Sunday, 20 March 2011

Unified communications

Unified communications (UC) is the integration of real-time communication services such as instant messaging (chat), presence information, telephony (including IP telephony), video conferencing,data sharing(including web connected electronic whiteboards aka SMARTBoards), call control and speech recognition with non-real-time communication services such as unified messaging (integrated voicemail, e-mail, SMS and fax). UC is not a single product, but a set of products that provides a consistent unified user interface and user experience across multiple devices and media types.[1]

In its broadest sense UC can encompass all forms of communications that are exchanged via the medium of the TCP/IP network to include other forms of communications such as Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) and Digital Signage Communications as they become an integrated part of the network communications deployment and may be directed as one to one communications or broadcast communications from one to many.

UC allows an individual to send a message on one medium and receive the same communication on another medium. For example, one can receive a voicemail message and choose to access it through e-mail or a cell phone. If the sender is online according to the presence information and currently accepts calls, the response can be sent immediately through text chat or video call. Otherwise, it may be sent as a non real-time message that can be accessed through a variety of media.

Unified communications definition

An evolving communications technology architecture which automates and unifies all forms of human and device communications in context, and with a common experience. Its purpose is to optimize business processes and enhance human communications by reducing latency, managing flows, and eliminating device and media dependencies.

Communication latency

One focus of unified communications is to reduce communication response time, or in other words perceived speed, which often is essential in decision making and acting upon instructions. For example, an action that takes two days to complete but is received a day late, takes three days to complete. Unified communications technology aims to minimize that delay. It also focuses on the following: telecommunication voice systems and services, data communication networks, IT systems, mobile telecommunications services, and videoconferencing technology and telepresence services.


The history of unified communications is tied to the evolution of the supporting technology. Originally, business telephone systems were a private branch exchange (PBX) or Key Telephone System provided and managed by the local phone company. These systems utilized analog or digital circuits provided by the phone company in order to deliver phone calls from the Central Office (CO) to the customer. The system, be it a PBX or Key Telephone System, would then accept the call and handle routing the call to the appropriate extension or line appearance on the phones at the customer's office.

The major drawback to this service was the reliance on the phone company to manage (in most cases) the PBX or Key Telephone System. This resulted in a residual, recurring cost to customers. Over time, the PBX became more privatized, and internal staff members were hired to manage these systems. This was typically done by companies that could afford to bring this skill in-house and thereby reduce the requirement to notify the phone company or their local PBX vendor each time a change was required in the system. This increasing privatization triggered the development of more powerful software that increased the usability and manageability of the system.

As companies began to deploy IP networks in their environment, companies began to use these networks to transmit voice instead of relying on traditional telephone network circuits. Some vendors such as Avaya and Nortel created circuit packs or cards for their PBX systems that could interconnect their communications systems to the IP network. Other vendors such as Cisco created equipment that could be placed in routers to transport voice calls across a company network from site to site. The termination of PBX circuits to be transported across a network and delivered to another phone system is traditionally referred to as Voice over IP (Voice over Internet Protocol or VoIP). This design required special hardware on both ends of the network equipment to provide the termination and delivery at each site. As time went by, Siemens, Alcatel-Lucent, AltiGen, Cisco, Nortel, Avaya and Mitel realized the potential for eliminating the traditional PBX or Key System and replacing it with a solution based on IP. This IP solution would be driven by software only and thereby do away with the requirement for "switching" equipment at a customer site (save the equipment necessary to connect to the outside world). This created a new technology which is now referred to as IP Telephony. When referring to a system that does not utilize any legacy PBX or Key System but rather IP-based telephony services only, it qualifies as an IP Telephony solution.

With the advent of IP Telephony the handset was no longer a digital device hanging off a copper loop from a PBX. Instead, the handset lived on the network as another computer device. The transport of audio was therefore no longer a variation in voltages or modulation of frequency such as with the handsets from before, but rather encoding the conversation using a CODEC (G.711 originally) and transporting it with a protocol such as the Real-time Transport Protocol (RTP). When the handset is just another computer connected to the network, advanced features can be provided by letting computer applications communicate with server computers elsewhere in any number of ways; applications can even be upgraded or freshly installed on the handset.

When considering the efforts of Unified Communications solutions providers, the overall goal is to no longer focus strictly on the telephony portion of daily communications. The unification of all communication devices inside a single platform provides the mobility, presence, and contact capabilities that extend beyond the phone to all devices a person may use or have at their disposal.[3]

Given the wide scope of Unified Communications, there has been a lack of community definition as most solutions are from proprietary vendors. Since Mar 2008, there are several open source projects with a Unified Communications focus such as Druid and elastix, which are based on Asterisk, a leading open source telephony project. The aim of these open source Unified Communications projects is to allow the open source community of developers and users to have a say in Unified Communications and what it means.

IBM entered the unified communications marketplace with several products, beginning in 2006 with the updated release of a unified communications middleware platform, IBM Lotus Sametime 7.5[4], as well as related products and services such as IBM WebSphere Unified Messaging, IBM Global Technology Services - Converged Communications Services, and more. In October 2007, Microsoft entered the Unified Communications market with the launch of Office Communications Server[5], a software-based solution running on Windows. In March 2008, Unison Technologies launched Unison[6], a software-based unified communications solution that runs on Linux and Windows.

In May 2010, the Unified Communications Interoperability Forum (UCIF) was announced. UCIF is an independent, non-profit alliance between technology companies that creates and tests interoperability profiles, implementation guidelines, and [best practices] for interoperability between UC products and existing communications and business applications. The original founding members were HP, Juniper Networks, Logitech / LifeSize, Microsoft, and Polycom[7]. Other members are Acme Packet, Aspect, AudioCodes, Broadcom, BroadSoft, Brocade Communications Systems, ClearOne, Jabra, Plantronics, Radvision, Siemens Enterprise Communications, and Teliris.[7][8]

As the buzz about cloud computing has resonated strongly in 2010, there is some debate about whether Unified Communications hosted on a enterprise's premise is the same thing as Unified Communications solutions that are hosted by a service provider[9]--or UCaaS (UC as a Service). This may be mostly a marketing distinction as all of these approaches properly fall under the single umbrella term of Unified Communications.

The difference between unified communications and unified messaging

Unified communications is sometimes confused with unified messaging, but it is distinct. Unified communications refers to both real-time and non-real-time delivery of communications based on the preferred method and location of the recipient; unified messaging systems culls messages from several sources (such as e-mail, voice mail and faxes), but holds those messages only for retrieval at a later time. Unified communications allows for an individual to check and retrieve an e-mail or voicemail from any communication device at anytime. It expands beyond voicemail services to data communications and video services.

Components of unified communications

Unified communications represents a concept where multiple modes of business communications can be seamlessly integrated. Unified communications is not a single product but rather a solution which consists of various elements, including (but not limited to) the following: call control and multimodal communications, presence, instant messaging, unified messaging, speech access and personal assistant, conferencing, collaboration tools, mobility, business process integration (BPI) and a software solution to enable business process integration.[1] The term of presence is also a factor – knowing where one’s intended recipients are and if they are available, in real time – and is itself a key component of unified communications. To put it simply, unified communications integrates all the systems that a user might already be using and helps those systems work together in real time. For example, unified communications technology could allow a user to seamlessly collaborate with another person on a project, even if the two users are in separate locations. The user could quickly locate the necessary person by accessing an interactive directory, engage in a text messaging session, and then escalate the session to a voice call, or even a video call – all within minutes. In another example, an employee receives a call from a customer who wants answers. Unified communications could enable that worker to access a real-time list of available expert colleagues, then make a call that would reach the necessary person, enabling the employee to answer the customer faster, and eliminating rounds of back-and-forth emails and phone-tag.

The examples in the previous paragraph primarily describe "personal productivity" enhancements that tend to benefit the individual user. While such benefits can be important, enterprises are finding that they can achieve even greater impact by using unified communications capabilities to transform business processes. This is achieved by integrating UC functionality directly into the business applications using development tools provided by many of the suppliers. Instead of the individual user invoking the UC functionality to, say, find an appropriate resource, the workflow or process application automatically identifies the resource at the point in the business activity where one is needed.

When used in this manner, the concept of presence often changes. Most people associate presence with instant messaging (IM "buddy lists") [11] -- the status of individuals is identified. But, in many business process applications, what is important is finding someone with a certain skill. In these environments, presence will identify available skills or capabilities.

This "business process" approach to integrating UC functionality can result in bottom line benefits that are an order of magnitude greater than those achievable by personal productivity methods alone.

Unified communications in action

Given the sophistication of unified communications technology, its uses are myriad for businesses. It enables users to know where their colleagues are physically located (say, their car or home office). They also have the ability to see which mode of communication the recipient prefers to use at any given time (perhaps their cell phone, or email, or instant messaging). A user could seamlessly set up a real-time collaboration on a document they are producing with a co-worker, or, in a retail setting, a worker might do a price-check on a product using a hand-held device and need to consult with a co-worker based on a customer inquiry. With unified communications, instant messaging and presence could be built into the price check application, and the problem could be resolved in moments

Who is it for

Unified communications is very useful for knowledge workers, information workers, and service workers alike, many of whom may cross the lines between the three sectors on a daily or hourly basis, depending on the task and the client. With an increasingly mobile workforce, businesses are rarely centralized in one location. Unified communications facilitates this on-the-go, always-available style of communication. In addition, unified communications technology can be tailored to each person’s specific job or to a particular section of a company.[13]

    * Department of Defense (DoD) Unified Communications
      Unified Communications within the Department of Defense (DoD) requires passing strict security and reliability tests. The U.S. Joint Interoperability Test Command is responsible for this testing. These Unified Communications systems are tested to insure that they meet military-grade SIP or assured services SIP (ASSIP) requirements for establishing communication with resource priorities, ensuring system and network access and control, and providing precedence and pre-emption policies to assure connectivity for Command and Control (C2) users. These systems are part of the Department of Defense (DoD) Unified Capabilities Approved Products List (UCAPL).[14][15] New products such as the Nortel AS5300 have been designed specifically to meet these rigorous requirements and are being deployed in the DoD to provide military grade Unified Communications.