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United Communications

Coming Together

Top considerations for building a unified communications infrastructure.

IN MANY WAYS, unified communications (UC) is the Holy Grail in the world of campus telecommunications; everybody wants it, yet the phrase means something different to everyone. CT tackled this subject in the recent webinar sponsored by Applied Voice & Speech Technologies, “Ten Steps for Building an Affordable, Reliable Unified Communications Infrastructure”. In it, AVST President and CEO Hardy Myers spoke with CT Senior Contributing Editor Matt Villano about the process and challenges of building UC in higher ed. Following are highlights of their exchange, which could apply to any consideration of UC—AVST or otherwise.

United Communications

WITH UNIFIED COMMUNICATIONS, a user’s e-mail inbox serves as a repository for e-mail, voicemail, faxed messages, and more, helping optimize business processes on campus.

What exactly is unified communications? The definition varies by manufacturer. For AVST, unified communications is defined as communications systems that are integrated in order to optimize business processes on campus. That means UC is an amalgamation of technologies—telephony, messaging, collaboration, and more.

At what stage are most colleges and universities in, implementing UC? We are seeing an acceleration in the replacement cycle for legacy voicemail and call processing systems (the Octels, PBXs, and Centigrams). Whatever brand of legacy system an institution might have, it likely has been in place for seven, eight, 10, 15 years. Most of this technology is in an end-of-life scenario, so customers are investing in new and more comprehensive solutions. For example, increasing mobility in today’s workforce is driving demand for unified messaging and speech-based applications— technologies users can access from anywhere.

If a school is ready to transition to UC, how can it maximize the value of its existing infrastructure? Many of AVST’s client schools, for instance, use our solution to support both a Centrex digital PBX environment and an IP telephony environment. As institutions continue to move more of their faculty and staff over to IP telephony, they tone down the digital PBX.

How important is it to evaluate your e-mail environment before tackling UC? You must understand what your alignment is, and then figure out how you can enhance it with the integration of unified messaging. We typically see higher education customers with multiple e-mail environments, and a need to change back and forth from one environment to another. Additionally, some of our larger customers have multiple e-mail systems on campus, and they wish to deliver a single solution.

Once you’ve leveraged your existing infrastructure and evaluated your e-mail environment, what’s the next step? You’ve got to plan your transition to IP telephony. Ultimately, you need to consider what we call the “Three C’s”: compliance, confidentiality, and capacity. Each school needs to figure out how critical these three issues are. The latest release of our technology, for example, includes a version of unified messaging that enables enterprises to keep messages as confidential as possible. Whether that’s more important than the other C’s is up to each customer.

As schools move closer to UC, how much do they need to think about which technologies they should keep? This is what I call the “table stakes” conversation. Meaning, schools must sit down and say, “Here’s what we have. Here’s what we need. Here’s where we want to be. Here’s how we plan to get there.” You want to be careful to roll stuff over in an integrated, thoughtful fashion, so you don’t end up with a solution that doesn’t meet your requirements going forward.

Is the legacy user interface an issue in converting to UC? It can be, but there are many solutions that have emulation capabilities. At AVST, we’ve built four of the major legacy telephone user interfaces into our product, so they can be provisioned on a user-by-user basis. So if one member of the faculty loves the Octel interface, but somebody else comes from an institution that used Centigram, they can each use what makes them comfortable. While that sounds like it might be an administrative nightmare, we’ve been able to do it—and it ends up facilitating the organization’s transition to UC.

Are two other goals of UC to enhance administration and reduce costs? Of course. You want to reduce the workload, and you want to centralize administration. You also want to allocate the administration responsibilities to different segments of the IT staff. All of those things help reduce costs.

In which UC features are schools most interested? Notification capabilities: The ability for the system to tell me that someone is trying to find me, that someone’s left me a message. That’s a big one, and it will only continue to become more important as the workforce becomes more mobile down the road.

Do schools tend to overspend when they buy into UC? It’s important to buy only what you need. You may have a certain segment of the faculty that just wants to have traditional voicemail, but you also may have other members of the faculty who are very e-mailcentric and highly mobile. In general, economics is a critical issue. There’s great technology out there for a good price, and I encourage everyone to conduct the investigation and determine the best way to get UC at a fair and reasonable price.

About the Author

Matt Villano is senior contributing editor of this publication.

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