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Tangle of cables attached to a telegraph pole

Unified communications (UC) is both complicated and boring. The goal is to help companies, from SMBs to global conglomerates, to increase productivity.

At its most basic, UC is the bringing together of as many forms of business communication as possible to create a single, easily accessible user experience. Most organisations embrace UC if they can consume it as a service.

In the past decade mobile phone providers and smartphone manufacturers have provided an excellent UC offering for the consumer space, setting the bar for enterprise UC quite high.

Enterprise communications, however, are far more complex than consumer communications. Even the internal phone system for most corporations is more complicated.

Typically, individuals have extensions, the ability to call or page one another, to page entire departments or buildings, transfer calls, hold conferences or meetings, hold or park calls and more.

In today's world, all of those enterprise phone features need to be coordinated across multiple sites, mobile users, teleworking users and contractors. Different employees need different levels of privilege, and individual sites or campuses might be broken into smaller divisions and groupings within the phone system.

The UC portion of the equation wants to take the phone system and hook it up to the email server so that users can see voicemails in their email and play them with a simple click of the mouse or tap of the smartphone. UC incorporates instant messaging so that it is easy to see who is online, who is in a meeting and so forth.

UC instant messaging provides the ability to send text messages, and typically also allows for impromptu voice and video calls. Somewhere in there calendars get integrated so that it becomes easy to see not only what someone is doing but what they are scheduled to do and find a slot in their day where you might grab some of their time.

Most companies run all parts of these communications systems separately. By joining these disparate systems up UC promises to make it easier to communicate, easier to see what people are up to so you don't interrupt them, and easier to (politely) brush someone off if you are busy.

Bed of thorns

All of this sounds great. So why do so few companies actually implement any integration?

The truth is that UC is a pain to set up, and even more of a pain to administer. Often it is impossible simply to join together existing systems. It can take large enterprises years to roll out an upgrade, which means migration to something new. But to what?

Basic setup of a clean UC install can range from hours to days, but pulling all the information out of the existing communications systems and making sure that they work properly in the new ones can takes months.

Cutting over from the old to the new is a pain, and often telcos aren't exactly keen on you trying to integrate any of your on-site stuff with their mobile phones. Anyone who is trying UC that involves multiple mobile providers across multiple jurisdictions will inevitably run into roadblocks.

The telco portion of the equation is the one that a lot of IT types tend to forget about

The telco portion of the equation is the one that a lot of IT types tend to forget about. A UC setup that works fine in the lab can become a nightmare in the field.

There are plenty of places in the world that have terrible internet access, worse phones and so little government regulation that telcos are allowed to discriminate against communications traffic they don't provide directly.

A workable UC deployment for any but the smallest companies requires not merely technical skill but skill at the negotiating table. This is where unified communication as a service (UCaaS) comes in.

The technical side of UC is a pain. The political side of UC is doubly so. It is highly unlikely that any organisation's internal IT team has the time – or the experience – to handle both issues. So why bother?

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