Unified communications (UC) bring people together using technology to facilitate conversations and exchange information, whether by phone, instant messaging, audio/video conferencing or desktop sharing. UC can consist of physical or virtual systems, either on-premises or cloud-based, and may be used for intraorganizational communication or to connect with customers or external providers.
Companies with minimalist travel budgets can leverage UC to foster collaboration and it can greatly improve customer contact and support, especially in today's "always on" business environment where 24x7x365 operations are a common standard. Mobile communication apps can also help employees on the go remain connected to the enterprise.
Any customer-facing apps or systems are considered business critical, of course, and so when implementing unified communications platforms several standard best practices which apply across the technological spectrum can maximize your return on investment:
- Use redundancy. Deploy clustered or primary/failover systems which can take over automatically if a failure occurs.
- Use physical and access-based security mechanisms to protect the environment.
- Use monitoring/alerts to detect and report issues.
- Back up the environment in order to recover from a disaster.
- Have an alternate solution such as an emergency phone line redirect to a third party service if a phone system is down
- Document and train IT staff on how to properly administer and main the unified communications environment.
- Have a support contract, or at least a budget for paid service incidents
However, there's more afoot when it comes to ROI from UC systems: namely, performance and uptime. Few are liable to notice if an email takes a little longer than normal to arrive, or a file server goes down briefly, but if audio or video is sluggish or choppy or instant messaging goes dark users (and customers) will definitely become aware of this hampering liability. That's why it's important to think about establishing service level agreements (SLAs) with vendors or carriers to create a baseline for acceptable performance.
I spoke with Skip Chilcott, the head of Product Marketing at IR, a UC provider, to get further information on the topic.
TechRepublic: What's the best way to evaluate current UC systems and make sure you are getting your investments worth?
Skip Chilcott: "Reporting and trending on user experience metrics (Mean Opinion Score aka MOS or Quality of Service aka QOS), usage and user feedback to understand overall UC adoption and usage. Also focus on the cost of operations - the number of helpdesk calls, tickets, mean time to repair and so forth to understand the cost per issue and overall IT operations cost for the entire UC solution."
It's worth pointing out that monitoring application or system usage can be a key factor in maximizing ROI, to assess whether there are unused functions that can be eliminated to save money, or whether maximum capacities in licensing or system loads are being approached.
TR: What are some examples of useful UC tools to help IT teams implement and manage solutions?
SC: "Two categories of tools are recommended; experience/performance management and system administration.
Experience/performance management solutions help customers monitor and manage the overall environment performance, quality, and end user experience of calls and meetings across voice, video, and desktop sharing. These manage the overall user experience in real-time, identify issues with real-time proactive alerting, diagnose and solve problems, provide root cause troubleshooting, permit reactive helpdesk investigation and triage and offer trend reporting, network problem solving, and more.Administration tools help organizations provision and manage users (adds, moves, changes, deletes), user migration between systems and platforms, DID phone number management, device inventory, etc."
TR: Do you have any recommendations for specific types of UC components, and why are they preferred?
SC: "Every organization should have an enterprise-grade performance management and monitoring solution in place to help deliver a high-quality communications experience for users and ensure the expected adoption and ROI. It's important to monitor end-to-end eco-system components from multiple vendors using something which deploys easily as a software-based solution without hardware probes, monitors real-time and historical metrics, has fully customizable displays/dashboards, and can be integrated with other systems such as IT Service Management solutions."
TR: What sort of analytics and contextual alerts will come in handy?
SC: "Contextual alerts that identify problems in real-time is important for organizations to be proactive in finding and solving problems before users report them. Monitoring elements such as session border controllers (SBCs) and SIP Trunking, the core UC platform, end-point devices and video systems is key. Also test connections from the outside-in to detect problems outside of internal solution elements, such as carriers and SIP Trunk providers, which may go undetected such as DID numbers not terminating properly or call routing problems."
TR: How can IT staff increase the quality of unified communications?
SC: "In addition to following vendor guidelines for deployment architecture, redundancy, and hardware specs, here are several suggestions:
Proactive monitoring with complex threshold real-time alerting , linked with automated root cause investigation and identification to find the trouble spots for many users, not just individuals.Reporting and analytics trending on user experience metrics (MOS or QOE) such as usage trends and user feedback, to understand the overall adoption and usage. Also, this can ensure systems are delivering the expected results and meeting internal KPIs and ROI.Troubleshoot calls and interactions across multi-vendor environments and across the entire end-to-end call path, including WiFi, mobile network, and the last segment involving the personal device (headset, mobile device, PC, handset, etc.)"
Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.