The next big network shift

The time we spend trying to get a hold of clients, partners or suppliers – leaving voice-mail messages, sending e-mail, following up on the phone – adds up, resulting in a huge waste of time. Some people are just plain overwhelmed by the sheer amount of e-mail they receive or the many modes of communication now available – so rather than increase productivity, they’re often getting further and further behind.

A few years ago, it was all about the converged network and specialized devices that plugged into that network, such as IP phones. Now we’re seeing the market shift around converged clients, where the client will support more functions, such as call control, IM and video. But that’s also making things more complex.

“It’s not about replacing specialized devices, like an IP phone with a soft phone,” says Mark Slaga, CTO of solution provider Dimension Data North America. “It’s more around getting the devices to work together and share information.”

One of the drivers behind unified communications is consumerization, as younger generations entering the workforce expect to be able to use consumer technologies at work. “It used to be you’d come to work to work on the cool stuff,” says Slaga. Now people go to work and can’t understand why they don’t have IM or have to manually type in a phone number on their desk phone. Many companies are behind the times because of security or compliance reasons – but they may be starting to feel a negative impact on productivity.

Changing how business is conducted

The move to unified communications is really about the way that business is conducted says Marc Perrella, vice-president of the technology group with research firm IDC Canada. What it tries to do is remove the human latency involved in a pure voice-mail or

e-mail world and make business – either workflow or the interaction of people – happen in real time.

While there is customer demand, there’s a lot of confusion around what unified communications is and what it means for business. Customers are looking for guidance with implementation, he says, but also integrating the technology into their business processes and applications. From a network infrastructure perspective, this could include anything from mobile devices over cellular networks, wireless LANs, broadband and fixed-line wide area networks.

“So now you’re talking higher skill sets not only from a technical perspective, but from a sales perspective,” says Perrella. For partners, it means investing in skills they don’t have. At the same time, the vendor requirements are becoming tougher. When it comes to unified communications, the bar has been raised for certifications, and the challenge for vendors is that it’s harder to find qualified partners, because those partners have to invest more – they have to change their business and their approach.

“There’s a definite market but [resellers] will have to transform their own business and their own thinking and strategy of how they go at it,” he says. “They’re skeptical because, depending on what their heritage is, they’re outside of their comfort zone.” That convergence requires different competencies from a technical perspective, and involves having strategic business discussions with line-of-business decision-makers.

While the market is in its infancy it will evolve, says Perrella, and there’s tremendous opportunity to move into higher-margin business, but resellers have to be strategic about it and consider what their core competencies are – and what core competencies they need to acquire through training, partnering or acquisition.

“Now you’re dealing with people and business processes, and the transformative nature of unified communications will demand that intimate understanding of the business,” he says. If not, their competitors will. Some VARs have already figured this out and made an investment in expanding their core competencies, had their people certified, and are now having those business conversations with customers.

Unified communications is not a single new technology, but rather taking a lot of existing business communications elements such as e-mail, voice, video and IM, and creating a streamlined interface for users to access those different modes of communication says Jayanth Angl, a research analyst with Info-Tech Research Group.

It also provides them with presence, or the ability to change their status and preference of how they would like to be contacted at that time, as well as the ability to view the availability status of their colleagues. But where the value is for a lot of businesses is in integrating that new capability into existing business processes and applications. “It’s really to address and eliminate many of the bottlenecks,” he says.

Most vendors define unified communications in relation to their products, but the concept really builds on elements that are already there today, he says. In terms of implementation, most potential customers are still in the understanding phase, trying to get a handle on what would be required to deploy a solution in their environment and what implications that would have for their infrastructure (such as how it would affect or integrate with existing software).

The channel is going to be important to that conversation, especially in the small and mid-sized environment. “It’s quite a stretch [for customers] to look at the message from vendors and look at their own situation,” says Angl. “There’s a bit of a disconnect there.”

While there’s a lot of hype around unified communications at its heart it’s pretty logical, he says, allowing you to integrate the different communications elements you have today and leverage information like presence and availability. This has been building off the shift from traditional phone systems to IP systems (and the application offerings that go along with that); this is the next progression of that shift.

We’ve traditionally had server VARs, database VARs and networking VARs, and each would stick to their own area of expertise says Ray Gonsalves, director of product management with Tech Data Canada. But with unified communications, they require a strong fundamental understanding of all of those areas – and the ability to execute.

Telephony resellers have to understand server infrastructure, and server VARs have to get into the networking world. Then they have to choose between competing technologies – and there’s a battle looming over which vendor is best positioned to go after this space.

Microsoft just came out with its Communications Server and has a strategic alliance with Nortel. But Cisco has been playing in this space for a longer time. At Tech Data’s Advanced Technology Solution Centre, one of its most popular technology demonstrations is the unified communications platform from Cisco.

“From a VAR perspective, in terms of differentiating themselves out in the marketplace, it’s a great conversation to have with end-users,” he says. “Elevate the conversation and elevate the relationship where you start becoming more of that trusted advisor.” Tech Data is also embarking on a campaign to recruit traditional telephony resellers and bring them into this space.

It’s a higher-margin business for VARs because it’s a consultative sell, it’s a new market, and there are fewer people playing in it at this point. But it also involves a more complicated implementation, so there are more barriers to entry. “It’s a bit of a tougher sell, a bit more difficult to put a value on the fact you can escalate an IM conversation to a voice conversation,” says Gonsalves. And resellers could have technical limitations when it comes to integrating networking with servers and software applications.

One of the reasons Nortel Networks has an arrangement with Microsoft is to take advantage of what Microsoft can do from a desktop application perspective says Dave Murashige, general manager of multimedia applications with Nortel. In the future, for example, if you were in a Microsoft Word document and knew the originator of that document you could set up a conference call from there.

“Now you’re starting to take the communications aspect and link it more closely with other desktop applications,” he says.

Video conferencing, for example, burst onto the scene in the 1980s but it was expensive and there was never enough bandwidth, so even if the equipment was robust there was no network to support it. The only way customers could really get there was to use a hosted service through a network operator that could allocate the bandwidth as required.

So Nortel’s unified communications strategy involves bringing together call routing, presence, IM, Web chat, collaboration and conferencing – embedded into the desktop, but independent of applications.

There will always be a traditional telephony portion of the business that will need people to service and support it, he says, but it will be smaller. “Unless you’re able to move into that new environment, you’ll have fewer opportunities.”

The challenge for CIOs is they need to offer new services to their employees – but they have to secure it, remain compliant, and support and manage it, all within a budget. And they’ll turn to their channel partner to help them figure this out.

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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