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Lab Evaluation: Unified Communications Within IP-PBXs
Unified communications is a concept that's hardly new. The promise that technology can provide nearly seamless communication in multiple forms, over multiple modes and within a common interface has been with us for more than a decade.
Envisioned over the years, and dangled like brass rings on a carousel, were proposed scenarios where people could easily interact with each other and work from virtually anywhere using various types of devices.
Gone would be the days where road warriors were burdened with toolbelts and briefcases stuffed with enough different gizmos – cell phones, pagers, PDAs and laptops – to make Batman envious. Desk-bound workers wouldn't need to constantly juggle between applications. Efficiency and morale would improve. Costs would be cut.
Miercom’s Consulting Group decided to take a closer look at the status of unified communications solutions that are offered by the leading IP-PBX vendors.
For the first in what will be a series of articles, engineers from Miercom studied the unified communications wares of Alcatel-Lucent and Avaya, two of the industry's top companies (others will follow in subsequent articles). We wanted to assess the state of UC in 2007, to see what the products are now doing. While we were at it, we studied the plethora of endpoints being sold by the two companies. And – knowing that none of the UC bells and whistles can work if the underlying IP-PBX is a dog – we studied the current IP-PBX management offerings from Alcatel-Lucent, Avaya and Cisco Systems. We’ll report on the management systems in a future article.
Are You There?
Today's purveyors of UC products promise easy communication in just about any way we desire. Therefore, to qualify (in our eyes) as a true unified communication solution, the technology must be able to meld all forms of business communications. That includes voice/voicemail, e-mail, instant messaging (IM), fax, audio conferencing, video conferencing and chat. It should easily work from any device: laptop, desk phone or cell phone, and allow us to smoothly roam from the office (Wi-Fi) to the house or car (Cellular).
Even that's not enough. A product can elegantly unify all those distinct forms of communication, but it will not make the grade if it cannot provide one of the most important parts of the puzzle: Presence. Knowing in real-time whether somebody is available, busy or off the grid is almost as important as being able to reach them wherever they are.
It's also taken for granted that a modern UC solution incorporates simple access to other work data including files, calendars and address books. All this diverse communication should take place through a single, simple interface invisibly connected to powerful background infrastructures that automatically convert different modes of communication into the form we desire.
Are we there yet? As we approach the end of another decade, can we truly say we've finally unified business communication?
The Sticky Wicket
If the best efforts of Avaya and Alcatel-Lucent are an indication – and we believe they are – the long-sought Holy Grail of UC is almost in our hands. However, we can't really proclaim that all types of communication have been completely unified. The one hurdle that remains to be cleared is e-mail, a situation that's somewhat ironic since e-mail is one of the oldest forms of digital communication.
Of course, both Alcatel-Lucent's UC offering and that from Avaya provide access, from just about anywhere, to e-mail. However, what they haven't been able to do is overcome the fact that most corporate e-mail continues to be handled by Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes.
Call us purists, but while we're not saying UC programs must handle e-mail on their own (as in an email application written by Avaya or Alcatel-Lucent), we believe the integration can be tighter. The goal of UC should be to plug-into, or integrate with, the e-mail application to such a degree as to have a single interface or application that allows users to, at a glance, see e-mails, faxes and voicemails in the inbox. It should also tell us who is online and who is not; allow us to easily start an IM session, effortlessly launch a conference bridge and manage phone calls with one hand tied behind our backs.
Because it can transparently integrate Outlook, the UC effort from Microsoft -- Office Communications Server 2007 -- comes pretty close to true UC. Indeed, OCS solved the e-mail clumsiness we've been grumbling about. However, we found that OCS came up a bit short on the equally-important voice side, at least when compared to Avaya and Alcatel-Lucent. (For detail, see our earlier test of OCS here on No Jitter.)
Microsoft also has the opportunity to improve in providing a clear, single interface for user presence. Users can conveniently see the status of everyone listed on a particular e-mail, but they do not have a ‘buddy list’ from within Outlook. To get that full buddy list, OCS users still need to fire up Office Communicator.
Also, Microsoft is giving mixed messages about its goal when it comes to becoming an IP-PBX player. Though Microsoft claims you don’t have to have an IP-PBX running alongside OCS, they also acknowledge that OCS doesn’t provide the full feature set that a full-fledged IP-PBX offers.
Perhaps it all comes down to semantics. What do you define as UC? If you're willing to overlook the e-mail sticking point, it's clear the UC efforts from Avaya, Alcatel-Lucent and others do excellent jobs consolidating communication. They've squeezed it into as minimal a number of interfaces as possible and they've created very smooth methods of user interaction, be it via hard phones, softphone programs, mobile phones, Web interfaces or thick client applications.