Unified Communications Nation

September 21, 2016  11:13 AM

Digital transformation initiatives reap business value

Katherine Finnell Katherine Finnell Profile: Katherine Finnell
cloud, Digital transformation, Unified Communications

Organizations that want to move on from a legacy communications infrastructure and break down application silos are turning to digital transformation strategies.

According to a survey from Nemertes Research, nearly 70% of the 368 IT leaders surveyed have a digital transformation initiative even if they don’t necessarily call it that. These initiatives include leveraging communications platform as a service (CPaaS) and application program interfaces (APIs) to embed communications into business applications. Organizations are also looking to deploy cloud-based unified communications to further their digital transformation plans.

Organizations are developing digital transformation initiatives to improve business processes, customer service, speed of business and employee interactions, according to the survey. These key drivers create business value for organizations, whether it’s reduced costs or higher sales.

While many organizations are aiming for some kind of digital transformation, only a few are fully digitized, according to a study from Forrester Consulting. More than 50% of the 158 IT professionals surveyed are behind “the maturity curve,” Forrester said, but their organizations expect to have all-digital workflows within the next two years.

Organizations that struggle to support digital transformation initiatives often lack a combination of three factors: budget, expertise and leadership.

“Bolt-on digital initiatives and legacy technologies perpetuate application silos that create barriers for efficiently completing work tasks,” according to the Forrester study, which was commissioned by Alfresco Software. “IT leaders will seek technologies that eliminate these silos in order to deliver the right information within the right application environment at the right time.”

But what does an organization with a successful digital transformation initiative look like? According to the Nemertes survey, successful organizations have a budget per employee and an advisory board or CEO to spearhead the initiative. Successful digital companies also engage IT and business units and include a marketing strategy controlled by IT or corporate leaders.

“The more successful companies invest more in technology overall,” said Nemertes analyst Robin Gareiss. “IT success is greater when you have digital transformation in it.”

July 5, 2016  8:14 AM

Prioritize UCC tools to support a virtual workforce

Katherine Finnell Katherine Finnell Profile: Katherine Finnell
Collaboration, UC, UCC, Unified Communications

When planning a rollout of new unified communications and collaboration tools, organizations must view their entire workforce as virtual even if it may not necessarily be the case.

More than half of knowledge workers routinely work from a remote location, typically from home or a satellite office, rather than a corporate office, according to a Frost & Sullivan survey of 406 IT decision makers that examined the impact of a virtual workforce on their UCC tools investment priorities.

Even employees who work from a traditional corporate location are virtual workers since the people they need to work with on a daily basis may not be in the same location, said Melanie Turek, vice president of research at Frost & Sullivan, in a recent webinar that examined the survey results.

The survey found that smartphones are the most common UCC endpoints, with 75% of IT decision makers currently using smartphones for business purposes. Nearly one-quarter of IT decision makers expect to use smartphones within the next three years.

Headsets, too, are becoming popular in organizations as more employees use conferencing tools.

“As we move forward with UCC, we’re finding more people need some way of keeping their hands free while working and participating in calls,” Turek said.

The survey found smartphones, instant messaging, headsets and conferencing services were the most important UCC tools for business productivity. This finding mirrored IT decision makers’ budget priorities. The survey found that IT leaders will prioritize smartphones, tablets, social media and collaboration technology in their 2016 and 2017 budgets.

To support the different UCC tools required for a virtual workforce, organizations are moving away from a single-vendor infrastructure. With so many tools available, Turek said, enterprises might struggle to maintain a single-vendor service that would meet everyone’s communication needs. Instead, organizations are looking to multi-vendor infrastructures that integrate the tools employees need.

But organizations planning to roll out new UCC tools must consider the business roles of their employees.

“Not everyone needs all these tools,” Turek said. Organizations should not approach UCC with company-wide deployments, but instead think about why they need a certain tool, what business goals the tools will help and who will benefit the most.

April 29, 2016  11:39 AM

Changing IT’s role in today’s collaboration environment

Katherine Finnell Katherine Finnell Profile: Katherine Finnell

Employee collaboration habits have prompted new ways of working, and IT’s role has changed in the process.

Employees are embracing collaboration, remote working and bringing their own apps and services into workplaces and business processes. IT must get a handle on these trends or risk not only security, regulatory and cost issues, but control over the technology in an organization.

To do so, IT must evolve to focus on both the technology and business processes, said Melanie Turek, vice president of research at Frost & Sullivan, in a recent webinar that explored IT’s evolving role in UCC.

The biggest challenge facing IT, particularly in larger enterprises, is the number of collaboration apps that employees are using on their own. IT must determine which of these apps are used in the organization and how they fill a business need that IT is not addressing. Then IT must plan on how to get users off those apps and services and onto company-approved apps.

“There is a gap between what the business side wants and what IT wants,” Turek said. “The most successful companies bridge that gap.”

To bridge that gap, IT managers should team up with line-of-business (LOB) managers to understand end-user needs and create policies for the apps, services and devices allowed in an organization.

They should plan strategically about which apps employees can use. IT should whitelist approved apps, enable cloud-based access from any device with single sign-on, and establish rights based on a user’s role, location and status, Turek said.

LOB managers should help IT assess end-user needs, including where employees work and whether their work is collaborative. Assessing end-user needs helps IT determine which tools will fit those needs.

“You want to get as specific as you can,” she said. “A financial services organization is going to use something like video conferencing very differently from a healthcare organization.”

IT managers need a deeper understanding of their users’ business processes in order to support them.

“For so many years they focused on bits and bytes,” Turek said. “Now they have to learn about the business and industry, and how business processes work.”

April 5, 2016  8:59 AM

Skype for Business users struggle to manage voice quality

Katherine Finnell Katherine Finnell Profile: Katherine Finnell
Performance management, QoS, Quality of Service, Unified Communications

Once an organization deploys Skype for Business, the next hurdle is managing quality of service (QoS), which measures and improves high-bandwidth video and multimedia content.

Nemertes Research analyst Irwin Lazar said the biggest issue he’s seen with Skype for Business deployments is performance management.

“Organizations struggle with the tools to do quality management,” he said.

For organizations that deploy Skype for Business as a softphone-based application, voice quality is the main struggle, Lazar said. With softphone apps, organizations are running Skype clients on a laptop or PC and cannot manage voice traffic like they could with a traditional voice deployment. Segmenting and prioritizing voice traffic over other data traffic on the network becomes impossible.

“If you roll it out and people aren’t happy with the voice experience, the question becomes: What can you do to fix it?” Lazar said. Many organizations turn to third-party providers, like IR and Nectar, to manage voice QoS for Skype for Business.

Rely on user feedback, management tools for voice quality of service

“Quality of service is critical,” said Skip Chilcott, global head of product marketing at performance management software provider IR.

He said most organizations want to ensure they have tools that offer benchmarks to show Skype for Business performs better or the same as their previous system. Benchmarks can also help organizations automate management of Skype for Business QoS.

Chilcott said Skype for Business has seven codecs that can be used in a call. With performance management tools, like analytics and call monitoring, several codecs can be used on a call automatically based on QoS levels.

Additionally, organizations should not confuse QoS with quality of experience. For instance, a user might report a bad experience or voice quality, but the system reports good QoS, he said.

Chilcott said organizations must separate experience from service and rely on both user feedback and management tools to ensure good performance of Skype for Business.

March 17, 2016  10:28 AM

Avoid these four SIP deployment pitfalls

Katherine Finnell Katherine Finnell Profile: Katherine Finnell

Implementing SIP trunking can be a daunting task for many organizations. But enterprises can take certain steps to ensure their SIP deployment is relatively smooth. Industry leaders at Enterprise Connect urged organizations to heed these four common SIP pitfalls:


While SIP deployments promise cost savings, organizations must watch out for surprise costs. Most SIP trunking providers detail their costs on their pricing page, but additional fees are often found in a thorough reading of a contract, said Melissa Swartz of Swartz Consulting.

Swartz cited one company that discovered its provider put in the contract that every call to 911 would be $75. Other providers charge a fee for organizations that reach a certain percentage of calls that are less than 15 or 18 seconds, she said.

“They’re not deliberately hidden, but you have to read the contract,” she said.

To avoid pricing surprises, Swartz recommended running scenarios to estimate your usage, factor in additional costs, like backup, and look for other fees hidden in the contract.

Facilities and Features

Organizations must determine if their carrier is providing trunks all the way down the line and not relying on another carrier for the last mile, Swartz said.

“That’s something that can cause issues because the trunks are not under the SIP provider’s control all the way,” she said.

Organizations must also be mindful of the features offered by SIP providers. “There are words that different carriers use, but they don’t mean the same to each carrier,” Swartz said.

Larry Riba, lead voice engineer at nonprofit financial services firm TIAA, discussed an issue he had with a call-recording vendor. When TIAA was planning its SIP migration, the nonprofit’s call-recording vendor said it could support call recording with SIP.

“It was a terrible failure,” he said. Luckily, the issue was discovered early in the migration process, but it took months to fix and delayed the migration.

Configuration and Security

The configuration of session border controllers (SBCs) and firewalls must be done carefully to prevent service disruption. Swartz said if there’s a problem with the SIP service, the firewall should be the first place to check.

“If you’re not getting a call, it’s a firewall setting,” she said.

Properly configuring 911 services should also be a priority, to ensure that first responders are directed to the correct location. This is especially important for organizations that have multiple locations with a centralized SIP deployment, Swartz said.

Organizations should also make sure every part of their SIP deployment is secured properly, including fax lines and analog phones.

“You want an SBC that can handle all kinds of stuff,” said Mykola Konrad, vice president of product management at Sonus Networks.

Organizations will have different security needs depending on whether their SIP trunking service is delivered over an MPLS or broadband line, he said. The best thing an organization can do is include the IT department security expert early in the migration process.

“As soon as you’re doing something that says ‘IP’ on it, you have to have the security guy bless whatever the project is,” Konrad said.

Failover and Disaster Recovery

With SIP failover and redundancy, organizations must make sure their provider can offer business continuity.

“You need to understand from a carrier perspective how far they can see and what would trigger an automatic failover,” Swartz said. Organizations must quiz their provider prior to their SIP deployment on what triggers failover, if DID and toll-free numbers are included in call rerouting, and, if the organization uses a backup carrier, how SIP calls transfer to the backup.

Failover and disaster recovery should be seamless, said Ari Sigal, product marketing manager at Twilio.

“Some disaster recovery is simple call forwarding, but that doesn’t keep the business operating the way it typically does,” he said.

Sigal said Twilio uses APIs to allow real-time decision making and the ability to automate failover and call rerouting based on certain conditions.

SIP trunking offers big benefits to organizations, but “you’ve got to know what you’re doing,” Swartz said.

November 24, 2015  11:41 AM

UC is dead, long live UC?

Katherine Finnell Katherine Finnell Profile: Katherine Finnell
Collaboration, Consolidation, Unified Communications

Unified communications will soon reach its “use by” date, and the next evolution of enterprise communications is around the corner, analysts say. But what exactly is coming next?

UC has reached maturity — in terms of language and technology — since entering the market in 2005 and will hit its “use by” date at the end of 2016, according to Art Schoeller, Forrester Research principal analyst.

“New things are happening today that redefine what we do with communication and collaboration,” he said in the webinar “Unified Communications and Collaboration Mash-Up: The Next Wave.”

UC’s maturity has reaped benefits for organizations that adopt UC technology. According to a Forrester report that surveyed 1,078 telecom decision makers, 91% saw improved team collaboration in their organization and 88% reported significantly faster problem resolution.

“It’s not the UC part that’s unique anymore, everyone is doing it,” said David Nuss, senior vice president of IT at real estate agency Cresa. It is how a vendor uses UC technology that will influence the next wave of enterprise communication and collaboration.

Vendors have started applying machine learning technology to their services to map interaction patterns and relationships, expanding on asynchronous communications to offer persistent collaboration workspaces, bridging asynchronous and synchronous communication through upcoming standards like WebRTC, and embedding UC into enterprise applications for real-time collaboration, Schoeller said.

Nuss discussed how Cresa needed to consolidate its disparate communication systems for a consistent employee and customer experience. The driver behind the consolidation was a cloud and mobile-first approach to communications that would be easy for IT to manage, lead to hard-dollar savings and support future communication needs.

Cresa chose RingCentral, the sponsor of the webinar, as its sole UC provider, which allowed the real estate firm to consolidate its 11 customer relationship management (CRM) services and 22 voice systems across the company’s locations.

“You name it, we had it,” Nuss said.

But the deciding factor for Cresa wasn’t that RingCentral simply offered the UC technology that the company needed, but what the vendor did with the technology — like integrating with Salesforce, analytics features and real-time collaboration.

Nuss said Cresa saw high adoption of its new UC system because of the system’s flexibility to allow individual users to customize the service to fit their needs while maintaining uniformity across the organization.

“Those are things you have to look at beyond just comparing dial tone, IM and video — what else are you going to need in the future?” Nuss noted. “Look at usability and efficiency for users when comparing platforms.”

October 23, 2015  2:34 PM

How the Xbox spawned the Microsoft Surface Hub

Luke O'Neill Luke O'Neill Profile: Luke O'Neill
Collaboration, Conference Room, Hardware, Microsoft, Video conferencing, XBOX

Microsoft executive Michael Angiulo had a thought: If a couple teenagers in separate parts of the country, or world, can connect in a minute or two and talk, look at and play a video game together, then why can’t a corporate meeting be cobbled together just as easily? Why, he mulled, does a video conference take several minutes to start? If setting up a meeting is so simple with a video game console, like an Xbox, why isn’t there an equivalent device that can be used to connect workers in a corporate setting?

And with that premise, the Microsoft Surface Hub was born.

Angiulo, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s Devices Group and an executive in the company’s Xbox hardware division, looked at how meetings came together in the video game console world. He and other Microsoft executives sought to enhance that experience — for commercial customers — but first Microsoft had to determine what technology was needed from a hardware and software standpoint.

In a nutshell, the Surface Hub, announced earlier this year, is a slab of hardware loaded with Microsoft software. The large-screen collaboration device features ink and touch technology, digital whiteboard with infinite canvas and conferencing capabilities.

Microsoft Surface Hub

The Microsoft Surface Hub features ink technology with a stylus pen and conferencing capabilities. (Microsoft photo)

The device includes Windows 10 and its Web browser Microsoft Edge, universal Windows apps, as well as Microsoft Office apps like Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Skype for Business. Microsoft is touting the product as an all-in-one collaboration device that could replace companies’ vast assortment of conference room equipment.

Whether that will happen or not is yet to be seen, but one thing is already clear: If anything, the nexus between the Xbox and Surface Hub is another testament to the power of consumer electronics and how their ease of use has influenced business communications development.

Users weigh in on Surface Hub’s potential

Case in point, said Brian Eskridge, a senior manager on the Surface Hub team, is the Chicago law firm of Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott LLP, a member of Microsoft’s customer advisory council exploring how communications can be improved.  As one would expect, the firm envisions using the Surface Hub’s large-screen format to review and collaborate on documents and other files in its corporate office. But additionally, in perhaps a more non-traditional use case of the device, the law firm could use the Surface Hub in a courtroom setting by displaying and annotating video and still images to highlight significant pieces of evidence to a jury or judge.

“That courtroom is still a meeting,” Eskridge said. “It’s a place where people convene to review data in real time and make decisions quickly based on access to data.”

Courtrooms in particular can be rife with antiquated projectors, CRT monitors and VHS players on carts, Eskridge added, and the Surface Hub could replace this aging equipment. He said conference room equipment has lacked significant innovation and evolution in the past 20 years, which has presented a market opportunity among millions of collaborative spaces and rooms worldwide.

SHoP Architects in New York and Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland have also been evaluating the product.

‘A welcome contradiction’

Three years ago, Microsoft introduced Surface tablets and in the meantime it has been building out its resale partner channel. For the Surface Hub, the vendor is also trying to shore up its channel of system integrators and conference room audio/video resellers to market the unique large-screen device, priced at $20,000 for the 84-inch model and $7,000 for the 55-inch version.

Eskridge said the Surface Hub, like other conference room equipment, could fall under a company’s real estate and facilities budget rather than the IT budget.

“It’s important to set those price figures in context to help think about what’s the alternative for our commercial customers today,” Eskridge said, adding that traditional conference room equipment — including audio/video systems, projectors, whiteboards, teleconferencing and digital displays — could cost about $40,000. Additionally, he said, Surface Hub cost savings could be realized over time as service and support for the device can be done remotely.

Even if they haven’t seen a device quite like the Surface Hub before, analysts seem generally upbeat about the product.

“I like the idea of creating a more immersive conference room experience,” Alan Lepofsky, an analyst at Constellation Research, told TechTarget earlier this year. “It’s interesting in a time where many things are getting smaller, more mobile, even wearable, the massive experience of a Surface Hub is a welcome contradiction.”

September 23, 2015  8:53 AM

Communication integration drives business app productivity

Katherine Finnell Katherine Finnell Profile: Katherine Finnell
cloud, Integration, Mobility, Unified Communications

Mobility and the cloud have become the primary drivers for organizations to integrate communication capabilities like voice and video with business applications. Moving unified communications (UC) to the cloud allows organizations to embed communication into the business applications they use daily with click-to-chat and click-to-call, and support a more mobile workforce.

“Marrying mobility and the cloud is the perfect storm of opportunity” for communication integration, said IHS Infonetics Research Director Diane Myers in the IHS and RingCentral webinar “How to Improve Business Productivity with Integrated Communications.”

According to IHS research, 85% of organizations are using smartphones as part of their UC strategy and 79% view voice integration with their business apps as critical.

“When you integrate communication into your business apps, it can make your life easier,” said Marco Casalaina, vice president of contact center and integrations at RingCentral, a cloud-based business communications provider. “It drives higher user productivity.”

A simple integration like click-to-call, which lets users make calls directly from an app, can be very useful for someone who spends much of the day dialing numbers and making calls, he said.

Myers said the top three applications that organizations are moving to the cloud are email, collaboration apps and customer relationship management (CRM). CRM is a big area where people expect voice integration, especially with apps like Salesforce and Zendesk, Casalaina added.

“These are the apps people live in,” he said. “They are in these apps all day long and need communication to be part of that.”

Myers said voice integration with business applications is about breaking down silos between business apps and communication tools. Organizations that integrate see the value it brings to IT and their employees in improving productivity, she said.

Key voice integration considerations

Before organizations begin integrating their communication tools with their business apps, they need to understand the requirements that a cloud communication provider should meet to make integration successful.

Myers said organizations need to find a provider that understands what an organization needs to get from application integration. Organizations should request demos to understand a provider’s integration services.

Casalaina said most cloud providers offer pre-built applications for the most common cloud tools to minimize IT involvement and make integration easy. But for organizations that have custom-built apps, Casalaina said a good cloud provider will also be a platform that offers application program interfaces (APIs) to support flexible voice integration that includes custom applications.

Voice integration with mobile devices can be tricky since it can be difficult to do deep integration with specific applications, Casalaina said.

For example, the Salesforce1 mobile app does not allow for much integration, but RingCentral uses mobile deep linking to make the app launch a RingCentral app that offers some voice integration.

“Mobile integration is newer when compared to Web-based integration, but it can be accomplished successfully,” he said.

July 17, 2015  8:54 AM

Is your PBX bad for business?

Katherine Finnell Katherine Finnell Profile: Katherine Finnell
PBX, Unified Communications

The legacy PBX is still a fixture for some organizations, but it may be holding them back from reaching their business goals.

8×8’s Mike Reinhart, senior product marketing manager, and David Leach, business communications consultant, discussed the shortcomings of the PBX in today’s communication environment in the webinar “Your PBX is killing your business.”

Business communication has evolved due to globalization, an increasingly mobile and distributed workforce, integrated workflows and changing buying behaviors, Reinhart and Leach said.

“Picture your PBX in relation to these trends and you realize you’ve got a big problem that needs addressing,” Leach said.

Reinhart and Leach listed 10 problems organizations face with the PBX: High acquisition cost and total cost of ownership; multiple vendors and systems involved; limited integration into business ecosystems; lack of insight into the customer journey; complex upgrades; costly or limited redundancy; complex system administration; security vulnerabilities; out-of-date feature sets; and built-in obsolescence.

“The day you install it, it’s obsolete,” Reinhart said. “It can’t change as your business changes.”

Leach said vendors are on a 12- to 24-month refresh cycle, so vendors are already working on their next PBX by the time an organization buys and deploys one.

But the cloud can eliminate many of the business problems created by legacy PBXs.

Cloud-based communications offers benefits including ease of integration with business ecosystems, resiliency and high availability, built-in security and software is always up to date.

Reinhart and Leach cited a Florida-based vacation travel agency that migrated from a PBX to 8×8’s cloud-based communications services.

Leach said the agency reported business issues that stemmed from its PBX, including downtime caused by frequent hurricanes, a lack of integration of chat and voice traffic in the contact center and lack of integration with Salesforce.

After moving its communications services to the cloud, the agency no longer had to worry about weather-related outages and reported increased sales and agent productivity.

“The cloud gives businesses an edge that the PBX just can’t offer,” he said.

July 2, 2015  11:13 AM

The three UC issues to address before you deploy

Katherine Finnell Katherine Finnell Profile: Katherine Finnell
Big Data, cloud, service provider, Unified Communications

Before making the move to unified communications (UC), every organization must prioritize three issues: scalability, application integration and security. Failure to address these issues can have far-reaching implications for organizations when they enter a growth cycle or encounter a security threat.

Independent industry analyst Jon Arnold discussed in a webinar why the issues of scalability, application integration and security are so important, and how the cloud can address them and provide additional benefits.

Organizations need scalability to meet business needs, whether it’s adding phone lines to accommodate more employees or ensuring a consistent end-user experience across branch offices. But for organizations that deploy an on-premises UC infrastructure, scalability is difficult, Arnold said.

The cloud is here to help. Organizations that deploy a hosted UC service can support growth by making sure their applications grow with the company and meet changing business needs. The cloud enables users to access their UC apps through the same interface for a consistent experience.

In addition, the cloud can leverage UC in ways an on-premises deployment cannot, Arnold said. The cloud offers flexibility that allows organizations to migrate to VoIP and UC at their own pace and makes migrating to UC an Opex decision since there’s no need to invest in on-premises hardware.

“Stop thinking about the value of communications in terms of premise-based solutions,” Arnold said. “The cloud provides new options that can create a competitive advantage.”

Application integration
Organizations must integrate voice and telephony into other applications to leverage UC effectively, Arnold said. Voice is the preferred method of real-time communications. Integrating voice with other modes of communication, like instant messaging and conferencing, gives organizations an additional layer of value, he said.

Organizations looking to integrate their applications must focus on horizontal apps the whole company uses, like email, and vertical apps limited to specific departments, like salesforce.com, Arnold said. Organizations should leverage the cloud to integrate their applications for fixed and mobile environments to get the most value out of their apps.

“You need to give employees the tools they want to use in the way they like to use them,” Arnold said. “You have to integrate them in a way that works in the environment people can be most productive, increasingly that means mobility.”

Using the cloud to integrate voice into other applications also gives organizations access to big data. “There’s a wealth of new information that comes when you capture everything in a digital format,” Arnold said. Big data offers new metrics for organizations to gauge employee performance and make better decisions regarding employee and customer engagement.

For all the cloud’s benefits related to UC, security concerns add a layer of uncertainty for organizations. Arnold said it’s easy to think of security only in terms of telephony, but the reality is much bigger. Organizations that opt for a hosted UC and VoIP service face security threats in five areas: company data, employee data, financial data, operations and toll fraud.

Organizations must be proactive and address security issues before they become a problem by engaging employees, taking a holistic view of security that goes beyond IT and developing best practices to mitigate security risks, Arnold said.

Organizations should also have discussions with potential hosted UC service providers to make sure they understand security. Organizations should determine if a potential provider operates its own data center environment or if it uses a partner, what cloud models it supports, if it has the ability to encrypt VoIP traffic and if it can meet compliance requirements for data security audits, like HIPAA and PCI.

“If you don’t think the cloud is a safe place, then you have to think twice about hosted UC,” Arnold said.

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