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How Companies Are Making Unified Communications Pay Off

UC isn't easy or cheap to deploy. But companies can start with cash-saving steps and move to more strategic goals.

When Old Systems Break

Few companies come to UC with broad business goals like Global Crossing did. Instead, most end up the way intellectual property law firm Brinks Hofer Gilson & Lione did--with an 18-year-old PBX that became increasingly costly to fix and house. What's different about Brinks Hofer is in how it has embraced UC since moving to VoIP, and in where the Chicago firm's headed by developing applications that combine UC into software used for everyday operations.

Brinks Hofer began by rolling out an Avaya Communications Manager IP PBX in 2005. Brinks Hofer CIO Rod Sagarsee spent eight months researching VoIP systems, opting for Avaya based on redundancy, disaster recovery, and features like extension to cellular, where an office phone and cell phone might ring simultaneously. Brinks Hofer's experiences hint at a dichotomy in the UC marketplace: IBM and Microsoft come at it mainly from message and presence enablement, while the conventional networking and communications vendors--Avaya, Cisco, Nortel, and others--come from the angle of IP telephony.

VoIP's the staring point for many UC efforts, and Brinks Hofer faced the same initial problem any IP telephony needs to overcome: making sure quality of service is sufficient for latency-sensitive voice and video traffic. Within its first six months, the firm's president, while traveling in Japan, was thrilled to take a live late-night call to his office number. Every CIO knows such executive moments are critical to the continued support of a project.

6 Key Vendors
PRODUCTS AND THEIR ROOTS
1. Avaya
Its UC products have telephony at their core.
2. Cisco
Having led the IP telephony drive, it's trying to add UC onto networks.
3. IBM
Lotus Sametime is growing quickly beyond chat and presence.
4. Microsoft
Office Communications Server keys off usability.
5. Nortel
Products integrate well worth partners'. Bankruptcy will give CIOs pause.
6. Siemens
Its OpenScape suite is standards-based and promises scalability.
Brinks Hofer no longer bills clients for the connection cost of many long-distance and conference calls, and it's saving $18,000 monthly, or about 75%, on long-distance costs, as the firm even routes calls from one office through another office to clients local to that office.

Once VoIP proved itself, Sagarsee found it easier to get executive support to include IP voice, Web, and videoconferencing. From there, OCS's presence capabilities seemed a natural next step. Avaya's Communications Manager and softphones serve as the backbone of IP communications, but the firm uses Microsoft for Web conferencing and other features, in part because a growing number of Brinks Hofer clients also are using OCS and they may someday integrate systems in some way. However, interoperability among vendor products remains difficult, despite industry standards such as SIP for audio and SMPL for messaging. Sagarsee says Brinks Hofer, in testing before rolling out to employees, had difficulty optimizing flow between the Avaya phone system and Microsoft OCS servers.

The next leap for Brinks Hofer is application development, where UC holds the most long-term potential. For example, Brinks Hofer soon will begin requiring lawyers and other employees to check out paper files whenever they need them for work. It will do so by combining the workflow capabilities in the firm's new accounting and docketing systems with OCS, using SharePoint to display the data on who's using which files. So instead of a lawyer sending a firm-wide e-mail asking who has a paper file checked out, the lawyer can not only see who has it, but presence will tell if that person is in and whether she's reachable by IM or phone.

The firm also is working with IT services company Onward Technologies to develop an online directory that incorporates presence and click-to-call, so colleagues could see if a co-worker is in before calling. The next step would be to combine UC with other workflow apps under development so that, for example, if there's a question on a bill, someone in accounting can trigger a call to the primary lawyer billing that client.

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