In-Depth

Unified Communications, Step by Step

Unified communications (UC) is an all-encompassing term that describes a variety of applications. While the idea of implementing UC can seem overwhelming, the best approach is to take it bit by bit.

Voice over IP (VoIP) is the technology that launched unified communications (UC). There are a number of financial and operational benefits to using VoIP over traditional voice solutions, but the single biggest plus is that it brings voice communications onto the same IP-based network shared by the rest of the IT infrastructure. The convergence of voice and data, and the conversion of analog voice to IP-based data, are the foundations for today's UC market.

UC can improve interaction and collaboration within an organization and with outside customers, partners and vendors. However, there is no real standard that defines which components make up a UC solution -- and currently, no vendor offers an end-to-end comprehensive system.

Even if a vendor had a complete system, it would have to be packaged and sold as modular components. Most organizations already have voice and networking infrastructures in place and won't throw them out to install a brand-new unified system. Instead, IT will likely install the components that make sense and integrate them with existing voice and data networks.

State of the UC Market
Several issues are holding the UC market back. There's the lack of a clear UC standard, the lack of modular and easily integrated tools, and difficulty determining true ROI. All of these cause problems in building a solid business case. Considering the state of the economy, businesses might be even more cautious about buying into UC in 2009.

Even with all of these hitches, the UC market continues to grow and play a defining role for many organizations' IT strategies. A recent report from analyst firm Unified

Communications Strategies claims the UC market in 2007 was only worth about $200 million, but predicts that UC will grow by some 1,200 percent over the next five years -- hitting a total value of more than $2.4 billion by 2012.

With that kind of potential, it's no wonder so many hardware and software vendors are scrambling to build new UC tools. These players include such heavyweights as Cisco Systems Inc., Nortel Networks Ltd. and Microsoft.

Because none of these vendors has an end-to-end answer, IT must use a combination of VoIP infrastructure and UC components from various companies. Microsoft shops must decide which options will integrate smoothly and enhance or extend functionality instead of becoming just another headache. These shops should also look at the longer term: at how they'll maintain the combined UC applications and how well the apps will scale to meet the needs of the future.

One Bite at a Time
There are a number of components that constitute a complete UC implementation. VoIP and instant messaging provide the foundation in most cases. E-mail -- including unified messaging, which lets users get voicemails as audio file attachments -- is another common component.

Presence is the tie that binds a UC implementation. Presence should be exhibited throughout the various applications to let other users know the current status of colleagues and co-workers. Microsoft Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007 represents presence as a small circle dubbed a "jelly bean." This small circle appears next to a user's name in e-mail fields, within the Office Communicator client and within presence-aware applications such as Microsoft Word and Excel. If the jelly bean is green, it means the user is available for communication. Yellow means the user is inactive or has stepped away, and red means the user is currently busy.

The nice thing about the modularity of UC components is that these pieces can be deployed in a phased approach: You can eat the proverbial elephant one bite at a time. This modular approach also lets shops spread the cost of implementation over a longer period of time instead of replacing the entire communications infrastructure all at once. In addition, installing multiple new technologies simultaneously makes them more complicated to troubleshoot and tune; it's difficult to determine which new device or application is at the root of a problem. But a phased implementation allows time to ensure that one component is integrated and functioning properly before moving on to the next one.

How to Get There from Here
Let's take a look at a few select scenarios, and how an organization can leverage an existing investment in hardware and software to incorporate UC components. We'll analyze an organization with Microsoft Exchange in place; another that has a foundation of Microsoft UC technologies -- primarily Microsoft Exchange and Microsoft OCS -- but has not yet incorporated VoIP; and a third that has a VoIP communications system but no UC applications to integrate with it.

Building on Exchange
Let's start with the Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 shop. This particular organization does not have an extensive network infrastructure. The desktops use Microsoft Outlook as the client software for e-mail, contacts and calendar scheduling, but the phone system is a traditional analog "plain old telephone service." How can this shop use the hardware and software it already has and adopt a UC platform at the same time?

This organization can start by adding the Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 Unified Messaging role to the Exchange server. Unified Messaging combines all messaging types into a single storage space. Rather than having to check e-mail in one place and voicemail in another, and pick up faxes in a third, all these message types are delivered to the Exchange inbox.

Combined with Outlook Web Access or Exchange ActiveSync delivery to mobile devices, Unified Messaging lets users retrieve voicemails and faxes from any computer connected to the Web, or from any e-mail-capable mobile device. Plus, Exchange Server 2007 with Unified Messaging provides Outlook Voice Access (OVA). OVA is an interactive voice response system that works with Outlook. Users can listen to their e-mails, check calendars and reschedule appointments using any phone in the world.

Measure Twice; Cut Once
There's an old adage: Measure twice; cut once. It applies not only to making furniture but also to UC implementations: Plan carefully before "cutting" so you don't mess it up and have to start all over.
There are a too many variables for migrating to Unified Messaging to be able to cover them all in a single article. But regardless of the existing hardware and software in place, how many users are involved and how many sites the organization has, there are some basic principles behind every successful migration.

To begin with, the plan should have the big picture or ultimate goal in mind. It's always a good idea to start with a small sampling of users for a pilot test rather than just diving into the deep end, especially when you're dealing with something that could potentially affect all communications.

The pilot group should be representative of the organization. In other words, there should be members of the pilot group from various departments throughout the company to make sure that the test encompasses as many of the day-to-day functions and processes that are necessary to conduct business as possible. Feedback should be collected from the pilot group, and modifications made to the overall plan and architecture to address any serious concerns that are discovered.

However, assuming that any initial pilot test is successful, the pilot implementation should not have to be replaced. It should be built to expand the implementation to fit the needs of the organization rather than just the pilot group. But, in order to be able to do that, the sites, domain architecture, network architecture and other factors must be considered as a part of the initial pilot test as well.

The Unified Messaging Role
Before installing the Unified Messaging role, it's a good idea to upgrade Exchange Server 2007 to Service Pack 1 (SP1) if it isn't already upgraded. SP1 adds a number of new features and capabilities to Exchange Server 2007, many of which expand the functionality of Unified Messaging.

Once Exchange Server 2007 is upgraded to SP1, you can use the Exchange Management Shell to check your Exchange Server 2007 server to see which roles are active, or whether or not the Unified Messaging role is already present. Type the following to display the server's roles:

c:\ Exchange> get-exchangeserver <servername> | FL

You can operate multiple roles on the same server as long as the physical server has the processing power, memory, storage space and other resources to manage the load.

To add the Unified Messaging role to an existing Exchange Server 2007 system, you should navigate to the bin directory of the Microsoft Exchange installation -- typically found at %programfiles%\Microsoft\Exchange Server -- and run Setup.cmd from a command prompt. You can also initiate modification through the control panel. For more detailed instructions, see the Microsoft TechNet article, "How to Modify an Exchange Installation," here.

Adding Voice to UC
Let's look at another organization that has the Microsoft UC components implemented as a foundation. It's already using Microsoft Exchange Server for messaging and OCS for instant messaging, online conferencing and presence.

However, this shop's existing voice system, an old-fashioned analog PBX, is not integrated into the Microsoft UC infrastructure. In order to connect the analog PBX to the existing environment, the organization must deploy an OCS 2007 Mediation Server and install an analog gateway that's certified to work with OCS. For more information, see the TechNet article, "Microsoft Unified Communications Open Interoperability Program," here.

Mediating Between Protocols
The Microsoft OCS 2007 Mediation Server role is designed to mediate between the various voice and VoIP protocols used by PBX and IP PBX platforms and Microsoft OCS. The Mediation Server is able to convert public switched telephone networks, and time division multiplexed and session-initiation protocol (SIP) protocols from the gateway into the SIP over mutual transport layer service protocol that OCS 2007 uses.

There are some additional considerations to keep in mind when integrating analog voice with the existing Microsoft UC environment. First, the number of direct inbound dial numbers that can be assigned in OCS 2007 will be limited by the number of actual analog lines coming from the PBX. Caller ID info will not be communicated in most cases, meaning that neither the called nor calling party information will be transmitted to OCS.

There are other issues between OCS and the use of the available analog lines. It may not be possible to designate which analog line should be used for which outbound calls. This can impact inbound calls, in that calls coming in to a designated analog line may ring busy to the caller even when the individual being called is available. Some gateways have additional functionality to accommodate these issues.

Taking these issues into consideration, though, adding the Mediation Server and an appropriate analog gateway to the existing Microsoft UC environment allows this organization to incorporate voice into its UC and expand its UC functionality.

Existing VoIP and UC
For the third scenario, we'll take a look at an organization that has an existing VoIP environment for its voice communications but lacks the other components of UC.

The approach for this organization is largely a matter of business needs and personal preference. To begin with, the organization should look at the available UC components and decide which ones it ultimately wants to have in place. IT professionals should look at what the various UC components have to offer and how they'll improve efficiency or impact business processes.

The organization most likely has a solution in place for e-mail, even if it's not Microsoft Exchange or Outlook. It could take the approach of installing Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 and Unified Messaging to integrate with its current VoIP infrastructure.

However, because this organization already has a functional e-mail system, it might gain more benefit from starting with Microsoft OCS 2007. OCS 2007 will provide instant messaging capabilities and presence. If it's integrated with the VoIP infrastructure, users will also be able to make and receive phone calls from their computers using Microsoft Office Communicator.

Regardless of the approach the organization chooses to take, the advantage is that it can benefit from the modularity of UC and implement UC one step at a time. Whichever component it elects to start with, the organization can take the time to integrate it and ensure it's running smoothly before moving on to the next one. This organization can eat the elephant one bite at a time, spread out the investment in new technology and adopt UC at a comfortable pace that allows IT personnel and users both to tackle the learning curve. This ensures that UC enhances -- rather than hinders -- business productivity.

About the Author

Tony Bradley, CISSP, Microsoft MVP, is the founder and president of s3kur3.com, providing expertise, training and written content in the areas of information technology and security and unified communications. Bradley has worked in information security since 2002, driving security policies and technologies for endpoint security and incident response for Fortune 500 companies.

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