Jul 03 2007

Winning Combination

Integrated networks and unified communications applications enable midsize and large companies to realize productivity gains and cost savings.

It’s not just big enterprises with sophisticated voice and data communications applications that are realizing the benefits of unified comm. Location-independent unified comm applications, which combine voice switches and call management technology with desktop and server applications, are widely available to businesses regardless of their information technology budgets and staff size. The technology isn’t reserved just for the classic power user or the CEO, either. Many companies report having these capabilities available across managerial and employee ranks.

“If you have a high-speed connection, you can VPN [virtual private network], and it’s no different [for the caller] than if you’re sitting at your desk. When you make a call, it appears to others as though you’re at your extension,” says Mike Aquino, director of technology at Bay Creek Resort and Club, a resort with related businesses, including a cable company in Cape Charles, Va., that employs nearly 200 people. From its inception nearly three years ago, Bay Creek has used Cisco Systems networking and unified communications gear to build an integrated voice and data network that gives employees access to these applications.

Taking the scenario one step further, some companies also capitalize on unified apps that tie cell phones into the comm infrastructure. That is, a single number can be assigned to an employee for both a desk phone and a cell phone. This lets the employee answer calls regardless of where they are and regardless of the handset they have access to at any given time.

One Mailbox, Many Uses

There’s another application made possible by the integration of telephony functionality into a computer, and it’s one that professional workers in virtually any company of any size should be able to relate to. The application is a single message inbox that ties together voice and e-mail messages, making all messages accessible through a single interface and with fewer limitations than either medium presents by itself. Voice messages can be delivered simultaneously to a voice-mail box and an e-mail box. The message recipient can choose to open a message in e-mail and listen to it from the computer. That functionality is in use in many midsize companies, including Independent Electric Supply in San Carlos, Calif.

“No matter where you are when a voice-mail message gets left, you have offsite notification,” says Bob Wittig, corporate IT manager at Independent Electric. With products such as 3Com’s NBX IP telephony systems in use at Independent Electric, individual employees have a Web-based graphical interface on a PC that lets them log into the NBX call processor and select ring tones, personal greetings, in-meeting greetings, offsite notifications and more, Wittig says.

“There are dozens of things a user can do to tailor the way they want their phone to function,” he says.

Organizations are also looking to future unified capabilities that promise to make their operations more efficient while further enhancing communications.

Seeing Is Believing

Bay Creek Resort, for instance, is currently testing the latest Cisco unified comm gear including PC cameras that let users of integrated voice and data applications convert a telephone call into a videoconference. “When the phone rings, a little box pops up and whoever is calling is in the picture, and you’re in theirs,” Aquino says. That will in some cases obviate the need to travel for internal meetings, saving time and expense.

Organizations don’t tout the cutting-edge nature of these apps or the fact that these apps help them blaze new trails in integrated communications. Rather, they’re striving to help their employees work more efficiently with an expectation that their technology investment will yield positive financial results.

There’s a strong business case for integrated voice-data infrastructure and applications on the simplest of levels: It requires building and maintaining a single network, rather than two. That means lower comm. costs, lower equipment costs and lower people costs.

Cutting-Edge Applications

At the same time that midsize and large businesses are embracing the cost savings and productivity benefits of unified communications, vendors of technology platforms and applications are pushing the envelope with new features, partnerships and packages that promise to help companies squeeze more value from their unified infrastructures. In many cases, vendors also are rolling out new offerings geared specifically toward these companies. Technology vendors clearly see that customers need this technology to keep their own customers happy.

The increasing number of mobile workers must maintain responsiveness to customers, even when they are traveling to far-off places. Being out of touch or inaccessible in 2007 is equivalent to putting yourself at a competitive disadvantage, says Jeff Koehler, director of midsize business solutions for Avaya in Basking Ridge, N.J., which makes a wide range of Internet Protocol telephony solutions for businesses.

For those road warriors, Koehler says, a single mailbox — accessible from any phone or anywhere for voice mail and e-mail — is especially important.

Avaya offers an Extension to Cellular feature, as part of its Communication Manager software, that renders any distinction between cell and office phone transparent. An employee with the extension feature doesn’t need to give out a cell number. They can simply take calls at a single number, regardless of the handset they’re using. At the same time, the cell phone has the same telephony functions a user enjoys on an office phone: placing calls on hold, transferring calls and so on. “For a road warrior in a midsize business, they’re not going out alone anymore. They’re going out very well prepared,” Koehler says.

Koehler notes that midsize companies, given their relatively small IT operations, are also on the lookout for technologies and applications that ease management and administration. Features such as unified mailboxes are appealing because they can help companies consolidate or reduce servers.

Vendors are responding to businesses’ need to tie their cell phones more closely to their corporate infrastructure and to minimize the distinction between cell phones and landline telecommunications. Cisco recently added mobility functionality to its Communication Manager system for midsize businesses. The new capabilities let employees be reached on office or cell phone at a single number; they also let the user select whether they take a call on a cell or office phone if they have access to both, says Eren Hussein, senior manager for unified communications solutions marketing at Cisco.

At the same time, Cisco delivered the Communication Manager-Business Edition, a version of its call management product targeted specifically at midsize businesses. In addition to adding ties to cell phones, the version also adds presence capabilities that make a person’s whereabouts apparent to those trying to reach that individual. “We’ve added presence to it so you can do the ‘find me, follow me, hide me’ type functionality,” Hussein says.

Other telephony vendors are partnering with vendors of desktop and server apps so their telephony systems will be tightly integrated and also make presence functionality more robust and useful. Nortel Networks, for instance, has allied with Microsoft to unify Nortel’s call management hardware and applications with Microsoft desktop and server software. Ties with Microsoft’s apps are especially helpful in making available the presence of an individual within unified comm apps, says Jeff Deneen, Nortel’s director of unified communications for North America.

“When you’re in a Microsoft app, you can tell the availability of the author of a document or the availability of a colleague by right-clicking on a name and getting the presence status — whether the person is available or busy,” Deneen says.

Such capabilities will become especially valuable as third-party software developers begin to tie them into core business programs, such as human resources, financial management and shared calendars, he says.

Deneen agrees with other vendors and customers who say it is critical that employees remain available to customers and that the issue must be addressed through the use of technology. “Companies need to have experts available anywhere, anytime, regardless of the device they have,” he says. Unified communications is emerging as a clear way to make that possible.

Working with IBM, 3Com has assembled Express Bundles, bringing IP telephony, messaging, conferencing and related applications to IBM i Series servers. Bundles are available in configurations for 100, 250, 500 and 1,000 users. Midsize customers “see and understand they can leverage our solution and IP telephony and get down to a single network running voice and data,” says Mike Leo, 3Com’s director of convergence marketing.

Justin Hester is a telephony specialist at CDW, a $6.7 billion technology services provider based in Vernon Hills, Ill.