Unified Communications (UC)
UC stands for unified communications. It describes a framework or standard that incorporates various components such as software, hardware, and services to enhance business communication and to extend the way that communication devices and types of data can be exchanged.
At its most basic, UC refers to a phone system that integrates multiple communication types in an organization.
The modern definition of UC refers to numerous hardware and software components that enable communication. UC includes components that enable instant messaging (IM), IP telephony, audio and video convergence, unified messaging (integrated email, SMS, fax, and voice mail), location-independent collaboration, user mobility, call control, and information sharing. UC products and services typically use specialized communication network components.
UC systems are designed to integrate with supporting business applications and workflows in an organization’s communication ecosystem. Supporting business applications include customer relationship management (CRM) applications, intranets, and cloud collaboration tools.
Some of the goals of UC are to enhance users’ communication experience, improve collaboration, increase productivity, reduce communication-related costs like travel to meetings, reduce hardware costs, and support remote workers.
UC systems include a wide range of hardware and software components and communication-related technologies. Below are some basic definitions for acronyms that are commonly used regarding UC systems.
- Unified communication as a service (UCaaS) - A cloud-based service that enables the integration of multiple communication channels and media types – particularly the use of voice and video – through a single cloud provider.
- Computer Information System Company (Cisco) – An American technology company that develops, manufactures, and sells networking hardware, software, and other high-technology services and products. According to its website, Cisco cloud calling accounts for over 60 percent of the UC market share. Cloud calling – also known as cloud telephony – refers to a UCaaS platform that offers voice services through a third party. Cisco is one of the leading providers of UCaaS solutions.
- Private branch exchange (PBX) – A business phone system that routes calls. A PBX (historically known as a switchboard) reduces the cost of having multiple phone lines.
- Interactive voice response (IVR) – Automated, pre-recorded messages that allow people to access information at a company without having to speak to a human. IVR uses touch-tone keypad selections or voice recognition.
- Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) – Enables the transmission of phone calls over the internet instead of traditional landlines. UC systems are run over converged networks that can run voice and video as well as traditional applications on a single network.
- WebRTC – Free, open-source standard that allows web browsers and applications to enable real-time communication (RTC) in their services via an API. For example, Cisco uses WebRTC for audio and video communications.
- Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) – A standard used to initiate and complete real-time voice and video messages.
- Public switched telephone network (PSTN) – The formal name for a landline or traditional circuit-switched telephone network.
- Integrated Services Router (ISR) – Cisco network routers that are designed to support VoIP and other specialist network components, usually for small and medium-sized businesses. Cisco's Aggregation Services Router (ASR) is the equivalent for enterprise systems. These routers are designed to route specific types of data like voice and video and include complementary data protection features.
- Quality of Service (QoS) – A suite of tools that are used in networking to enable reliable, high-quality communications, particularly for voice and video. QoS manages network resources by setting priorities for different types of data and mitigates poor quality caused by latency, bandwidth bottlenecks, packet loss, and jitter, which are packet displacements that result in garbled transmissions.
Pre-1980, businesses used PBXs to communicate with customers. In the 1980s, voice mail systems with IVR features were introduced, followed by a proliferation of PCs and cell phones and the increased use of instant messaging and email.
The growth of UC systems in organizations reflected the popularity of smartphones at home and at work. Smartphones are basically small UC ecosystems. Standard smartphone features usually include email, a browser, the ability to download social and business networking applications, a built-in contact management system, robust data security, complete mobility, call control, unified messaging, and basic presence, for example being able to see if someone is online, whether a message has been delivered, and whether a message has been read.
According to Wikipedia, the term UC arose in the mid-1990s, when messaging and real-time communications began to combine. One technology that triggered this evolution was IBM’s unified messaging system, POET. POET enabled IBM employers to communicate using one phone number for voicemail, fax, paging, etc.
A drawback for POET and similar services was a reliance on local phone companies. Privatization and the deployment of IP networks allowed companies to limit their reliance on phone companies and to start using VoIP instead.
The Unified Communications Interoperability Forum (UCIF), formed in 2010, was an independent, non-profit forum that managed UC standards, protocols, frameworks, interoperability profiles, and best practices. The original founding alliances included HP, Juniper Networks, Logitech, Microsoft, and Polycom.
The UCIF is now part of the International Multimedia Telecommunications Consortium (IMTC), which became part of the Metro Ethernet Forum (MEF) in 2017. The MEF is a global industry forum for network and cloud providers whose mission it is to establish certified services that empower the digital transformation of enterprises.
UC is designed to enhance a users’ experience across multiple communications channels and media types. Some examples of UC include:
- Two or more people talking on the phone and simultaneously viewing the same email, web page, or document in their browsers.
- Someone making a call that goes to voice mail, with the message sender deciding to transmit their message via email instead.
- Someone receiving an email and responding by calling the message sender in reply instead of replying via email.
- The use of application widgets on a user’s computer or smart device.
- Fixed phone lines that allow users to access concierge services in a hotel without dialing a specific number.
- In task management systems, notifications about a query or problem that automatically inform people who may be able to resolve a particular issue.
- Automatic changes in presence status, for example when someone leaves a chat or other online application.
- Click-to-call, which is the ability to make a call by clicking on a person’s or organization’s name on a device without having to know their number.
- Digital versions of traditional data sharing methods, like interactive, digital whiteboards.
- Fixed-mobile convergence, which is the ability of telecommunications companies to allow their subscribers to use both fixed line and mobile networks with the same number.
- UC digital signage, which is used in marketing and retail environments to share and gather content from multiple sources. Digital signage uses technologies like touch and infrared to provide consumers with interactive UXs when shopping. Digital signage allows businesses to gather information about sales by using technologies for shopper feedback like beacons and RFID, and analytic software.
UC architecture layers
A typical UC solution consists of four layers:
- Endpoints – IP phones or video software
- Applications – Call centers, emergency responders, or online meeting interfaces
- Call control – Cisco Unified Communications Manager (CUCM), RingCentral Office, or MiCloud Connect
- Infrastructure – Voice-enabled gateways and routers, and administration and security applications
UC elements like video conferencing, fax-to-email capability, and IM are all popular components of a UC solution but they are not necessarily prerequisites for one.
An organization will usually focus on the elements that are required by their business, for example a call center that employs a fully-remote workforce will focus on aspects like call control, whereas a retail business with physical branches scattered around the world will focus on business process integration.
A UC system is made up of backend and frontend components. UC backend components include one or more UC servers, an IP-based network, VoIP-enabled devices, business communication gateways called session border controllers (SBCs), and a multipoint control unit (MCU), which is a video transcoding server. UC frontend components include voice, text, and video applications, management and administration tools, and supporting business integration tools for online collaboration and interaction.
The following elements describe the main features that are typically available in UC systems:
- IP-based infrastructure
- Digital convergence
- Business process integration
- Channel management
- Unified messaging
- Advanced notification
- Video conferencing
- Call control
As PBX systems were historically forerunners of UC systems, some PBX vendors claim a UC solution must include some form of PBX. PBX has been replaced by VoIP to a large extent but many UC systems still incorporate them in their communications networks.
Software-based IP telephony, which is driven by VoIP technology, enables the delivery of multimedia communications over IP networks like the internet. VoIP enables the convergence of data and voice networks. It is the backbone of UC and one of its highest costs. For example, organizations that implement a UC platform in order to save travel costs by using teleconferencing instead may find fewer cost savings than they predicted as bandwidth can be costly.
An IP-based infrastructure typically makes up the foundation of a UC system. It is the physical layer that enables the transmission of data across a UC system. Components in the IP-based infrastructure include servers, routers, switches, and user devices. For example, a typical UC system would be configured to manage softphones and traditional landlines.
A major feature of UC systems is digital convergence. Digital convergence is the ability to view multimedia content on different devices. It is enabled by content digitization – for example video, music, text, and voice – and the development of multiple connection methods on individual devices. An example of digital convergence is streaming a movie on your internet-connected home theater system. In the workplace, digital convergence describes how users in different locations using different devices may share files, co-edit documents, and have multi-person meetings.
UC systems promote mobility, allowing users to stay connected wherever they are and to access a business network remotely, globally, and in any time zone.
Business process integration allows users to collaborate across different applications, for example when they use online meeting applications to chat, wish to upload and edit files in real time, make use of online APIs like weather reporting and news feeds, and when they share desktop views.
Channel management in UC systems refers to message handling, for example call diversion or the conversion to speech to text. For efficient channel management, UC software and devices should be configured to handle different types of media such as audio and video. Application call control allows users to configure and customize call, message, and contact settings, and enables custom channel management.
Unified messaging means that people can use different communication modes in a single application. For example, in a communication application like Slack or Skype, users may create focus groups, message other users, call people directly with or without video, or collaborate through integrated applications like supported CMSs.
Advanced notifications allow users to send messages in different formats via messaging platforms, and send text, video, or audio messages even to users who are not online.
Video conferencing enables users to converse from different locations, both for business meetings and socially.
Legacy support allows users to communicate with legacy services like fax. Faxes may be received by an application and then rerouted as an email attachment to another device.
Presence indicates whether a user is available to communicate or not, for example Active, Do Not Disturb, or Out of Office. This is a core feature of most business messaging, calendar, and meetings apps. Presence improves productivity and the efficient use of available resources by enabling task scheduling and time management.
Types of UC
Cloud, on-premise, and hybrid are the three types of UC systems. Most businesses use UC software from external providers like Microsoft Teams, Amazon WorkSpaces, and Cisco WebEx.
With on-premise solutions, all hardware and software is stored and managed in-house, although the software itself is usually a custom solution designed by an external provider.
Cloud solutions are hosted by a provider and paid for via a subscription.
A hybrid solution allows a business to connect to selected cloud-based services from selected on-premises applications.
One of the drivers for organizations to adopt UC was the shift to a digital knowledge economy. There is a need to increase productivity, improve customer relationships, support business decision making, and increase innovation. To achieve these goals, there was a need for increased connectivity between people, disparate devices, and a myriad of communication systems and applications.
UC was designed to reduce interaction overload, which is a result of the increasing number of devices and applications that people need to use in the workplace to communicate with each other. Interaction overload describes the disruption of knowledge workers' concentration when they need to communicate while busy with knowledge-intensive tasks.
Another driver for the adoption of modern UC has been digital transformation and the rise of the digital workforce. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, this trend has been growing, with more people relying on virtual communications for work, at home and leisure, and for shopping, banking, and telehealth.
IP-based infrastructures have replaced legacy telephone structures and have driven the development of cost-effective communication services like instant messaging.
While VoIP simply enables voice services, UCaaS incorporates other business applications and multi-channel capabilities over an IP network. A UCaaS platform is a communication hub that allows organizations to deploy their UC solutions to the cloud. By this definition, UC is the underlying concept of integrated communications over the internet.
Many UC solutions offered by vendors are possibly better described as UCaaS platforms. Some popular UCaaS platforms include Microsoft Skype for Business, Google Hangouts, Cisco Unified Communications Manager, Avaya Aura Platform, Zoho Cliq, Zoom, Blink, Cisco Jabber, Polymail, and Livestorm. Open source UC software solutions include Druid, Elastix, and Bitrix.
UC helps businesses to communicate and collaborate more effectively, internally and with consumers. The ability to quickly adopt new communication technologies and to implement fast, reliable, and media-rich communication networks – for example by creating backup networks and alternative communication channels – may give companies a competitive edge.
The reduction of communication latency, caused by too many communication options and information overload, increases productivity and encourages workers’ adoption of new communication technology. Communication latency can be reduced by having access to multiple communication channels through one interface, for example being able to upload documents, video chat, send meeting invitations, and collaborate on a document through shared applications.
UC systems reduce silos across departments and global divisions.
Presence information enhances the ability for individuals and organizations to stay in touch in the short term and create realistic long-term project plans. Examples of presence information are status messages indicating an individuals’ availability in Google Chat and access to people’s Google Calendar.
Cloud computing allows the remote handling of communication data such as message content, and audio, text, and video files. Cloud computing eliminates some administration, storage, and security headaches for in-house teams because information is stored centrally and managed via an interface. For example, administrators may add and remove users wherever they are in the world, and remotely install or remove applications.
UC enables more efficient communication with remote workers.
One of the main failures of UC is Quality of Experience (QoE). Surveys suggest that the biggest complaint that users have about the UC experience is poor video and/or audio quality. IT professionals are often unable to resolve these issues, resulting in a negative impact on a company’s ROI.
A UC solution can be costly to implement as there are multiple hardware and software components to integrate, and additional costs to train users and to encourage the adoption of new processes. In addition, organizations may be locked into contracts that are difficult to break with vendors for current services.
Devices in a UC solution – for example smartphones, BYOD, and computers that run different operating systems – may create fragmentation issues. This can create additional work for administrators and increase the risk of security breaches.
Sometimes, UC solutions can fail if senders and recipients misunderstand or misinterpret messages. UC solutions enable the transmission of messages across different channels but they do not guarantee that these messages will provide tangible value to an organization.
Many users do not make efficient use of costly equipment or software features designed to increase productivity and operational efficiency. Neglecting user training about new UC features means organizations may not realize real benefits from costly UC investments.
Communication latency may be increased when there are too many communication options, with many companies having a preferred collaboration platform, online meeting venue, or cloud storage location.
Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) is a communication protocol that contributes to managing multimedia communication. SIP initiates and ends calls, for example during a video conference or when using a chat application. Because SIP connections are not encrypted, they can be hacked.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is increasingly used in UC systems to power chatbots and artificial voice assistants at call centers and support desks. AI in UC is used to manage large amounts of structured and unstructured data, and to provide analytic capabilities over different channels such as social media platforms.
While UC focuses on knowledge sharing, unified communications & collaboration (UCC) is an evolving communications and collaboration model based on UC. UCC focuses on the collaboration aspect of UC, for example the quality of real-time communication and a burgeoning demand for high-definition (HD) video. The goal of UCC is to reduce communication response times and to increase the speed with which businesses and rapid-response organizations can make time-critical decisions.
Many organizations use global SIP trunking to cut costs and to simplify networks communications. Global SIP trunking is a suite of protocols that connects private telephone systems (IP PBXs) to the international public switched telephone network (PSTN). It allows voice calls as an application on an IP network. VoIP and SIP are not the same thing. SIP is used to enable multimedia communication, like VoIP, over the internet.
Other UC trends in the workplace include virtual backgrounds, digital whiteboards, and the rise of not only customer experience (CX) but also employee experience (EX), which can improve worker productivity and reduce workplace stress.
Beyond a network of users that are able to communicate across the globe, seemingly effortlessly, a UC system is complex. It requires consistent monitoring because of its wide spread over different devices, networks, and locations. Some examples of UC components that require monitoring, ideally through a single interface at an organization’s data center, include physical sensors, network devices, data centers, applications, and user devices.
A major challenge to UC that directly affects users is the quality, stability, and security of voice calls. Surveys show that poor call quality and bad network connections in meetings lowers productivity and morale, and costs money in terms of wasted time.
For example, one of the biggest challenges in VoIP and video conferencing is managing duplicate packets that can impair audio quality. A duplicate packet can cause an echo or noise in the connection. The error can be mitigated by duplicate packet monitoring. Other examples of VoIP and connection errors include network jitter and bandwidth bottlenecks.
Poor quality calls and unstable network connections can be reduced by professional VoIP monitoring, a growing trend for businesses that need to maintain quality voice and video communication standards.
- https://www.nextiva.com/blog/what-is-pstn.html (good, simple desc)