Communication made easy

Unified communications have the potential to revolutionise the way enterprises talk to each other - but CA's Michael Jaeger says networks need to be up to scratch first.

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By  Michael Jaeger Published  October 14, 2008

Just a few years ago, "information at one's fingertips" was the non-plus-ultra of information technology.

At the time, the concept of on-demand access to data and information from almost anywhere using a number of end devices was considered revolutionary. Nevertheless, the realities of time have has rendered that vision obsolete, and "unified communications" is the hot new phrase.

Although the idea behind unlimited access is not substantially different from that of the earlier goal, it now encompasses not only information and data but all the various aspects of communication as well. Today's objective is the ability to reach people and access information at any time, from any place with any end device.

A high-performance IP network that has VOIP options is a must for the professional UC solution. Such a network can become an Achilles’ heel in the UC race if it is not capable of withstanding the heavy workloads.

The user can choose the method of communication best suited to his or her current or individual situation.

For example, just a few clicks of the mouse can set up audio, video or Web conferencing with any number of participants. Collaboration software allows people to work with the same application, or even on the same documents, as part of a virtual team.

Direct contact allows them to run through processes, plan and work on projects, and reach joint decisions sooner than would previously have been possible.

One no longer needs to wait ages for a return call or an e-mail, so in contrast the dramatic new level of communications efficiency boosts employee productivity.

Moreover, the concerns of travel time and expenses have been relegated to the past. Projects are conducted more quickly overall, which in turn enhances the company's competitive position within the market.

The centralised platform: A blessing or a curse?

The fundamental theme of continuous, unified communications is to create an IT infrastructure that incorporates a company's various (and innumerable) end devices, as well as all its software applications.

The networks for data and telecommunications, once separate, are thus combined into a single platform. Employees can select their preferred channels for communication, based on the location or immediate circumstances.

The palette of options is impressive, encompassing the traditional phone as well as e-mail, voicemail, fax, instant messaging, video and Web conferencing. All this is available with the click of a mouse, via desktop or notebook PC.

Mobile end devices such as smart phones, PDAs and BlackBerries can be readily incorporated as well, thereby expanding the sphere of work for each employee.

A high-performance IP network that provides options for voice transmission by means of internet protocol (voice-over IP, or VoIP) is also a must for the UC solution that aspires to professional status.

Such a network, though, can become an Achilles' heel in the race toward UC if it is not capable of withstanding the heavy workloads in - addition to the intensive use of applications and services - inherent with a network of users.

It can result in diminished IP phone quality, which in extreme cases can lead to the breakdown of the existing communications system. Thus, the professional management of performance and problem identification helps the business prevent many issues before they can damage the system.

Authentication creates security

Network security can pose another pitfall. The variety of access options made possible with unified communications can create unexpected gaps through which unauthorised users can access the company's network.

Accordingly, integrated identity management is critically important to the UC environment. Each user must authenticate his or her identity before receiving access to data, information and services on the network, all of which are unlocked on a specific-use basis.

Certainly unified communications makes it possible for a company to explore various new (even unforeseen) options in the arena, but it is not an off-the-shelf solution.

The company must perform an analysis of its requirements in order to determine the individual needs, in which process it will compare communication behaviours and business objectives side-by-side.

It is crucial to evaluate the IT infrastructure at this time, because nothing else will reveal whether the data network is already compatible with real-time voice and video transmissions. Additional investments might be necessary in order to validate network availability and the bandwidth required for UC.

The ability to identify errors and eliminate them

Comprehensive reporting makes it easier to take corrective action in the event of a service interruption. For that reason add-on modules that measure connection quality can be helpful as the means to manage the convergent network.

An integrated root-cause analysis simplifies the search for the source of any error, and will provide the administrators with important information about the extent of a problem or service interruption and its impact on business processes.

Given such data, the administrators can assess which measures should be taken and the time needed to control the situation. Moreover, these measured values can reveal many problems in advance, so that the company can take proactive action before those problems can affect business operations.

Performance, reliability and security are the cornerstones of any successful network. Ultimately the solution must integrate and manage all the components in a convergent network, including mobile end devices and the full range of available applications, business processes and services.

Constant analysis verifies that the connections will provide sufficient network capacity for high-speed transmission of the vast amounts of data the UC applications generate.

Armed in this way, the administrators can rapidly identify and eliminate problems before they have the chance to rob the company of its ability to communicate with the outside world effectively.

Michael Jaeger is the senior principal product marketing manager at CA.

Efficient management is the key

Network performance management, along with problem and downtime management, is key to the operation of a convergent network. For instance, network performance management constantly measures network performance, automatically identifying and reporting service interruptions, deviations and potential sources of errors. This gives administrators an up-to-date overview of the current network quality levels. Ongoing value measurement can reveal bandwidth needs that UC solutions will unleash as the months progress.

Additionally, specialised tools evaluate the efficiency of the existing phone system, generating data that will be invaluable to the planning of a digital phone system. This type of solution also supports the search for errors across a wide variety of UC systems, and provides those values to network management for further analysis.

What is unified communications?

Unified communications, or UC, stands for networking voice, video and data company-wide. It helps a business achieve a significantly more uniform communications environment while improving all its processes. The prerequisite, however, is a high-performance convergent network. Efficient network and security management is a must in order to verify secure operations without service interruptions.

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