Technology has always held a certain fascination for me due to two principal aspects. Firstly, through technology, mankind has always explored – and ultimately found – ways through which life can be rendered easier. Secondly, it also helps forge new paths towards improving efficiency and productivity, whether for the servicing of human or business needs.
On the other hand, for the interested layman, most technical concepts seem bleak and overwhelming at best, especially in the embryonic stages of any new undertaking. However, when the purpose, scope and objective of novel technologies are explained in a clear manner (limiting technical terms where possible), one is able to embrace the need for change and ultimately support such change. I will hereby attempt to provide the background to the rise of Unified Communications (UC), its scope and overarching benefits.
The traditional connectivity set-up for businesses typically entails the provision of fixed telephony, internet (bandwidth and point-to-point connectivity for multi-site organisations) and mobile communications. Voice calls are to be made available in the fixed environment (office location) and mobile environment over mobile networks (which are of course also used in the office). Fixed telephony is provided via on-premise exchanges, typically served via a PBX (Private Branch Exchange – essentially, a telephone switching system within an enterprise) carrying simultaneous calls through ISDN Integrated Services Digital Network – a telecommunications technology that enables the transmission of digital data over standard phone lines).
Traditional PBXs are connected through PRI (Primary Rate Interface – an ISDN connection which allows for significantly more parallel calls) whilst more modern IP-PBX are connected via SIP trunks, which is essentially a way to deliver telecommunication voice and media services over the Internet. PBX also provides connectivity to fax and/or PDQ machines (devices which allows businesses to process card payments), whilst desktop PCs are connected via the Local Area Network (LAN).
Larger organisations are likely to make significant investment in IT and applications with substantial on-premise hardware managed either internally or by third parties. In fact, fixed communications are likely to be feature-rich according to the critical mass and operational complexity of the enterprise in question.
Organisations are increasingly facing challenges in:
- Sourcing and supporting effective enterprise-grade applications
- Minimising upfront (typically CAPEX) and controlling running costs (OPEX)
- Consolidating suppliers and integrating services so as to focus on core operations
- Developing a more flexible and mobile workforce
Many organisations have moved from a traditional set-up to a more transitional one, with some using an on-site, owned and maintained PBX, while others make use of an IP-PBX with some level of integration with fixed telephony. In the case of a transitional set-up, IT applications and services would not be integrated with fixed or mobile voice communications. Cloud storage and collaboration services may also be used - however they may have a disjointed contract and cost structure due to the transitory nature of their set-up.
At this stage, the business would have embarked on a degree of Fixed Mobile Convergence (FMC), whereby voice, video and data services can be switched between wired and wireless networks seamlessly, allowing for uninterrupted communications over fixed broadband, Wi-Fi and cellular technologies. FMC is effectively at the core of a UC environment, providing structural resilience, a consistent user experience across all devices and flexibility to employees whereby remote workers are as easy to contact as desk-based workers.
In a full UC environment voice, messaging and collaboration services are fully integrated. The UC solution is hosted and fully cloud-based, offering a full range of services, and thus the solution carries no upfront or maintenance costs. In this way, the organisation is able to consolidate and simplify its IT estate and reduce its operational overheads by having one solution, one supplier and one bill across the organisation.
Applications, messaging and presence are available on all company devices enrolled to the solution. In fact, applications extend to voice services over desktops, mobiles and laptops, thus enhancing operational efficiency and enabling the workforce to be more flexible, collaborative and mobile.
In summary, UC integrates fixed voice, mobile voice and enterprise messaging into one seamless solution. In practical terms, calls can be made or taken from any device, just as collaboration, conferencing, presence and messaging is available on any device.
The following are amongst the advantages of UC solutions:
- No upfront nor maintenance costs
- One billing relationship
- One supplier
- Enabling flexible and effective working
- Supporting core operations
- Reduction of operational overheads
- Resilient set-up providing continuity of service (fixed-mobile convergence)