Unified communications, technology that lets organizations combine applications such as telephony, e-mail, instant messaging and video conferencing on an IP network, is at an interesting point in its evolution.
On the one hand, the technology itself is mature. Several companies, including Avaya, Cisco Systems, Microsoft and ShoreTel, offer robust suites that are well integrated and interoperable. On the other hand, IT managers at federal agencies are still trying to match their needs to UC's broad capabilities. And thanks to emerging cloud services, some are considering the best way of acquiring those capabilities.
“There's been a lot of hype about UC for several years now, and it hasn't yet taken off as expected,” says Rich Costello, senior research analyst for unified communications at IDC. “UC is more of a gradual thing. It's a learning process.”
The good news is that analysts believe users have learned a lot in the past year. Both IDC and research firm Gartner forecast significantly greater adoption of UC in the near future, even as customers wade through ever-larger suites of UC products to figure out which applications work for them. In the August research note “Magic Quadrant for Unified Communications,” Gartner analysts Bern Elliot and Steve Blood wrote, “Although UC suites offer the full spectrum of UC functionality, in most cases, they do not offer best-of-breed functionality in all areas.”
For federal agencies, that's an issue. Although many agencies have business requirements that UC can address, they're reluctant to lock themselves into suites from a single UC manufacturer. Not only do they prefer to mix and match the communication and collaboration tools that work best for their users, they also often avoid the proprietary software that might come with high-end UC suites.
“The challenge with UC vendors is that they talk about good, better, best solutions, but 'best' can entail proprietary protocols,” says Miguel Rivera, chief technology officer at the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service. “Going down a proprietary route isn't in an agency's best interest," he adds.
However, Rivera insists that both large and small agencies can benefit from UC, as long as IT planners understand their agency's business processes. Unified communications can increase costs, Rivera admits, but its value in streamlining administrative tasks and boosting productivity can't be ignored in today's economic times, he explains.
Says IDC's Costello, “The way things are with the economy and the way budgets have been stretched or reduced, there's a need to do things smarter. And there's a need to consolidate, whether it's people, locations or technologies.”
51 percent of federal agencies are evaluating running UC in the cloud, while 13 percent are in the process of deploying cloud-based UC, and 11 percent have fully deployed cloud-based UC.
SOURCE: CDWÂG 2011 Unified Communications Tracking Poll
Consolidation in the Cloud
When it comes to unified communications, Rivera can imagine consolidation taking place in the cloud. “UC makes absolute sense in the cloud,” he says. “It can cost less per user, agencies don’t have to purchase the infrastructure, and they can increase their capacity on demand.”
Last December, the Agriculture Department announced it would migrate 120,000 users to Microsoft Online Services, effectively locating critical UC components, including messaging, chat, web conferencing and presence detection, in the cloud. USDA says the cloud services would run on a dedicated, secure infrastructure, not on a public cloud.
Earlier this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration awarded a contract to begin moving its messaging services to a Google cloud. Over time, NOAA's cloud-based UC services will reportedly include video chat and other forms of collaboration.
“As long as providers can address issues of financial transparency and security, there isn't an IT service that can't be served from the cloud,” Rivera says.