The uptake of unified communications (UC) is being driven by the twin trends of mobility and BYOD, as organisations strive to give users the ability to work, communicate and collaborate remotely and on the move, with a wide variety of different devices. However, while UC delivers a host of benefits, it also comes with a number of challenges, says Dean Young, senior sales consultant IT at T-Systems in South Africa.

Among these challenges include the need to integrate multiple operating systems and devices into communication platforms, as well as the substantial cost of infrastructure to support this. This is leading many organisations to examine the potential of hosted UC solutions. Regardless of whether enterprises choose hosted or on premise models, however, connectivity is key in enabling UC to function effectively.

Organisations require intelligent networks with stable, secure connectivity in order to fully realise the benefits of UC and grow with this technology moving forward.

True UC enables organisations to take advantage of integrated communications across a host of platforms and devices, using various media from voice, email and video to live messaging and even real-time collaboration, from any location.

This allows for greater efficiency, reduced need for travel and even the ability to employ a remote workforce to save on the costs of physical office space. These benefits are well understood, and the uptake of UC in South Africa, as well as globally, has grown steadily over the past few years as identification of the business drivers for collaboration becomes clearer.

With new innovations such as Real Time Collaboration (RTC), UC solutions even enable users to work together on the same document from wherever they are located, updating changes in real-time.

Web applications such as WebEx are also becoming increasingly available and affordable, enabling users to host and attend ‘meetings’ from mobile devices and video conferencing solutions, share documentation, and even record sessions for future playback or sharing.

Despite the benefits, one barrier to entry however is the high cost and availability of infrastructure required to deliver a full UC solution. For organisations with large investment into legacy systems, replacing the entire infrastructure in order to deliver an end-to-end UC experience is simply not a cost effective option.

This challenge is exacerbated by BYOD and the need for mobility, as managing various mobile devices, each with different operating systems and platforms, governing this process, and integrating it into solutions, can be a complex and costly exercise.

For these reasons and others, organisations are increasingly looking towards hosted or cloud-based UC solutions, which offer all of the features and functionality without the need for large capital expense into infrastructure. Cloud solutions are also available on a pay-as-you-use basis, which is particularly relevant to the Small to Medium Enterprise (SME) market.

Whether organisations choose cloud-based, hosted or on-premise solutions however, connectivity is critical in leveraging the advantages of UC. On the back end, an intelligent network is required that can differentiate between the different types of traffic on the network, such as time-sensitive video and voice calling compared to emails.

The network then needs to automatically prioritise traffic that requires constant throughput, in order for seamless communications to take place. From a consumer and user perspective, connectivity needs to be available, stable and secure, which requires 24×7 uptime and a variety of different connectivity mediums for different devices, such as ADSL, Wi-Fi and 3G.

For UC, connectivity platforms also need to support collaboration between devices using different platforms, for example in-office conferencing tools, smartphones and tablets running different operating systems, and notebooks.

Another important aspect to bear in mind is what organisations wish to achieve with UC. The business case needs to be clearly defined in order to ensure that return on investment is realised. VoIP, video collaboration and instant messaging are common features required by organisations from UC solutions, and these all require bandwidth, which must be addressed.

The reality is that today the tools are capable of so much more, however, and to ensure the greatest return in future, it pays to investigate these and the benefits they could have for the enterprise, and deliver connectivity accordingly.

As with many of the latest technologies, having always-on, always available and above all stable connectivity is critical to delivering UC solutions. In order to leverage the multitude of benefits of UC, organisations need to first examine their networks to ensure that any solution they implement will be able to deliver the required functionality.

User profiling and segmentation in larger organisations is paramount in terms of understanding the potential adoption of UC. Networks and connectivity are the cornerstone upon which UC is built.