FMFM) functionality, and other features used in a UC system. In addition, you get more scalability and better integration with VoIP than with UC-type products that rely on traditional phone services.
Combining an asynchronous communication type such as e-mail with a real-time communication type such as telecommunications presents some challenges. However, it gives users far more flexibility and allows each of them to receive, process, and send messages in the way that works best for that individual.
Using UC in the business environment
Not surprisingly, UC has taken off more quickly in the enterprise environment than in the small and midsize business (SMB) world. Although it simplifies life for end users and can also reduce operational and maintenance costs and overhead, the initial implementation can be a bit costly and complex for smaller businesses. However, as competition in the field increases and costs for UC products decrease, VoIP-based UC is catching on with SMBs.
Some of the standard features of a UC system can greatly increase productivity, especially in companies that rely on daily (or more frequent) communications with customers, partners, vendors, and within the company. A UC system can give users the ability to:
- Use the same device and interface to access e-mail, voice mail messages, faxes, etc.
- Set priorities on messages or callers so users can retrieve high-priority messages and act on them more quickly.
- Respond to a message without exiting the messaging system, or forward a message to someone else within a single call.
- Send voice messages as e-mail attachments to other users, including setting up automatic forwarding so an assistant or other designated person will always get a copy of the user's voice mail.
- Send messages to multiple persons by making a single call.
- Use text-to-speech translation to have e-mail messages read to the user over the phone.
- Answer e-mail messages by dictating a reply over the phone.
- Access information about new fax messages over the phone.
- View fax messages from an e-mail client on any computer or mobile device.
- Forward faxes to others as e-mail attachments.
- Get notification of new voice mail messages, e-mail messages, or faxes via pager or cell phone.
Another important feature of a good UC system is the ability to locate the user wherever he or she is available via one phone number. The FMFM feature will ring different numbers (e.g., office, home, cell) in specified order or allow callers to opt to leave a message instead, which the system then delivers immediately to the recipient's cell phone, PDA, laptop, desktop computer, etc. Recipients can designate a different number for use during different time periods (e.g., after-hours, weekends).
Users can screen their calls, choosing which ones to answer immediately and which to send to the voice mail system. In addition, they can access messages via their e-mail accounts using POP, IMAP, or HTTP (i.e., Web-based mail).
On the administrative side, the repository for all these different types of communications is a messaging server, which typically uses LDAP-based directory services for identifying and authenticating users.
Vendor support for UC
Major equipment vendors such as Cisco Systems and software vendors such as Microsoft have gotten into the UC game. For example, Cisco's UC software is its Unified Open Network Exchange (uOne). Of course, there are many other vendors that offer UC solutions, especially at the enterprise level.
As you might expect, Microsoft based its UC solution on its Exchange e-mail server software, Office Communications Server 2007 (OCS) -- the successor to Live Communications Server -- the Office Communicator client software, Microsoft Office 2007 applications, and the Outlook e-mail client.
OCS 2007 integrates voice, video, instant messaging, and data communications into Office, and it also supports VoIP and smart phone devices. You can conduct video conferencing with Microsoft RoundTable, a device that incorporates a panoramic video camera and microphone with software for conducting online meetings.
Users with mobile devices can use Office Communicator Mobile to provide a similar interface to Office Communicator on the desktop. And users can use Office Communicator Web Access when they must work from a public computer or another device that doesn't have client software installed. Again, the Web interface is similar in appearance and functionality to Office Communicator 2007.
The growing adoption of VoIP makes it easier for companies to implement unified communications, and the increasing recognition of a need for UC within the organization is a force that's helping to drive the adoption of VoIP in the business world. The two technologies complement one another -- and while they aren't inseparable, it's a case where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
The VoIP/UC combination is quickly becoming the standard for managing communications in large businesses. Like other technologies such as Internet access, Web presence, and so forth, it's likely that this will eventually become the standard throughout the business world.
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Deb Shinder is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. She currently specializes in security issues and Microsoft products, and she has received Microsoft's Most Valuable Professional (MVP) status in Windows Server Security.