The Cisco Unified Communications 500  (UC 500) combines multiple services for voice, data, security and wireless into one appliance that can manage up to 100 phone stations. The platform serves to provide everything a small department needs to facilitate more effective communication between employees, business partners and other important stakeholders.
Consider the UC 500 as the heart of a telecommunications and data system. Although end users do not specifically touch the appliance, they interact with it in a number of ways. The most obvious is through the use of an IP telephone. The UC 500 supports both the enterprise-savvy Cisco 7900 series of phones and the SPA 500 phones targeted for smaller organizations. Both handset lines offer a mix of features, such as color displays, wireless versions and sidecars for administrators.
But IP telephony offers so much more. These phones are more like minicomputers. A wide array of applications can be purchased through third parties or can be developed in house with partners. For example, the SPA525G  can display streaming video from a remote camera, like an administrative assistant keeping an eye on a back door. Using Cisco Meet Me with the UC 500, conference bridges of up to 32 people are possible — a far cry from the three-person conferences most people are used to setting up on old analog systems.
Unified communications also makes for more productive users. With any Internet Message Access Protocol v4 (IMAP4) mail server, such as Microsoft Exchange or Lotus Notes, users can get visual access to their voicemails. These show up as Windows Wave (.wav) files attached to an e-mail that employees can listen to on their computer — or from anywhere they have access to their e-mail.
Another great feature: Cisco’s optional Unified CallConnector client software, which lets an IP phone and computer talk to each other. For instance, incoming caller IDs can appear as a pop up on your computer screen. Need to call someone? Simply bring up Click to Dial, and one mouse click later your phone is dialing your favorite contact.
The new UC 500-series models come in two form factors: desktop (UC 540) and rack mounted (UC 560). The desktop version is geared to a small office; it supports up to 32 users, has eight built-in Power over Ethernet ports, and includes a wireless feature. The rack-mounted version is for larger offices, supporting 16 to 104 users, with three uplink ports for PoE switches and one WAN port. Wireless is not included in this version because it’s not likely you’d want a wireless antenna in a wiring closet; more likely you’d want an access point (such as Cisco’s AP541N) more central to the action.
One of the best new features of these models is how they are licensed. The old models were less scalable: You had to invest more at the outset and could not expand much without purchasing additional models. The UC 500-series licenses are sold in packs of eight. You simply buy the licenses, then reconfigure the device, and presto! — you can now support eight additional phone stations. It’s always great when your infrastructure can simply grow along with your needs.
The UC 500 series combines many devices that you may already have (or think you may need to buy if you’re starting from scratch). It connects directly to the public switched telephone network (PSTN) and can do static routing. The desktop model has that 8-port PoE switch and wireless built in. Virtual Private Networking and a firewall are also included, as well as the private branch exchange system for connecting telephones. The devices support either analog or digital PSTN connections, and have analog outputs for devices such as fax machines.
Because the UC 500 is made by Cisco, there are plenty of excellent partners that can help you install, configure and customize the platform. Cisco includes the Cisco Configuration Assistant, a GUI-based configuration tool that makes it quick and easy to configure the platform so less time is spent on menial configuration tasks and more time on customization.
Cisco also offers several productivity applications (and third-party applications can be built or purchased), such as timecard entry, special call routing, call accounting and reporting. Imagine scrapping that antiquated time clock in the lunchroom; instead, from their desks, employees enter a personal identification number that clocks them into and out of work.
With such a wide array of functionality and flexibility, it’s hard to believe the Cisco UC 500 would have any deficiencies, but nothing is perfect. A number of the advanced user features (such as third-party applications, or Unified CallConnector Mobility) come at extra cost, so work with a partner to decide what you need and to get a good picture of the bottom line. Of course, you can always add features later — once you’ve fallen in love with the system.
Speaking of which, a partner is truly essential unless you have Cisco UC expertise on staff. The entire system really requires experience and knowledge into Cisco networking and equipment. The device, with its Configuration Assistant, may look simple, but an expert can help you arrive at a good estimation of cost and achieve a successful deployment (don’t forget to have them enable a few applications on their way out the door).
Furthermore, while the SPA 500 series of phones is less expensive than the 7900 series (while providing much of the same functionality), this line is compatible only with the Cisco Small Business products. If you ever grow beyond 100 phone stations, or join a larger network, the SPA 500 will not interact with enterprise-grade Cisco products. Again, a little forethought is your best friend here.