• 02/19/2009
    6:45 PM
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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.

Data To Phones

Cooke Aquaculture, which raises salmon and cod in the Northeastern United States and in Canada, hasn't installed even some fairly basic UC features on its IP phone system, such as voice conferencing. Yet it's ahead of the curve in application development, using its IP phone system for delivery of real-time weather forecasts to fishery managers.

In 2006, Cooke replaced an analog Centrex service from its telecom provider with Cisco IP phones for its 1,500 employees. Cost savings came from reducing long-distance bills and hosting voice mail internally, says Cooke IT manager Warren Giesbrechd.

But the biggest advantage now comes from building custom phone applications, such as those that bring weather and market conditions straight to employee phones. Data on water temperature and wind speeds at fisheries in Newfoundland and New Brunswick used to come via a daily e-mail. Now the company's collecting that data every 30 minutes, relaying it via a Cisco wireless bridge and then Cisco CallManager to IP phones used by fishery managers and other executives. Another application tracks salmon market prices and sends updates to salespeople every Tuesday and Thursday, again pushing XML data through Cisco CallManager to phones.

Cooke's next steps are to invest in MeetingPlace Express audioconferencing and then Cisco Unified Personal Communicator, which is software analogous to Microsoft's Office Communicator UC client. The company spends about $30,000 with telecom carriers for voice conferencing, and adding the IP audioconferencing will replace that with a smaller software maintenance fee. The Cisco UPC client will open additional collaboration options such as presence and videoconferencing, Giesbrechd says.

But all that's not going to happen for a year or two. For now, Cooke has bigger fish to fry: consolidating and virtualizing its data centers. "The case is there, but it's just a matter of timing as far as budgeting and priorities go," says Giesbrechd.

While the biggest potential for UC will come with embedding communications into everyday operations and using phones as a data-delivery platform, that's not easy to do today. Global Crossing had to rearchitect its systems into a service-oriented architecture, and it has worked directly with Microsoft developers to get its applications running. Cooke Aquaculture leaned heavily on a Cisco reseller, Bulletproof Solutions, for its data-to-phone effort. One Cooke developer has learned a few tricks about creating apps for Cisco's UC platform but would need outside expertise to do projects of the scale and complexity of Global Crossing's.

Cisco says it's making it easier to develop on top of its UC products-- some of those products use REST and SOAP frameworks for integration, while Cisco's WebEx platform now has open APIs. Microsoft introduced new APIs in the latest version of OCS. However, many customers lack in-house skills, and the skills employees used in telephony management don't translate easily to UC.

Intel is using Microsoft OCS to handle ad hoc meetings. Yet while Intel makes good use of some OCS features out of the box, it's only considering custom development with the latest release of OCS, this month. "The core plumbing now exists" for providing PC-based communications that employees can customize, says Gregory Bryant, a former IT manager who's now VP of Intel's business client group and general manager of the vendor's digital office platform. Now that Microsoft and others are making it easier to develop around unified communications, look for third-party application developers to build it into their products.

That's what oil and gas services company Schlumberger hopes to do, with its highly specialized Petrel software, which oil and gas companies use to analyze simulations in the early stages of developing new wells. Schlumberger would like to integrate UC features into Petrel, so team members could use presence information, conferencing, and click-to-call to connect more easily. With major oil company customers such as Royal Dutch Shell rolling out UC, there's likely demand.

But the Petrel-UC combo is stuck in proof-of-concept mode. The newest version of Petrel runs on 64-bit Windows Vista, but there's no 64-bit version of OCS just yet. Integration with UC probably won't be available until the next release of Petrel--if at all.

That said, IT service and software providers are seeing a growing interest in combining UC with enterprise apps. Building messaging into workflows, so messages trigger automatically when an action's needed, is largely an untapped opportunity for all but the most sophisticated UC users. For example, IT services company Engage built apps called ConnectCare, CliniCare, and ClientCare that have features aimed at letting health care providers do tasks such as automatically notify nursing supervisors via phone or chat if a nurse isn't there for a shift or patient appointment.

In this economy, UC's growth hinges on its hard cash savings. Still, companies shouldn't write off productivity gains, especially when staying nimble is as important as ever and as companies are forced to compete with fewer resources. Even if investments in UC go piece by piece, businesses could cut costs in the downturn and stand to benefit from productivity gains once growth picks up.

Imapct Assessment: Unified Communications

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