In today’s fast moving and highly interconnected  operational environment, the ability to communicate effectively and seamlessly is nothing short of critical. As a result, many organizations have turned to unified communications (UC) solutions to blend a diverse array of tasks and technologies, including IP telephony, collaboration , presence, conferencing and video, social media and contact center functions.
It’s no small change.
“By breaking down physical barriers and building a virtual enterprise, unified communications offers a more efficient and cost-effective way to interact,” states Karen Kervin, a senior research analyst at Nemertes Research.
According to a 2011 study conducted by Constellation Research, 65 percent of organizations worldwide, with annual revenue of at least $50 million, are exploring or already using UC solutions. And the figure is expected to grow over the next few years.
But UC is changing. Whereas most organizations over the last two decades have turned to dedicated on-premises solutions to address their needs and requirements, the introduction of cloud-based UC systems is creating new opportunities — as well as new challenges — for IT decision-makers.
Not surprisingly, each system and approach offers pros and cons. “It’s important to understand the organization’s specific needs and how unified communications will be used before it’s possible to make the right choice,” Kervin says.
How should the enterprise sort through all the issues and select an approach or upgrade path that provides maximum results and ROI? What is required from an operations and IT perspective to unleash enterprise productivity through UC? With a growing number of vendors offering on-premises and cloud solutions — including Avaya, Cisco Systems, Polycom, ShoreTel and Microsoft — there’s more at stake than ever before.
It’s no secret that today’s environment demands instantaneous and effective communication through a number of channels. Workers, partners, customers and constituents must have access to information — and people — on demand.
What’s more, as mobility has moved into the mainstream, the challenges of bringing people together virtually and dynamically have grown exponentially. Collaboration and connectivity are no longer options; they’re the baseline for operating efficiency in the 21st century.
UC addresses these issues. Ultimately, it provides a way to connect people more efficiently and reduce errors, spur innovation, adapt to market changes on the fly, reduce development and service cycles, improve service levels and lower IT costs as well as administrative overhead.
However, the field is evolving rapidly. Today, UC solutions must incorporate an array of devices, including notebooks, tablets and smartphones; provide presence capabilities that show availability and status of other users; incorporate video and messaging; and tie into social media platforms.
“Users want to take their UC applications with them and they want to integrate the system into the communication tools they already use,” explains Gary Testa, vice president of Global Cloud and Service Provider Solution Sales at Polycom.
Adds Keith Nealon, vice president of revenue at ShoreTel Sky: “The focus is no longer on a checklist of features, it’s on taking the friction out of communication.”
Many UC solutions work well within the four walls of an enterprise, he notes. “However, tying in mobility and social media requires a different approach.”
To be sure, a number of considerations go into developing a sound UC strategy and selecting an on-premises system or a cloud-based solution. The appeal of on-premises UC technology typically centers on the broad array of features it offers including:
In general, on-premises solutions tend to work well for larger organizations. This can be especially true if workers are clustered in central locations.
Cloud-based solutions, on the other hand, can offer their own advantages including:
Cloud solutions often work best for organizations with multiple locations and many remote or mobile workers. They’re also suitable for enterprises that are growing rapidly and, as a result, are looking to build a UC foundation but add users and features on demand.
“Managed cloud solutions are the ideal choice for organizations that simply want to get out of the phone business,” Nealon explains.
Not surprisingly, some organizations are adopting a hybrid model that ties together these two approaches. For example, “A large global enterprise may choose to build and support its own infrastructure at domestic locations, but use a service provider for international offices,” Testa notes.
Regardless of the model an organization chooses, “It’s about assessing top priorities and having the flexibility to choose solutions that meet the needs of those priorities,” he says.
Developing or updating a UC strategy and choosing the right systems requires a focus on several key factors. For one thing, it’s critical to avoid technology silos and embrace open standards.
“Enterprises must ensure a high level of interoperability across tools and systems, including voice communication, video conferencing, messaging and social media,” Testa points out. “It doesn’t make good sense to have a comprehensive video network that can’t talk to legacy systems or connect outside the organization."
For another, it’s crucial to think beyond features and understand what is hindering communications within an organization today and what represents a potential bottleneck in the future. This means examining how mobility will impact the organization over the next few years.
Or it might focus on contact center integration over multiple channels, including voice, video and messaging along with key data. “An overlooked area is how the unification of communications data and applications affects the overall business,” Nealon notes.
Finally, there’s the issue of vendor selection — something that’s even more important if an organization opts for a cloud-based UC strategy.
“A key consideration is choosing a vendor or hosted services provider that has a proven track record and a platform that provides scalability,” Kervin explains.
In addition, it’s critical to consider how a specific vendor or system impacts the overall UC framework as well as other IT issues across the enterprise.
Polycom, for example, offers voice and video solutions for an array of UC environments, including Microsoft, HP, IBM, Avaya and Cisco Systems. These systems, powered by Polycom’s RealPresence Platform, work across a broad set of communication, operation and mobile applications and devices to deliver secure collaboration. The RealPresence Platform supports up to 25,000 sessions and 75,000 devices within a single video event.
ShoreTel Sky, meanwhile, offers a cloud-based approach to UC that ties together an array of tools and technologies. The list includes unified messaging, instant messaging (IM), presence and mobility; and contact center functionality.
Kervin says that about 25 percent of enterprises are now taking a cloud-based approach to UC video conferencing and 38 percent are using, evaluating or planning for a cloud-based contact center, according to a 2012 Nemertes Research report.
The adoption of cloud-based UC shows that managers are becoming more comfortable with the technology as well as cloud computing and a hosted approach, she explains.
In the end, the power of UC is its ability to span technologies and channels and weave together an array of tools and functions in a seamless way. Concludes Kervin: “Unified communications, regardless of the approach, provides the level of flexibility and functionality needed in today’s operational environment.”