Your Communications System - Taking a Holistic View
As different as communications and playing music on the ukulele might be, if you approach either one in a piecemeal, singular manner, you won’t get the results you are looking for.
Music has been a big part of my life. If I am not listening to something, I am singing to myself or even better, sitting on my front porch playing my guitar or ukulele. I may have given up my dream of becoming a rock star (mostly), but I am always trying to improve my playing and learn new and different techniques and styles.
However, even though I have had some form of stringed instrument in my hands since I was a teenager, I never took the time to learn how to read or write music. Call it laziness, lack of opportunity, or just plain fear of the unknown, but I never ventured beyond chords and a poor man's form of musical notation.
That changed when I got tired of the plateau I was stuck on and found a teacher to help move me along. To foster my musical growth, he insisted that I put away my fears of quarter notes and rests and finally learn how to read music. Reluctantly, I agreed and will admit that it has opened up doors that I've never before been able to budge.
After I got through the basics, my teacher posed this question to me: "What do you look for when you start on a new piece of sheet music?" My answer of "key signature" was met with a "no." The same response came when I suggested time signature and tempo. Exasperated, I finally asked him to tell me.
"You need to look at the form. For example, consider Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Where are the repeats? Does it modulate from one key to another? What is the tone and expression of the piece?"
In other words, you need to look at a new piece of music holistically. You can't simply start playing it without knowing where you are going and how you expect to get there.
I should have realized that--because as different as music and communications might be, if you approach either one in a piecemeal, singular manner, you won't get the results you are looking for.
From PBX to Unified Communications
It's my job to work with enterprises on their journey from the analog and digital worlds of gateways, line cards, and proprietary protocols to standards-based multimedia communications engines.
Not unlike a new piece of music, you must approach the job of transformation in a holistic fashion. It's like the old saying, "If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." The same can be said for communications. "If all you have is dial tone, every connection looks like a telephone."
This means that you can't simply say virtualization, cloud, SIP, or session border controller and be done with it. You need to look at an enterprise as a whole – the employees, the business units, the interactions between enterprise and customer, the interactions between enterprise and other enterprises, the business processes, etc.
Does that negate the importance of something like SIP? Absolutely not. It simply means that like a key signature, that's only the tip of the iceberg. It may be an important transformational step, but it alone will not get you to where you need to be.
Step by Step
So, what is the big picture? What are the functional areas that make up a holistic approach?
I would like to propose the following:
Gone are the days when people were willing to manage each component separately. They expect, and frankly deserve, tools that allow them to treat what is most likely a collection of loosely connected services as if they were all one system. For instance, they want to be able to add a user in one place and seamlessly administer all his or her separate capabilities. They want a system that essentially drives the administration process and minimizes mistakes and misconfigurations.
How do you connect to services outside the bounds of your core communications system? This includes everything from communications enabled business processes to adding workflow management. Look for open interfaces based on Web services, and standard programming interfaces that are both elastic and scalable.
How do you identify your users? Although telephone numbers have served us well in the past, they have become antiques. While still necessary, you cannot allow them to be your hammer.
People want flexibility. They want to communicate in the manner that makes sense at the time. Telephone numbers limit them in what they can do and how they can be reached.
The same can be said for endpoints. Users expect to use the devices of their choosing. To take a holistic view means to identify the needs of your users no matter where they are, what they are doing, and when they happen to be doing it.
I use this phrase a lot, but the modern communications system has become "a loosely connected collection of disparate services." As with management, a holistic view treats applications as separate entities that blend together to form a whole. You cannot look at something like workflow management without considering voice mail and video. They are different, but the lines of distinction have become quite blurry.
It would be risky to transform a communications system without embedding security into every discussion and decision point. Encryption, data hiding, usage separation, and network topology will influence everything from remote user access to choosing the right session border controller. Security as an afterthought will inherently lead to a hacker's paradise.
If I had a mantra, it would be "no single point of failure." A loss of service means a loss of productivity, which results in a loss of money. Look for resiliency in all important communications flows. This might mean high availability session border controllers. It might also mean separate paths for remote users and SIP trunks. Examine communications flows at both high and low levels, and build redundancy in from the ground up.
The Light at the End of Tunnel Doesn't Have to be an Oncoming Train
The goal of any major undertaking is to make something better than what you started with. If you go through a significant upgrade and your users and customers don't notice anything new, you've failed them. It's a waste of time and money to change if there aren't positive, and sometimes disruptive, differences at the conclusion of your efforts. And by disruptive I don't mean damaging and unruly. I mean change that allows an organization to rise from the plateau they've been stuck on.
As it is when you undertake anything new and significant (like trying to learn how to play Debussy's Clair de Lune on ukulele), you need to take a holistic view. Open your eyes and soak it all in before you take your first step or play that first note.