Just like being there

The UC market is finally taking off. Tim Kridel profiles two installations and the lessons learned from them.

Unified communications (UC) is supposed to make it easier for enterprises to communicate and collaborate, including with external business partners. So far, that’s been the case at Belgacom Group, whose initial experiences are worth studying for insights into what makes for a smooth, successful UC rollout.

Headquartered in Brussels, Belgacom Group includes the telco Belgacom, the mobile operator Proximus and an information and communications technology (ICT) unit. Like many enterprises, Belgacom Group is increasingly outsourcing work to partners in other countries – in this case, to an Indian firm. 

Belgacom saw UC as a way to streamline the process of hiring and then working with consultants half a world away. That hope turned out to be reality during the UC pilot project, which Belgacom implemented in conjunction with Hewlett-Packard. 
“One of the pilot users said that finally you can put a face on a name,” says Guy Brusselmans, a senior IT architect in Belgacom’s service delivery division. “For example, the intake process of new hires in India is rather hard if you have only a phone to do job interviews, especially when English is not the same everywhere.”

Distance learning

After more than a decade of generating more hype than real-world deployments, UC finally seems to be getting traction among enterprises, governments and other professional users. 
In 2009, vendors shipped about 15.4 million UC-ready products – such as Microsoft’s Office Communications Server – according to Frost & Sullivan. By 2015, the analyst firm forecasts shipments to hit between 25 million and 30 million UC products. Measured in terms of users, Frost & Sullivan expects the market to grow from 2.1 million to 50 million over that period.
Why? One reason is because many enterprises already have deployed OCS and other infrastructure upon which AV integrators then can layer videoconferencing and other platforms that enable UC services. (For more details about what UC encompasses and what integrators are seeing, check out “A Big, Mixed Bag” in the December issue of InAVate, available at www.inavateonthenet.net.)

“We already had Office Communicator, merely for chat and presence in parts of the organisation," Brusselmans says. "We decided to build on that to further develop the videoconferencing aspects and further deploy the rest of the organisation.”

Another market driver is that UC often has a quantifiable return on investment (RoI). For some users, that RoI includes the savings from allowing virtual but lifelike collaboration that otherwise would require thousands of Euros per employee in airfare and hotels. In that regard, UC complements Belgacom’s goal of reducing its carbon emissions 70 percent by 2020.

Belgacom also saw UC partly as a way to streamline the process of getting the India-based consultants trained faster and more efficiently. Before the UC pilot project, it typically took eight weeks from the time a group of new consultants was interviewed to when they arrived in Belgium to begin training.

UC provided Belgacom with new options for remote training, as well as similar education programs for internal staff. For example, since the pilot project concluded, Belgacom has started testing UC for use with its internal Learning Academy. Those tests spanned a variety of situations, including lectures, a teacher conducting a Q&A session and remote coaching. 
“The feedback was very positive,” Brusselmans says. “It’s likely that we’ll use [Microsoft Office] Live Meeting as a learning tool, as well.”

Quality counts

One thing that Belgacom learned along the way was that the better the connection, the better the UC user experience, especially when video is involved. The catch is that Belgacom’s network doesn’t reach all the way to India, putting part of the UC traffic’s journey out of the company’s control.

“The quality of the connection is important,” Brusselmans says. “We first tried [routing] over the Internet because we had put the OCS [2007 R2] infrastructure in the ‘DMZ’ so you can reach it from the outside.

“But when you go over the Internet, you don’t have control over latency, and in some cases, that disturbed the communication, especially from India, where some of our partners didn’t have sufficient bandwidth or short latency connection.” 

For those and other far-flung partners, Belgacom now provides a virtual private network (VPN) tunnel into Belgacom’s network to mitigate latency and other gremlins that affect quality of service. 

Lessons learned

Belgacom went into its UC pilot project hoping to answer several questions:
"One was how does it behave when working with offshore partners?" Brusselmans says. "How do they access our infrastructure internally? [What is] the difficulty of setting it up in a secure way? 

"The second aspect was, internally, what does it do for the average user? How do we position it from a service viewpoint? Are we going to pre-install it in meeting rooms, for example? Do we need to equip all of the desktops with Web cams and headsets? What kind of peripherals do we need?” 

Security was another obvious concern. “It took quite some time [to design]," Brusselmans says. "We spent two to three months to discuss with HP and our security engineers so that everybody was satisfied with the solution on paper before we started implementing. 
"All of those security aspects are more or less hidden from our end users. What they perceive is a transparent solution.”

For example, Belgacom created a set of policies and procedures that determine who can collaborate with whom — and how. 

“If someone in our business units wants a new [external] company to federate with our OCS infrastructure, they can fill in a very simple form and request federation,” Brusselmans says.
Belgacom also created three types of user profiles. Some can use UC for internal communications, but they can’t organise meetings or use UC to communicate with people outside of the company. The next level adds those abilities but doesn't include using UC to communicate with external, anonymous users. The highest level adds that ability.

Because UC platforms support such a wide range of services — from basic chat through videoconferencing — it's easy for new users to feel overwhelmed. That was another lesson that Belgacom learned from its pilot project — and an area where integrators could add value by providing training and support.

"Documentation is key for users to get started," Brusselmans says. "We made some custom one-pagers for how they can request a profile and how they can get the software, that kind of stuff. That’s very helpful.

"For meeting organisers, Live Meeting can be a bit overwhelming when you start using it the first time. We have put an e-learning [guide] in our catalogue about how to organise Live Meeting and how make it successful.” 

Buoyed by the success of its pilot project, Belgacom currently is expanding UC to more areas of its business and its roughly 17,000 employees, with the goal of having everything completed by the end of this year. (Bringing videoconferencing to 17,000 employees also highlights how and why the UC market is growing.)

For example, Belgacom is standardising all of its communications on the session initiation protocol (SIP) standard, which makes it easier for disparate systems and different vendors’ products to inter-operate. And in fall 2010, the company started showing vice president and director-level staff what UC enables and how it could be positioned.

“At different locations in the organisation, management is starting to use it for their meetings and for themselves,” Brusselmans says.

“We’ll probably call it ‘the new workplace’ or something like that. So it will be a global communication, with a strong aspect on working anywhere and having videoconferencing available."

UC fit for a king

Sometimes interaction and collaboration can be a matter of life and death. Case in point: a unified communications (UC) system linking King’s College London, whose five campuses include Guy’s Hospital and its Biomedical Research Centre.

To enhance its training of the current and next generations of physicians, King’s decided to upgrade its conferencing capabilities, which are a key piece of its Biomedical Forum. Hosted at Guy’s, the videoconferencing feeds are streamed out to a variety of facilities, including St. Thomas Hospital and Karolinska Stockholm. Upgrading its conferencing abilities also was part of the Biomedical Forum’s expansion outside of the U.K.

In May 2010, King’s began working with Reflex, which had only two weeks to hammer out several upgrades. One was the addition of Sony EVI-HD1 HD cameras that support videoconferences over a bridge that Reflex had installed in a previous project. 
Another upgrade gives presenters the ability to queue up and show PowerPoint slides, DVD content and camera feeds before participants see them. That design avoids wasteful breaks to switch between the different types.

“Reflex have designed a solution that gives Guy’s the flexibility to use any software for presenting and multiple media,” says Mike Allinson, Reflex’s project manager. “Due to the robustness of the technology, all sites linked on the forum can have question and answer sessions where all sites can simultaneously respond to each other.”

The upgrades included a variety of Tandberg products, such as the C60 Integrator Package and Video Communication Server Expressway, as well as Extron gear. Reflex programmers wrote all of the Crestron programs.

“It proved challenging initially to get HD signals from the front camera to the back [of the venue] and the HD signals back to the lectern,” Allinson says. “This was overcome by putting in an Extron SDI converter (serial digital converter) and Extron Cat 5 distribution equipment to covert the HD signals back to the presenter and monitor.”

So far, feedback from King’s staff has been positive, particularly in terms of ease of use and flexibility.

“The requirements for this particular venue were challenging because of the degree of technical flexibility and control needed for some events, while also remaining intuitive for non-technical users in day-to-day academic use,” says Paul Layland, King’s IT/AV programme manager. “The end product is an elegant, robust, utterly dependable and predictable solution that does what we wanted it to.”

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