Nov 24 2009

Implementing Unified Communications

Converged office platforms bring federal agencies enhanced capabilities and cost savings

When communicating quickly and effectively is a matter of national security, only the latest technology will do. That’s the conclusion IT leaders at the Defense Intelligence Agency came to about five years ago.

At that point, while voice and data communications were fully secure, the equipment was cumbersome. It was clearly time for a change, according to Michael Mestrovich, the DIA’s senior technology officer for innovation. Little by little, that change involved a switch to IP-based phones and video conferencing, along with secure instant messaging and application sharing.

The DIA has rolled out unified communications — a combination of voice, unified messaging, video, mobility, web/data collaboration, conferencing and presence management. The overall goal of unified communications is to improve user communication, productivity and efficiency while reducing human latency and decision-making time, says Sara Radicati, president of The Radicati Group.

IP Telephony Adoption

The DIA started its migration in 2004 by replacing its secure, encrypted telephone units with Cisco Unified Communications Manager, which includes Voice over IP (VoIP)-based voice communication. That was followed in 2006 by the addition of an IP-based video-conferencing system. Shortly thereafter, the DIA added IBM Lotus Sametime, which allows DIA employees to securely send instant messages and share applications with each other.

“Over time, each component came onto the network filling a capabilities gap,” says Mestrovich. “The VoIP system replaces an expensive telephone system that doesn’t give us the capabilities that an IP-based system does, while the addition of desktop video conferencing allows for more personal interaction. And SameTime really increases collaboration.”

Because each system was purchased separately, interoperability can be spotty. Mestrovich’s group is working on how to best achieve interoperability by implementing the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), a signaling protocol used for establishing sessions in an IP network.

“We’re looking forward to interoperability, such that when I have a question during a video conference I can send a secure chat and get a quick response, or if I am in a secure chat with someone and need more clarification, I can click on that person’s name and it would ring their handset,” Mestrovich explains. “It’s all about agility. If we can extend voice and video communications over the same network, we have much better agility and efficiency.”

Welly Gibson, Chief Warrant Officer 4 for the Oklahoma National Guard, came to much the same decision a few years ago, when it became clear that labor- and time-intensive communication methods just weren’t good enough.

“Our Joint Forces Headquarters is responsible for managing all of the Army and Air Guard units throughout the state, and that means constant coordination and communication with units in the field,” says Gibson, who serves as activity manager for the Oklahoma National Guard Visual Information and Distance Learning Programs.

What’s more, the organization’s aging video-conferencing infrastructure, which it used for training, was beginning to fail. Those two facts spurred Gibson’s team to embark on a major unified communications overhaul in 2002, first deploying one Polycom MGC-50 bridge and 20 video-conferencing endpoints.

Today, there are multiple Polycom video bridges and 124 high-definition endpoints — at least one for each National Guard facility in the state. This integrated platform for audio, video and unified multipoint and gateway conferences allows the organization to handle 800 to 1,200 hours of video conferencing per month for command and control, training and family support using only two people.

For the Oklahoma National Guard, cost savings were paramount. “It’s obvious to everyone how much it has benefited us,” Gibson says. “Unit commanders used to have to travel far distances to attend critical meetings, but now they just walk down the hall or go to the nearest armory, have face-to-face meetings via video conferencing and are home in time to have dinner with the family. It saves us travel expenses, improves morale and increases productivity.”

The system is working so well for the Oklahoma National Guard that Gibson plans to move to a high-definition version of the Polycom video bridge and add appliances from the company that will allow users to create ad hoc conferences instead of only scheduled conferences.

75 million: Number of on-premises enterprise unified communications users by 2013, which represents an annual average growth rate of 20 percent.
Source: The Radicati Group

And eventually, Gibson plans to connect the organization’s IP-based phone system — Cisco Call Manager — with the Polycom infrastructure, although he expects it will take at least until the second half of 2010 to do so.

Moving Forward

As the unified communications market continues to evolve, interoperability becomes easier. In the coming years, Radicati expects more changes, such as social networking, will make the concept of unified communications even more appealing to organizations. For example, by combining the two, users might be able to access a click-to-dial feature while browsing a colleague on a business social network.

“There continues to be significant change in the unified communications market, and these changes are moving UC into more common use within organizations,” she says.

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