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Virtualizing Unified Communications

One of the key technology trends emerging in the enterprise today is the fundamental re-architecting of the data center. Often referred to as Next Generation Data Center Architecture, the change is being driven by several strategic imperatives. Some of these imperatives include the following:Cost Optimization: Data centers represent a significant cost to the enterprise. The trend towards consolidating data centers seeks to address these costs especially in the area of power, server management overhead, networking costs and data center space.

Regulation and Compliance: In order to meet regulatory requirements, most data centers are looking to increase their control over data through centralization of storage and servers, which is driving many of the consolidation projects.

Flexibility and Agility: On its surface, the need for more real-time access to data and services from more places, including mobile and remote workers, seems to contradict the desire for increased control.

As part of the re-architecting of the data center, there are some key technologies that make this possible.

In a related trend, IP telephony and unified communications continue to orient towards a software-based architecture, often leveraging common off-the-shelf server hardware. In addition to moving away from proprietary hardware, communications vendors are taking advantage of Linux operating systems as a replacement for proprietary operating systems. As this trend increases, it's common for these software elements to relocate to the data center and become part of the overall enterprise software ecosystem. This presents several challenges to the enterprise since real-time communications applications have some very strict requirements in terms of availability, performance and security. Because of these requirements, it has often been necessary to keep the real-time components separate from the rest of the data center. However, this is beginning to change in a substantial way.

Virtualization has begun to addresses many of these key imperatives within the data center by directly supporting areas such as server consolidation, storage optimization and energy efficiency. All of this is being done while increasing access and availability to applications. Recent advancements in virtualization technology coupled with improvements in server performance now make it possible to leverage virtualization with real-time communications software. In addition, the new generation of Intel processors are optimized to take advantage of virtualization attributes and have embedded some of the tasks that hypervisor technology used to perform in software.

The promise of IP telephony, and to a greater extent unified communications, was the idea of real-time communications becoming more of an application and embedded within other software elements to provide the end user with an enhanced experience. There are many examples of communications embedded into line-of-business applications today. However, adoption by enterprises has been somewhat slow. There are some legitimate reasons for this to occur. First and foremost, while real-time communications has been orienting towards the data center, it was still being walled off due to the specific requirements for that software to run efficiently and effectively for end users. Once again, virtualization will remove some of these barriers and allow real-time software to run co-resident on the same computing platform as line-of-business applications. The lines are truly beginning to blur for enterprise IT departments.

This is all very interesting but it boils down to what it means to customers and why they should care. IT managers should care because this development will lead to a fundamental shift in deployment for their real-time assets. No longer will they have to make separate arrangements in the data center for their voice and UC platforms. The move to virtualize real-time communications will allow IT managers to design, deploy and manage their real-time applications in the same manner as their line-of-business applications.

An unexpected trend IT managers saw was the increasing number of servers that real-time communications software, UC and collaboration software, management and peripheral applications demanded. This is clearly something virtualization takes care of very effectively. Reducing the footprint is obviously part of the overall benefit to the IT manager. Beyond server consolidation, the next benefit is server neutrality. Communication vendors today typically certify their software with specific hardware platforms. This is done largely to guarantee any given software version will work with the underlying hardware. The impact to IT managers is that it meant supporting a hardware vendor that was different from the rest of their platforms. With virtualization it is now possible to leverage the common underlying hardware platform in the data center to support real-time communications. There are certainly performance requirements that have to be met, but the options are much greater for the enterprise than ever before.

In summary, the ability to virtualize real-time communications is a significant step in the evolution of voice becoming an application in the data center. The benefits to the enterprise are many and span everything from the design phase through deployment and ongoing management. Beyond the relevant cost savings, the ability to run virtual instances of real-time and line-of-business applications side-by-side in the data center will foster greater innovation and make embedding communications into software much more common going forward. As a final thought, virtualizing real-time software also has many implications for customers thinking about how to leverage cloud computing for their organization. More on that in a future blog.