Networking as we know it today is largely the result of diversity--the mix ‘n’ match, plug ‘n’ play, easy-to-configure reality that accrues from a useful, productive, broadly applicable, and unified suite of standards at Layers 1-3 of the protocol stack. While building functional solutions is usually not quite simple, especially on a very large scale, end user organizations with access to appropriate technical skills can do so by taking advantage of this beneficial mix of diversity and unity.
The core challenge here is that with diversity often comes complexity, in the form of a broad range of (again, diverse) products, (increasingly) services, multiple suppliers and management consoles, and, of course, the occasional conflicts that result from both differing interpretations of standards among vendors and, of course, outright flaws and bugs. It makes sense for many, then, to put the emphasis instead on unity, grouping what were previously distinct capabilities into new implementations under a single product, service or at least management umbrella. Unified management, for example, bridges the diversity of wired and wireless technologies and networks, as well as differing product implementations, via a single management console.
This doesn’t always work well in every case, but a strategy of unification can go a long way toward solutions that are productive, manageable, cost-effective, and with fewer opportunities for conflicts, head-scratching, and especially suboptimal end user productivity.
Such is also the case with unified communications (UC), the bringing together of multiple communications modalities under a single product (or, again, service) and management umbrella. By modality, we mean here potentially every form of communications required by end users today, from messaging (texting and multimedia across numerous carrier and Web services suppliers) and e-mail, to voice, conferencing, voicemail, collaboration, shared data of all forms, and beyond. The potential advantages here are many: reduced complexity, lower capital and operating costs, enhanced functionality, simplified support, cross-platform availability and, increasingly, provisioning via easily scalable cloud-based services. Management visibility, compliance as required, and record-keeping and archiving are also broadly enhanced.
In other words, it's all about one-stop shopping for all end user communications needs, with the potential for improved efficiency and productivity, and, again, lower costs across the board.
UC solutions are available today from a broad range of suppliers, as both products that run on organizational servers and as services based in the cloud, with some suppliers offering both. The availability and scalability inherent in the cloud are undeniable benefits, but a common pushback here is being able to assure security, as required by a given organization’s security policy. While absolute security is likely impossible, and whereas many communications modalities--including messaging, e-mail and telephony--are inherently insecure in most common implementations, special attention to security may not be required. But the advent of UC does create an opportunity to reconsider this issue, and to provision secure communications across the board if desired.
Mobile unified communications (MUC) extends UC functionality to cover mobile devices, wireless networks and geographic diversity (from local and in-building to global). The general concepts and facilities remain the same, but additional concerns regarding the performance (primarily with respect to latency where real-time voice and/or video are required) and availability of the wireless networks involved must be taken into account.
The need to support multiple mobile platforms--including Android and iOS at a minimum, but also potentially Windows, MacOS and one or more flavors of Linux--is also an important consideration. BYOD complicates the picture only minimally, as MUC is most commonly provisioned via an app. The real challenge is deciding on a supplier. We’ve examined well over 50 vendors in the MUC space, with a broad diversity (sorry--had to work that term in here again) of functionality, implementations and pricing. While we believe that MUC will indeed dominate organizational--and even, in many cases, personal--communications over the next decade, it’s often far from easy to evaluate and deploy solutions today.
The solution to this challenge begins with the definition and implementation of a written organization-wide communications policy. This document defines what communications are permissible on organizational networks, what communications must be retained (either as logs or, in some cases, actual content) and what facilities (including carrier and otherwise external networks) may be used.
The communications policy can be incorporated into a security policy or acceptable use policy, as there’s significant potential overlap here. Once this policy is in place and deployed, though, the usual process of requirements definition, short lists, alpha and beta tests, and pilot-audience evaluation applies, leading to broad deployment once everything is working well. Make no mistake: MUC is a major trend, but communications is always vital to the point of being strategic. MUC may indeed even be the most important application service that any organization will ever deploy, but it’s essential to get deployments right from Day 1. Any failure here can have even dire consequences.
And there’s an even bigger challenge.
We see a fundamental need to separate identity from a specific service, which may lead to a dramatic expansion of the importance of identity-management solutions. For example, why isn’t it possible today to purchase a mobile handset without a telephone number (but, of course, with a WWAN IP address), with the number assigned via a MUC solution? Think of it: A single phone number, a single voice-mail system, a single mechanism for all organizational communications under a single management umbrella.
MUC thus rapidly falls into the classification of irresistible. Keep an eye on this topic, as the next decade will see a transition to MUC that will be remembered as being just as important as the LAN, wireless and even the telephone itself.