In the past couple of decades, human communication, both at personal and corporate level, has evolved far beyond just voice. The telephone, although a highly useful and impressive technology in its own right, has undergone many generations of improvements, and today, the communication vendors, and their customers alike, consider voice communications only part of the communications puzzle. Today, we use plethora of communication and collaboration tools such as email, voicemail, instant messaging, video conferencing, smartphones and the like on a daily basis. Needless to say, effective communication through the use of appropriate technologies is a key to any successful enterprise.
Unified Communication (UC) is gaining a lot of mindshare in the last four to five years as a methodology for effective corporate communication. Put it simply, UC is the integration of real time communication services such as instant messaging, presence, telephony, multimedia conferencing, directory services along with other services such as voicemail, email and SMS. It is essentially a convergence of communication solutions and collaboration tools. Today, UC has reached mainstream adoption with majority of businesses across the globe engaged with it or actively planning its implementation. UC has become a key factor in enabling real-time connectivity thereby enhancing employee productivity, increasing collaboration and reducing IT operational costs.
UC solutions can help organizations of all sizes, from small businesses to large-scale global enterprises. Small companies can eliminate the costs of owning and operating a traditional phone system while accessing enterprise-class tools that help improve competitiveness.
While UC acceptance and adoption across the enterprises is gaining significant momentum, I see two powerful trends dominating the UC space during the coming years: Cloud based UC which can offer
enterprises the necessary flexibility and agility and Mobility which can further enhance the employee productivity and improve customer satisfaction.
Unified Communication in the Cloud
Cloud computing is already a megatrend in the world of IT. As with other software applications, we are seeing cloud services offering a full range of UC applications on a subscription basis to provide scalable and affordable solutions. Many communication and collaboration tools that we already use such as Gmail (email), SharePoint or Google Docs (document management), and Microsoft Live Meeting or WebEx (video and web conferencing) bring the efficiencies and economies of cloud to UC.
There are certain strong advantages when utilizing cloud services for UC. Cloud based UC offers the necessary flexibility and agility to the business. With cloud, enterprises can scale their deployments up and down and add new features and functionality on the fly as per need. While this offers incredible flexibility to the business it also exerts a much tighter control on the IT expenditure. Technically, a hosted or managed UC solution also accesses the resources in the cloud but it totally lacks the on demand agility that characterizes cloud computing.
Cloud based UC can also mitigate some of the pain points of UC, such as the upfront budgets required and also the time and complexity of implementing the solution. For organizations that would like to test the waters before a full-fledged deployment of the UC solution, implementing it via the cloud is an easy and effective way of managing the risk.
With these benefits however, there are several security concerns which an enterprise must address before adopting a cloud based UC solution. When a solution is deployed in public cloud, the enterprise does not necessarily know where the data is stored and who has access to it. There are concerns over cloud service provider’s regulatory compliance and auditing as it needs to be subjected to external audits and security certifications. Another concern is over data integrity. An organizations data in the cloud is typically in a shared environment alongside data from other customers unless it is hosted on a private cloud. An effective encryption policy must be in place for ensuring data integrity.
I strongly feel that even though UC in the cloud presents the enterprise with data security challenges, a hybrid approach to cloud and a well-planned and multi-layered security plan for data can mitigate these risks. One thing is certain – any organization embracing UC solutions can no longer ignore the cloud offerings.
Mobility and Unified Communication
With mobile devices rapidly becoming application devices (led by the iPhone) using processors more powerful than what computers used few years ago coupled with high speed wireless technology like 3G and the emergence of 4G networks (Long Term Evolution (LTE) and WiMax), mobility is slated to become one common denominator in every UC initiative. As UC is ultimately about uniting disparate communication modes into an integrated whole, mobility will always play the role of an enabler.
If one sees carefully, there is a symbiotic relationship between UC and mobility. A smartphone supports the three most important elements of UC (voice, text, and video) naturally unlike a desktop PC. This consolidation of voice, video and data on the same device makes highly suitable for a UC solution. Additionally, as mobile devices enable employees to work, share and collaborate from disparate locations, mobility paired with UC can enhance employee as well as customer satisfaction. While making
employees more accessible, it can help to cut costs and streamline business processes. Mobility with UC can also alleviate the unnecessary communication bottlenecks and improve employee as well as enterprise productivity.
The coming years would see increased use of tablets and other smart mobile devices across the enterprises. With these devices already offering many features that connect the employees to their company, such as access to email, internet and directories, it is a good starting point for companies to go for UC integration. Additionally, UC features such as presence, access to corporate directories, and security controls offers further incentive for enterprises to make this investment.
The next few years would also see various mobile applications specially designed for providing easy access to many of the UC services of common use, such as audio and Web conferencing, video conferencing, file and information sharing. Business applications on mobile devices can enable a collaborative experience due to ability to share information on an immediate basis across communities of interest.
There are various challenges towards successful integration of mobility with UC services, however. Firstly, IT needs to address the security implications that might result from employees’ access to sensitive information through mobile devices. Also, if enterprises are following schemes such as the “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD), the IT department needs to handle the challenges of supporting different platforms. Educating the workforce on tools for data loss prevention, email encryption and the like for ensuring security of data is also of paramount importance.
While mobile devices and wireless network technology is progressing in leaps and bounds, mobile devices haven’t yet reached full parity with desktops. The powerful 3G networks still do not have nearly as much bandwidth at their disposal as devices connected to fiber and other landlines.
Even after factoring these challenges, in both the areas of cloud and mobility, I am sure that in the coming years cloud and mobility will play a key role in the UC space. Apart from imparting flexibility and agility to the enterprise and enhancing employee productivity, UC applications that use cloud services and that enhance mobility are bound to provide a significant return on investment to the enterprises.
Subir Bhatnagar is VP & Global Head – Solutions, AGC Networks Ltd.