Interview: The Changing Landscape of Unified Communications

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Next Page: Evren’s insightful article on IP based communication systems

IP Communications System: The Migration Map for Middle East Enterprises

Evren Aker from leading unified communications vendor Interactive Intelligence lays out the migration roadmap for enterprises in the Middle East thinking of making a transition from a traditional PBX system to an IP Communications system

Planning any IT technology upgrade is never easy and if it happens to involve your company’s enterprise communications system, it takes careful upfront planning and an understanding of what’s currently available since the last time you did an upgrade.

IP communications systems, based on a soft switch design, are rapidly replacing aging digital PBXs. All-in-One solutions support traditional telephony services and unified communications tools on a single centralised server; fully featured contact centre services may also be available. Today’s customer has the option of fully replacing their existing system or installing a co-located IP soft switch for a gradual system migration while leveraging the new technology and associated benefits. So how does one make an informed decision when preparing an enterprise communications system upgrade roadmap?

TODAY’S ENTERPRISE COMMUNICATIONS SYSTEM

Most enterprise customers have been migrating their communications systems from traditional digital PBXs to those based on Internet Protocol (IP) communications standards. These IP communications systems support traditional telephony requirements and in addition offer customers a collection of more advanced communications services. While there are several design options available, the one of choice for most of today’s customers is referred to as a soft switch based on traditional client/server architecture topology. The advantage of this design is that the adoption of industry standards permits compatibility between the system and third party applications and that most, if not all, of the hardware equipment is non-proprietary.

In spite of these advantages, many customers chose to upgrade their digital PBX to either an IP-enabled or Hybrid system design. This is done so as to retain a sizable percent of their earlier communications systems investment. The viable option to extend the life of existing systems is to install a co-located soft switch. The customer can then execute a gradual migration of users between the two systems. It may not be an ideal situation, operating two systems, but the cost savings and performance advantages to be gained are likely to outweigh the negatives.

BASICS OF UNIFIED COMMUNICATIONS

One of the many advantages of an IP communications system is the availability of a range of features, functions, and processes collectively referred to as Unified Communications (UC). While many customers believe IP telephony and UC to be one and the same thing, in actuality, UC offerings facilitate and enhance the traditional telephony experience, not replace it. Implementation of IP communication systems provides the necessary framework for UC solutions. Many UC features and applications are enabled by Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), a prominent industry standard for IP communications systems, particularly when customers need to interface to third party solutions.

JUSTIFYING AN IP COMMUNICATIONS SYSTEM

A new IP communications system should be viewed as a business asset, not as an expense item (which many do). And as a business asset it should help reduce existing communications expenses as well as affect how the enterprise operates and competes in the competitive market. Basic justification factors fall into two categories: hard cost savings and enhanced user/business productivity (both real and perceived). The following are a few of the many justification factors for implementing a current generation All-in-One soft switch IP communications system.

Reduced hardware costs owing to: fewer common equipment hardware elements and as a result lower maintenance costs; use of non-proprietary third party hardware equipment which allows flexibility in design choice; option of using PC-based soft phones.

Enhanced system survivability and resiliency (reducing system disasters) based on: a limited number of points of failure compared to traditional PBXs; availability of cost efficient, fully redundant and geo-distributed communications control server options; pooled media services and gateway resources; alternate transmission signaling paths among servers, gateways and endpoints.

Consolidation of multiple networked PBXs by migrating to a centralized data center system design offers numerous benefits including: fewer systems with significant hardware/software savings; easier and more manageable growth and network expansion; centralized, more efficient system administration and management; lower cost integrated voice/data network transmission services; greater user mobility across the network.

Many UC features and services are designed to automate communications. Among the many UC cost/time savings and productivity benefits are the following:

Faster and more efficient contacts through presence management services

Reduced messaging management time/cost through unified messaging

Lower cost and self-managed audio conferencing services

Simplified and more efficient access/implementation of communications systems features and functions through a GUI-based soft client screen

The Systems Upgrade Checklist

It is recommended that a comprehensive corporate communications strategy be in place well before a customer is ready to replace their aging voice-centric communications systems. This approach must address goals and objectives of the enterprise’s overall business strategy and identify how a new system can contribute to such things as: revenue enhancement; cost reduction; competitive positioning; market expansion; improved customer service; and Green initiatives.

Current generation All-in-One communications systems support hundreds of features and functions and it necessary to understand and identify the distinct communications needs of many different system subscriber communities, to avoid a ?one size fits all? approach.

Replacing an existing communications system can be traumatic for the majority of customers, because many system subscribers are averse to change. Identifying the current communications issues that can be addressed, corrected or improved by a new communications system will help gain stakeholder support and facilitate the migration process.

An incremental implementation approach across the enterprise network is recommended for purposes of manageability and to avoid too much change at once. Customers with large networks should consider having a mix of new and old communications system platforms for a few years, gradually migrating on a site-by-site basis according to a well defined time line.

Sufficient training services and help desk support must be provided to cover feature operations and system interfaces (desktop telephone instruments, soft phones, mobile clients). Personal one-on-one training may be mandated at the executive level and small group training for system specialist, such as attendants, system administrators, and contact center personnel is also often necessary. Systems upgrades are inevitable and a well thought out strategy can greatly ease the transition process.

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