Friday, May 6, 2011

Convergence Enterprise Communications. Information Technology (IT) and The Cloud

Over the last ten years, there has been a rapidly accelerating series of convergences in the communications world. The world of telephony has changed forever, from its roots in traditional Plain Old Telephone (POT) voice through an initial convergence with IP networks.

The TDM PBX was self-contained and comfortable – a separate network, proprietary hardware, proprietary devices, specialist communications personnel. The argument for moving to IP telephony has been focused towards reducing costs and offering new functionality by utilising data networks to carry voice traffic.

While it is true that rationalization of two separate networks into a single infrastructure has simplified the corporate network architecture, the reality has been the replacement of one set of proprietary appliances with another. Maintaining high quality voice calls over a shared data network has also provided an additional challenge. Communications application suites designed to enhance the user experience with IP telephony systems often have been no more sophisticated than similar applications used with TDM systems.

IP telephony has delivered on some of its promises but the overall benefits to the enterprise have been questionable. In many ways the status quo has been preserved, with ownership transferred from telecoms personnel to the data networking groups within the IT department. However it has transported telephony away from its isolated silo and connected it to the IT world, laying the foundation for subsequent rounds of convergence and further potential benefits to the enterprise.

The concept of ‘unified communications’ is compelling, the convergence of all methods of communicating between two or more people, from any application, using any device, at any location, via the most appropriate route, enabling effective collaboration with business-grade security.

But what does it really mean? Over the last few years there has been an avalanche of vendor product announcements, hijacking and redefining the term ‘unified communications’ to reflect the feature sets of their products. To make matters worse, there has been a singular lack of emphasis on the key message – explaining the real benefits of unified communications. Sadly, the concept has been diluted and hugely devalued in the process. Unified communications ‘products’ from different vendors often have little in common with each other, other than some degree of presence management and instant messaging.

As a reaction to this, some vendors are starting to rebrand their products as ‘collaboration’ rather than the somewhat out of favour ‘unified communications’.

At the same time, mobile devices have become smart. We have come a long way from the early mobile phones – dumb handsets with primitive features. Today’s generation of intelligent mobile devices are some of the most sophisticated technology items aimed at the individual and often a fashion accessory at the same time. Little wonder that some of these devices make traditional phones seem antiquated.

But the fixed and mobile worlds are now converging at a phenomenally fast speed, offering advantages to the increasingly flexible and mobile workforce of today. It is now perfectly feasible and becoming more commonplace to use a mobile phone instead of a desk phone. In some cases this is the result of simply replacing the enterprise PBX with mobile phones. However, more sophisticated variants allow seamless handover from mobile carrier networks to enterprise networks, using wireless LAN infrastructure or femtocell technology. These are focused at reducing call costs by moving communications traffic in one of two different directions: towards the enterprise communications system or alternatively towards the carrier network.

More recently, many IT vendors have become aware of the growing opportunity arising from the convergence of the IT and communications worlds. The opportunity is to integrate communications totally within IT systems. This disruptive yet exciting development heralds the dawn of a new age of communications.

The traditional approach from the communication vendor community has been to deploy user-facing applications to control functionality on the communications platform. The approach adopted by the IT community, primarily by software vendors, has been to develop some communications functionality within their applications. Often the two worlds have been connected by gateways or middleware to try and deliver a seamless experience.

As these have been enhanced, we are seeing the emergence of early communications-enabled applications, often the desktop applications commonly used by workers. But the underlying technologies are still not well integrated.

The melting pot of the converging IT and communications worlds is now becoming a noisy place. Unfortunately as the hype increases in volume, it is becoming more confusing for the enterprise to understand the real differences between the various approaches. Significantly, vendors from all sides are struggling to escape from the confines of their traditional products.

‘Communications-enabled business processes’ (CEBP) is being used by some to try and show that they are thinking out of the box. But scratch the surface a little and it becomes very clear that most vendors are unable to explain what this means. Businesses processes have always required communication and collaboration between people. CEBP suggests that this becomes more automated in some way. But where are the examples?

Ignoring the hype, this leaves us with a converged IT and communications zone that is very flat and uninspiring, in many ways two-dimensional.

In order to understand how to move beyond this dead zone, it is fundamentally important to consider communications as a part of the overall IT strategic plan of an organization.

Let’s look at one of the top issues for a CIO – virtualization. What is the primary driver here? In the current economic situation, reducing costs is not optional. It is mandatory. It is not just servers that can be virtualized, but also PCs, storage, applications. Virtualization allows costs to be reduced in many ways, reducing hardware investment, reducing power consumption, reducing management complexity – the list is a long one.

Some communications vendors have jumped on the server virtualization bandwagon but this is not innovative – it is an IT imperative driven by critical business needs. All communications activity needs to be capable of being virtualized, just like any other application. Communications servers and applications need to be virtualized, and capable of being deployed over thin client virtual desktops – the business benefit being not only to reduce costs but also to facilitate new, flexible working models.

Network bandwidth is increasing all the time. What we do today was unthinkable a couple of years ago, from both a technology and commercial perspective. Tomorrow’s networks will be even faster and cheaper.

Virtualization (which implies centralized IT architectures) and high speed networks are two fundamental components that take us to a tipping point in IT architectural terms. The enterprise and the worker become less interested in where their platforms and applications are being hosted. The concept of services from the cloud becomes reality. Centralized systems connected to remote locations using high-speed networks allow cloud services to be provided quickly. Centralization brings cost savings leading to new utility pricing and deployment models.

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