Unified communications makes headway via the advent of video and the 'post-PC' era

While still emerging, unified communications is starting to have a positive impact on network architecture

The ramp-up to unified communications has taken a decade and is still only starting to emerge in many public-sector organizations. Evidence indicates that government organizations are beginning to realize the challenges that have slowed adoption of UC are largely people- and process-based rather than technological in nature.

The Defense Department has led the way by investing in voice over IP (VOIP) and building Defense Connect Online to enable access to DOD resources online. Other government agencies and departments — such as the U.S. Coast Guard, the Veterans Affairs Department and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, among others — have invested in UC to streamline collaboration, improve constituent services and reduce costs.

Meanwhile, a recent Gartner study predicts that by 2016 at least 50 percent of e-mail users will drop traditional PCs in favor of tablets or other mobile devices.

And according to industry estimates, 80 percent of U.S. adults are online and nearly 60 percent engage in social networking, which further underscores the shift away from traditional to increasingly digital collaborative communication methods.

UC is considered excellent for government organizations looking to tie voice, video and other communication services together to make it easier for employees to communicate with one another and with contractors, partners, constituents and other stakeholders.

Driven largely by potential savings in travel costs, along with the capability to deliver greater flexibility for workers, UC is being implemented in federal, state and local government environments due to the advent of video over networks and the post-PC mobile device era. “Our customers are working hard to manage change and develop strategies for the incremental adoption of UC to avoid security breaches as well as any potential network capacity problems,” said Russell Plain, UC solutions architect at CDW Government, Vernon Hills, Ill.

Security is of paramount importance and must be “baked in from the back-end server to the end-user devices, whether handheld or fixed,” Plain added. That is why CDW-G advises government organizations to invest in client computing options with zero disks and zero memory. That way, any changes in classification levels or users can be administered without problems. All devices with onboard memory and disk storage are at a higher risk of being compromised, he added.

Benefits of UC
For government audiences, UC combined with mobility solutions can dramatically improve productivity for employees in the field, such as social workers, census takers, police officers and border patrol agents. “These off-site workers gain not simply a single app but the ability to check e-mail [and] respond to the home office and even citizen requests,” said Lauren Jones, a senior principal analyst for Deltek's Federal Market Analysis program, Herndon, Va. “UC makes workers more productive and helps them stay more connected to the organization’s office infrastructure.”

In the currently tight budgetary climate, UC is compelling because it allows for videoconferencing and all forms of collaboration, tying workers, contractors, and other partners together for meetings and telework, Jones continued. Via UC collaboration tools, she explained, agencies can keep tabs on the status of employees via presence apps that track an employee’s availability status throughout each day.

Ongoing concerns about security, cultural resistance and the need to properly train workers to use UC tools such as messaging and collaboration so they learn to do things in a new way require additional investment. It might also take extra effort to overcome resistance. Organizations must take into account a commitment to training, along with overcoming network security hurdles and IT support issues that can drive up the cost of deployment and maintenance, Jones said.

CDW-G’s experts maintain that security and network reliability are not UC problems agencies must work to overcome. “Those problems tend to arrive due to difficulties inherent in current [time-division multiplexing] networks,” Plain said.

Despite the challenges, the potential for cost savings has made UC more attractive governmentwide. “Typically, for the price of annual maintenance, agencies can implement a VOIP system that will continue to save agencies money each year after deployment,” Plain said.

Understanding UC as a service

Cloud-based unified communications (UC) solutions are structured to make deployment easier, shift upfront capital expenses to operational expenses, and provide a streamlined path for agencies to migrate to new applications and features as they are rolled out. Unlike other cloud services, most cloud-based UC services won’t entirely eliminate on-premise equipment, such as desk phones, videoconferencing equipment, routers and gateways for analog phones, and fax machines. UC cloud providers typically host the telephony and application servers in a UC package, including presence, chat, messaging and other features. Also, most cloud services assume customers have already adopted a voice-over-IP infrastructure, although some organizations might choose to work with a cloud provider to implement VOIP as well as UC.

Typical cloud-based UC services include IP-based voice and video, presence and instant messaging, and unified messaging, in which voice mail is saved to a user’s e-mail inbox and users can call or send an instant message to a co-worker by clicking on an e-mail address. Other UC options might include Web-based conferencing and contact center applications. Cloud-based UC offerings are growing rapidly and include: * Hosted UC solutions, which deliver cost predictability and reduce reliance on internal support staff but might also limit flexibility based on the service provider’s technology decisions. * Hybrid solutions, in which on-premise equipment and cloud-based services coexist, can extend basic UC implementations and enable small or remote offices to benefit from UC.

No matter what type of cloud-based UC service is chosen, it’s important to ensure that wide-area networks can handle the increased traffic, which includes voice, data and video. “When high availability is important, network redundancy and performance management costs must not be overlooked,” said James McCloskey, a senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group, London, Ontario.

Aside from cost savings, government organizations must realize the dramatic potential UC has to “improve productivity [and] mobility and leverage the power of social media — an ongoing challenge for many agencies to date,” Jones said.

Looking ahead, industry observers maintain that UC will likely take hold at agencies that want to capitalize on social media and in environments that will better serve the needs of millennial generation employees and constituents. No matter what the goals are, however, agencies must assess the risks — particularly the impact on productivity, security and network performance — and develop plans to deal with each of those crucial elements along the way, Jones added.

Key UC drivers

The advent of UC is driven by agency requirements to:
* Improve employee collaboration.
* Improve employee efficiency.
* Retire legacy PBX systems and upgrade technologies to streamline operational efficiency.
* Enable greater mobility for workers.
* Improve constituent communications.
* Reduce both capital and operational expenses.
* Reduce travel expenses.
* Improve communication with partners and other stakeholders.

And Plain recommends that agency managers take a cue from teenagers. Agency leaders must understand Skype and Facebook. Although neither is secure enough for government use, similar video and social media tools are available that can help government audiences visualize the value of greater collaboration through UC, he said.

Industry observers advise government audiences to monitor UC traffic to avoid performance issues and respond quickly to unexpected and/or inappropriate use patterns on networks. Ultimately, said James McCloskey, a senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group, London, Ontario, UC technology isn't one-size-fits-all. “Understanding the agency’s individual operational/mission goals and developing a strategy for UC are key to selecting the right technological solutions and making the most of any UC investment,” he said.

About this Report

This report was commissioned by the Content Solutions unit, an independent editorial arm of 1105 Government Information Group. Specific topics are chosen in response to interest from the vendor community; however, sponsors are not guaranteed content contribution or review of content before publication. For more information about 1105 Government Information Group Content Solutions, please email us at [email protected]