Introduction to Unified Communications
For many years, companies, large and small, have relied on Private Branch Exchange (PBX) systems for their voice telephony needs. PBXs provide business phone features, such as shorter numbers for internal dialing, call transfers, and ridging conference calls. The rise of Internet technologies like Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) has driven businesses to switch to Unified Communications (UC) from their old PBX systems for voice telephony.
UC is the next evolution in enterprise communications and collaboration technologies, bringing all varied connections under a single architecture. This process makes communication seamless, no matter where you are or what device you use. These communications can be delivered over an IP (Internet protocol) network through the following mechanisms:
- Voice: Calls, voice mails, multi-party conference calls
- Video: Video conferences, on-demand video learning
- Data: Text messaging, e-mail, document sharing
The unified part of UC refers to the fact that the UC hardware and software take all these communication applications and put them under the purview of a common control system instead of using different hardware and software solutions for each individual application. Doing so provides two big benefits:
It allows communications to be delivered across media. For example, a voice mail left by one employee may be delivered to its recipient as an e-mail attachment or speech to text translated message.
It applies presence and location information to the communications flow so communications are routed and delivered intelligently.
Presence simply means the ability and willingness of an individual to receive certain types of communications. If you’ve ever used Skype or an instant messaging program, your status (available, busy, do not disturb) is your presence. In UC, presence is a richer bit of data and when combined with location, helps the UC system figure out how and when to deliver your communications to you. For example, if you’re out of the office and at a meeting, a UC system may route calls to your mobile device and also not even try to ring the phone.
This combination of multiple platform, client, and communication methods with presence and location data is a powerful tool – one that can greatly streamline and improve the ways that enterprise employees communicate, coordinate, and collaborate with each other, whether they’re in a single location or spread across the globe.
Voice calls – UC systems provide VoIP-based person-to-person or multiparty voice communications, by using software applications (apps) on PCs or Macs or on mobile and tablet devices. With a UC system, users no longer need a PBX system to make voice or even video calls to others. Users also save a lot of money in voice calls by skipping the traditional public telephone network and using VoIP instead.
Instant messaging (IM) – UC systems provide person to person or multiparty IM often with the addition of features like persistent chat sessions, the ability for an IM session to pass between devices, and for users to pick up a chat where they left off.
Videoconferencing – UC supports high-quality (often HD) videoconferencing. These calls can be person-to-person or, depending on the system, between groups of people.
Collaboration and meetings – conferencing and collaboration are key parts of a UC solution for enterprise. There are a number of aspects to conferencing, including IM/chat, voice, and video
UC apps aren’t limited to the desktop. UC platforms can support mobile devices as fully integrated clients. To make this work, you need a working data connection on the mobile device and a UC app installed on the device by the IT department or through an app store.
Where Does UC Come From?
What you need to deploy UC in your enterprise (or to provide it to your customers if you’re a service provider) includes a few key elements:
- Connectivity to an IP network, usually including SIP Trunking services
- A server (or servers) to run the UC applications and provide back-end functionality, such as directory or contact servers, presence data, and so on
- UC clients on the end-user devices (desktop or mobile)
- Edge devices (like an SBC) to control, secure, and optimize connections to the network
UC can be deployed in a combination of ways:
- Enterprise deployments – Choose to deploy the servers and software within your own datacenter or server room and own and operate the UC system itself.
- Hosted deployments – Access UC in the cloud by purchasing access to a hosted UC service. In this case, a third party service provider manages for all the servers, software, and operations – the enterprise just pays to use.
- Hybrid deployments – Some functionality is installed on the enterprise premise while other functionality is hosted in the cloud by a service provider.
Whether an enterprise deploys UC on its own or through a hosted service, it still requires connectivity through a SIP Trunking service provider or Internet Telephony Service Provider (ITSP). The ITSP provides bandwidth and connectivity and (in most cases) connectivity to the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN).