Unified Communications Overview

By Stan Baldwin
Updated: February 15, 2011

The emergence of Unified Communications (UC) began as a response to the growing complexity and resulting inefficiencies of communications within enterprises. With thousands of users, locations scattered about the country or the globe, plus relationships with customers, suppliers and partners, the volume and diversity of information exchange is massive. For most large companies, as their communication requirements grew and evolved, new solutions were found and implemented as needed. An enterprise looked for a specific solution each time a new need arose, and over time, the result became a group of communication tools which might or might not work well together.

Beginning with the basic need to talk, most initial communication networks or systems were built by telephone companies. Even before unified communications concepts developed, the complexity and interoperability issues within just an enterprise level phone system had become impressive. When the traditional phone system, augmented by IP capabilities, becomes the basis for a “Unified Communications” system, capabilities and complexity increase together.

Though PSTN systems allow and support a number of useful functions beyond basic telephone service, the introduction of VoIP vastly expanded the possibilities for new features and services. Even what might be considered a basic unified communications system, one which includes voice, messaging and video conferencing, is likely to be provided by more than one vendor. End-to-end solutions under a single vendor umbrella are a significant challenge, when several vendors need to work together a whole new level of interaction becomes necessary. For this reason, many of the larger players have added a second “C” to the “UC” abbreviation for Unified Communications. The resulting “UCC” stands for Unified Communications and Collaboration, a recognition that current and future solutions will require the collaborative efforts and expertise of more than a single provider.

One of the fundamental goals for a unified communications system is to provide a consistent interface to every user, no matter what device they use to access the system. A worthy goal, challenging enough for the voice and messaging interfaces on their own, much less an entire multi-vendor, multinational, multimedia communication network. But enterprise companies already know this. They have learned that their most successful approach to maintaining, growing, and evolving their communications network is based on developing a comprehensive understanding of their communications needs. Keeping this understanding up-to-date assures future changes will be the best fit available.

Employing a single vendor, quite possibly the legacy provider of the voice communications network, to oversee the unified communications network is one strategy to minimize compatibility issues, or at least hand them off to a specialist. However, many enterprise organizations are unwilling to forgo features or services offered by vendors not associated with whichever over-arching provider they may choose. Rather than take what a single large vendor can offer, approximately three quarters of the enterprise companies in North America currently look for the best solutions for their needs and expect the vendors to collaborate with them and each other, to make it all work.

The providers of integrated systems, including all major network service providers, are partnering with specialty providers and embracing standard interfaces to make their combined offerings more comprehensive and attractive. Over time, thanks to never ending complexity, the growing number of desirable, productive features and greater industry collaboration, single-source solutions are likely to become the norm for all but the largest or most specialized enterprises.

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