Unified communications and collaboration (UCC) today forms an integral part of companies' efforts to simplify and integrate their communications which in turn improves response times, mitigates unnecessary expenditure and enhances productivity.

This is according to Dean Young, head of telecommunication pre-sales at T-Systems South Africa.
Whilst UCC is now a major technology trend, the concept – to simplify services – has been around since the '90s.
Simplified, UCC represents the integration of real-time communication such as IP, telephony, instant message (IM), presence information and video conferencing with non real-time communication services such as unified messaging – the integration of voicemail, e-mail, SMS and fax.
IP in particular has made UCC feasible as it allows for all communications traffic – voice, data, images and so forth – to use compatible, standardised, mass-produced, networks and systems throughout the telecommunications sector.
For example, it is no longer a separate product – just another of the many communications services provided by the data network.
The unification of all communications services – including mobility and presence – onto a single platform creates synergies, enabling businesses, regardless of their size, to streamline and facilitate the vital interchange of information.
However, with the introduction of UCC strategy and subsequent infrastructure upgrades is a set of considerations and often challenges.
There is no quick fix or cookie cutter solution for implementing UCC. And when opting for a service provider, it is critical that users understand their needs and what functionality and features truly represent the unification of their communication and collaboration efforts.
For one, according to research group Gartner, there are six tools that form an essential part of a balanced portfolio of UC solutions: telephony, conferencing solutions, messaging, IM, UC clients and interfaces.
Telephony ranges from PBX and IP-PBX to IP telephony, fixed and mobile phones (cellular, WiFi and so on) and video telephony.
Conferencing solutions include voice, video, web and multimedia conferencing applications while messaging includes e-mail and calendaring as well as voice mail, voice-mail-as-email, and unified messaging in multiple forms, including voice mail to text and visa versa.
Importantly, IM, presence and richly differentiated versions of presence are clear indicators of communication becoming unified rather than just operating as disparate modes of networking.
It is critical that the service provider has a deep understanding of IP and how it forms a critical part in efforts to establish a UCC infrastructure that can readily adapt to offer new benefits when and where required.
Often the network is not completely IP-ready, which prevents the UCC system from performing optimally. Ensure that the organisation's partner knows how to handle this problem or importantly, identifies it beforehand and takes the necessary steps to make the network IP friendly.
Often, expert service providers develop a pilot environment which enables the project teams to identify potential problems such as the abovementioned from the get-go – taking preventative steps to remedy issues.
Proper pre-deployment testing also allows the IT staff to understand overall bandwidth demands and application performance, and establish benchmarks for acceptable network performance.
This knowledge is critical for determining how the network will handle the new UCC traffic and identifying any changes that need to be made to effectively support communications.
Also, ensure bandwidth availability through quality of service. If not, interference from other applications on the network – known as contention – will lead to performance problems such as jitter and packet. Adding more bandwidth won't solve the issue either.
At the heart of any successful UCC strategy is user adoption. Change management and user training are critical to ensure that employees understand the full benefits that come with working in an integrated and collaborative communications infrastructure.
With this mind, ensure that the service provider offers a comprehensive training and change management strategy that will also allow for regular feedback from users – it is after all employees that realise the full productivity and cost savings benefits of UCC.
Security forms a critical part of any successful UCC environment and can be quite tricky. Again, the service provider must be on top of the latest challenges and threats to UCC environments.
For one, UCC security challenges are quite different as the platform includes all or most of an organisation's business tools. A security breach can therefore take down more than one service.
Also, security breaches can attack not only the applications in isolation such as VoIP, IM and so forth but also the web of connectivity that binds it together, paralysing the entire network.
Furthermore, allowing access from mobile devices also adds an additional layer of vulnerability – ensure that the project team is geared towards integrating these devices in a secure way without impacting user productivity.
It is therefore crucial to understand the requirements and considerations with UCC in order to embark on a sucessfull implementation that will see organisations reaping the benefits of this truly remarkable technology development.