Unified Communications Deployment Blues

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Unified Communications Deployment Blues

Today, unified communications is being touted by many, including Microsoft with their Office Communications Server 2007 (OCS 2007) due out later this year and Cisco with their aptly named  Cisco Unified Communications. Unified communications often combines many or all of the following: instant messaging/IM with business presence, VoIP, videoconferencing, online collaboration, desktop sharing, and unified messaging (email, voicemail, fax in your Inbox). Of these applications, which all run on your network, VoIP and videoconferencing are extremely sensitive to jitter, latency, and packet loss. Unfortunately, many enterprises are beginning to deploy unified communications without performing any pre-deployment testing of their network to ensure these applications meet strict quality of service standards. Network Instruments, a provider of VoIP testing tools, has a very interesting blog post discussing VoIP pre-deployment, and the blogger (Stephen Brown) also links to a helpful VoIP deployment whitepaper worth checking out.

Not performing any pre-deployment testing is especially true of the small-to-medium business (SMB) market which often has limited IT/networking staff or none at all. Even when they do have IT staff, often times the IT person isn't knowledgeable on troubleshooting network issues using a packet sniffer such as Ethereal/Wireshark. So when network issues do strike, the IT manager is often clueless to the source of the problem. It could be that someone has a virus that is flooding the network, or someone is using a bandwidth-hungry application such as Bittorrent. But without the proper network training, the IT manager could spend hours trying to solve the problem.

Or worse, the problem could stop just as quickly as it came all by itself and the IT manager would have no clue what caused the issue and if it will strike again. This leaves the IT manager with little confidence in deploying and running unified communications applications on the network. Essentially, the corporation's entire communications infrastructure is riding on the network - so if the network goes down, everything goes down. No IT manager is going to risk his/her job if they don't have 100% confidence they can quickly troubleshoot and fix any unified communications problems themselves or with outside help.

When I spoke with Microsoft a few weeks ago and asked them who their target market was for Office Communications Server 2007, Microsoft told me their target was the SMB which already has Active Directory and Exchange Server deployed with an internal IT staff. The strong impression I was left with is that Microsoft is going to rely on SMB's internal IT personnel to deploy OCS 2007, as well as maintain it.

I have my doubts about this strategy. I did a soup-to-nuts installation of OCS 2007 with a Microsoft rep assisting in the installation and giving me a full demo afterwards. Although Microsoft has done a tremendous job making the installation as painless as possible, there are a lot of components to their unified communications platform. It requires schema changes to Active Directory, installation of a Certificate Server & certificates, knowledge of regular expressions for dial plans, deployment of a Mediation Server for connecting to the PSTN, some knowledge of SIP configuration, and much more. Heck, the OCS Planning Guide is 212 pages long and that's just the "planning" stage. The Admin Guide is 249 pages long! There are a whopping 14 OCS 2007 documents all-told, though you won't need all of them depending on your requirements.

Now this is just the "deployment" part. Supposing you have IT staff with the patience to read all that documentation, you still have the problem of what happens when network issues strike. Who is going to help you? Is it Microsoft? They can give you phone support and make sure OCS 2007 is configured properly, but I doubt they'll remotely troubleshoot your network for you. You're on your own.

I don't mean to pick on Microsoft in particular. It's just they've invested so much into their unified communications strategy and are positioning themselves as the leader in the space. Let me add that I am very impressed with OCS 2007, which is one damn cool unified communications application.Unified Communications - Who's Going to Help? I just think Microsoft needs to build a support channel to help SMBs with not only deploying OCS 2007, but also performing network pre-deployment testing and also post-deployment support services for when network issues arise causing the entire communications infrastructure to degrade or go down entirely.

So many ?s...
So the question arises, who is going to provide technical assistance for unified communications in the SMB market? Who is going to ensure your telephone, email, voicemail, calendaring, fax, and conferencing are going to be reliable? Without that guarantee of technical assistance, the SMB market will be slow to deploy any unified communications applications on their network.

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