The Challenge of Unified Communications

Who in their right mind would contemplate designing and deploying a unified communications solution in such a tough economic climate? As Lawrence Byrd, Director of Unified Communications Architecture at Avaya, explains, the time is actually ripe to do so, since deployment of the right UC solution can have a positive impact on the bottom line.

Redmond: Let's talk about unified communications adoption, especially in these tough economic times. Avaya is a big player in the UC market. I guess, first, let's talk about Avaya's role and then we can talk about adoption rates.
Lawrence Byrd: Avaya is a leader in real-time communications. We are the descendants of AT&T and Lucent. And now Avaya, we sell enterprise communications to some millions of customers worldwide. We're focused on the enterprise. We serve enterprise communications, from the smallest to the largest, and we sell unified communications of all sorts and contact center solutions to help customers with their relationships with their customers. Avaya is a Gold Partner with Microsoft and we integrate very strongly, as we'll talk about, with Microsoft's solutions.

Can you give us an idea how much of Avaya's business is unified communications?
A good part of it. Those are our businesses and we see them interrelated, contact center and unified communications, backed up by services where we come in and help customers. And whether it's core telephony, or whether it's UC, or whether it's contact centers above that, we don't break them out, per se.

It's an all enterprise play, right? There's no small to medium-sized business....
No, by enterprise, we mean all levels of business. We have a strong business in the small and medium-sized enterprise. Every time I walk into a store, I can always recognize a classic AT&T phone that is an Avaya phone now. We sell to small and medium-sized business through channels worldwide, and from the small and medium-sized enterprise all the way up to the mid and large enterprise.

Let's talk about unified communication adoption and how economic factors might be hobbling it a little bit. Especially with some reports about IT spending being lower. At the beginning of this year, some reports had IT spending being steady, but some of the latest reports show IT spending going down. Can you tell me how the economy is making it a bit of a challenge to be selling UC solutions?

The economic conditions, you know, they're kind of everything. They're not a small matter, they're everything. They change the way companies are thinking and what companies are focused on right now is, obviously, cost saving. They're looking at solutions that really do realize immediate cost savings. They're looking at truly understanding the ROI, more so than ever before, and looking at ROI that can occur rapidly within the budget year.

When we look at unified communications, we've always taken what we call sort of a role-based approach. The "throw everything at everybody, everybody should have everything" kind of approach has always been difficult to drive an ROI on. So, in these economic times, that's off the table.

Companies are looking at different roles, and people, and where is it that they should be applying unified communications. If it's a mobile sales force, then there's an emphasis within those customers on mobility. Can I get my mobile phone to be my office phone? Can I have it all integrated? And is that going to empower people and is it also going to save money? Can I field more calls into my network? Can I reduce mobile charges? Are there other ways of saving money?

We're seeing an increase in teleworking as companies close small offices. And for people who can really work at home, I can use their office space, I can start to have that sort of "hotelling." It's what I do -- I don't actually have a physical space in the office. Suddenly, you have browser clients, you have desktop integration, you often have phones at home. Those kinds of things are important.

Web and video conferencing is a way of bringing people together quickly, but also saving money. Companies look at all the money they're spending on external services and want to bring it all in house and save money. We often see with audio conferencing, and with Web and audio even better, less than six months payback on that kind of thing.

Then, where you have travel, where you have collaboration needs, if you can reduce that travel with video, that becomes important.

All of these are focused approaches, and this is something we might come in and help customers with. We have consulting practices to sort of look at this and that let's them understand the roles and individuals within your company, let's understand who's most important to you, and then let's focus a UC initiative. If you're not doing that, then it becomes very difficult to justify UC today because people are looking to save money and they're looking for immediate ROI. Any project has to meet those needs.

Does unified communications, as far as an initiative in some companies, does it float near the top of other competing and money-saving initiatives, like virtualization?
I think you have to look at different parts of the business. Once again, the economy changes the discussion means technology is not uppermost in the minds of senior executives' line of business. The line-of-business executives are concerned about how do I retain customers in these times; how do I avoid the fact that I have less people to serve my customers? If I'm not careful, I'm in a downward spiral, where I lose customers and I can afford less people. How do I deal with that? So, how do I increase customer service with less people then becomes a productivity issue that may become a UC issue. Those are senior-level concerns.

Then the IT department, trying to serve those demands, are in a kind of bind, right? Which is, they've been told to considerably save money and substantial percentages of further savings have got to be squeezed out of their communications, squeezed out of their IT budget. The line of business execs are saying I've got to be more flexible, I've got to be more agile -- there are certain applications I must have. IT is faced with this dilemma of how to resolve that.

We come in and talk about the architecture that underlies unified communications. It has to deliver on that paradox: How do you save money and empower people and put a foundation to the future?

Avaya and Microsoft, how do they come together to address some of those business challenges?
Avaya and Microsoft have worked together for a long time. We've worked with Microsoft for well into our second decade. We've been investing in all kinds of integration. We were the first providers of unified messaging integrating with Exchange. We've integrated in all sorts of ways on the desktop with Microsoft Outlook. We integrate with SharePoint, with Live Meeting and Active Directory. Obviously, we're working closely with Office Communications Server. I'm even pointing and clicking on the screen here in Office Communicator and my Avaya communicators are responding.

We have a very comprehensive set of integration to give flexibility. What customers are looking for in unified communications is two-fold. The goal is a seamless experience. It has to be easier as a user to get my work done. Things are happening in Outlook and Exchange on the screen, things that I'm doing in SharePoint, all of the real-time communications that I have installed and represented on my phone and also on my screen, how do those work together in a seamless and easy way? That's the work that we're doing that allows the companies to meet the objectives we talked about earlier. How do I make my people more productive and serve my customers. And how do I reduce my overhead and costs and where can I do that, together? By combining Microsoft and Avaya solutions.

If we look in these particularly tough times and we look at the market, some of our competitors see themselves as very competitive to Microsoft and other vendors in this market are having a challenging time. I think Avaya as a leader in real-time communications is a strong partner to Microsoft. Often, customers are looking for, where will we get the partnership and working together that Avaya can offer a close relationship with Microsoft of a well-integrated product.

Listen to This Interview
Redmond Radio host Michael Domingo interviews Avaya's Lawrence Byrd here.

Is Avaya a pure Microsoft play in UC, or are you working with other partners like Google and IBM?
We take an open, best-of-breed approach. We respond to what our customers want and they want a strong integration with Microsoft. But, we're a partner with IBM, we have been doing work with Google. We leverage open systems with various sorts. We've certainly leveraged the Linux platform. We take a broad approach to communications, but in a Microsoft environment, a strong integration with a whole set of Microsoft products is key.

Outside of some of the financial challenges that most companies are facing now, what might be some of the other factors hindering UC adoption in the enterprise and how do you get clients to see beyond those barriers?
We think there's a fundamental issue with trying to roll out unified communications, which is that the core communications architecture that we have today is kind of wrong. Despite the advent of IP, the communications architecture is sort of medieval. We're still dependent on individual systems and locations.

The communications environment is not structured in the way that, say, the Web environment is structured, where I can get any applications from anywhere and from wherever I am. Instead, my features, my applications are dependent on the particular system I'm connected to. Any mid to large company tends to have multiple systems, often from multiple vendors and multiple vintages and different places, each of which have to be properly connected and each with its own dial plan, which is important in communications. Each has its own rules, users, features, applications and UC interfaces.

It's very difficult for companies to roll out unified communications when they have to integrate in different places in different ways with different systems. We've always believed that the communications world needs to move to a much broader, enterprise-wide architecture. The recent announcements at VoiceCon of our Avaya Aura product is to provide an end-to-end, enterprise-wide SIP architecture that provides an open way of connecting multiple vendor systems together, provides a way of letting applications be accessed wherever you are and in a way it does two things. As we talked earlier, [it first] provides immediate cost savings. If we look at how systems are connected today, there's a lot of telecommunications costs and trunking costs and administration costs and inefficient use of the kind of enterprise IP networks, all of which could be optimized if you were just to connect things together better. That money is an immediate saving for IT and can help them start to look at, how do I deploy centralized applications that can be projected anywhere over an end-to-end SIP network to different users and connected to different legacy systems potentially, and through gateways, so that I get control of the connection between users and their applications in a different way than we do today in communications.

It looks like a good time to talk about Aura. Can you tell me more about it? Is it mainly a software and infrastructure type of program?
Yes. Avaya Aura is a software program. It runs on different servers and leverages other hardware components in a sort of broad topology that can be from sort of small to very large and global. The software includes our legacy of traditional voice and video telephony, which is a part of our Avaya Communication Manager product. What we've done is we've expanded that with new capabilities, including Avaya Aura Session Manager, which is a high-scale, secure, end-to-end SIP connectivity that connects multivendor systems together, and connects users to applications. We've made this very evolutionary, so that customers who are existing Avaya customers can move to this SIP-based architecture incrementally and at their own pace.

Avaya Aura also includes Presence Services. We have aggregation, where we bring together Microsoft presence with a real-time presence that we have in all of our systems, together with open standards like SIP/SIMPLE and XMPP, so that within our applications we can integrate very tightly with the presence you find in Microsoft OCS. Then wrapping all around that is Web Services and APIs that allow integration with our partners, integration into Microsoft environments, and also the management tools that let you manage all of this. All that software is now our flagship product going forward. It builds on our heritage with Avaya Communication Manager that most of our customers have deployed as their voice and video telephony foundation.

Can you tell me about the hardware side of the unified communications segment? I wonder if companies are often, whenever they hear about unified communications and integrating it into their systems, there might be a bit of a misconception that you have to really buy into hardware. Is that often the case?
In the communications world, there are three pieces of hardware that will be deployed in some way. There are standard application servers on which the software runs. In our business, in real-time communications, customers often buy them from us because they want a single point of support, they want a single point of management, but these are off-the-shelf, standard servers.

In addition, in the communications world, there are gateways that connect between different networks at the points where traditional analog and digital phones might be connected, where traditional TDM trunks might be connected. Increasingly over time, you're going to see SIP connectivity, in which case there'll be a SIP appliance that connects you to, for example, a service provider.

The third, final category of hardware are the physical phones, which will be deployed in various ways.

This is common that you need those pieces of hardware deployed in some topology depending on your needs. They're very distributed now over IP on which the software runs.

What we're selling with Avaya Aura is software that runs over those hardware components.

Do most companies often go to Avaya to purchase in a sort of turnkey type of scenario, where they buy all the hardware and software from you
That's very common at the core communications level. That comes out of the telephony background that customers are used to. Telephony is a traditional, mission-critical, "five nines" environment and it's very important to people that it never stops, and they want one place where they can manage and get service.

In the big scheme of things, we resell servers that we acquire from standard vendors, they're standard servers and they want them to be all have been sourced from us, in that model. That's a slightly different model from the model that Microsoft has for a lot of software, but it also becomes more difficult with more management if customers are deploying different servers and have expectations of you coming in and quickly servicing it.

We take an appliance model at the communications level. As you look toward other unified communications, applications that serve the desktop, applications that may be integrated with business applications, then they'll tend to run on servers that are part of the normal IT infrastructure that never came from Avaya. If you look at the core, real-time telephony and video control today, most customers, even when we offer these as resources that they could buy externally, they still want one place to come buy all this from a support, maintenance and mission-critical point of view.

What I'm hearing is that, it's like the old approach, where it often becomes more expensive when you try to bring in unified communications into a company and if you don't go the turnkey route, often what happens is you end up spending more money by buying the hardware and then bringing in the software as you need it. You're kind of cobbling a system together, with the hope that you're saving money, but you end up spending a lot more money and time trying to manage it.
I think that's what companies see. And there is a difference between an appliance model, which says you don't even know what's going on in the hardware, where we've locked it down, where we made it secure, we've minimized the operating system and it does what it does, which is to deliver all of the telephony services that you need. That's versus, say, a general purpose server with a general purpose piece of software on it, but I get to manage it all and I get to determine whether it's provisioned right, and so forth. I think that's the difference between the real-time communication world, where the appliance model has been pretty prevalent, versus the general software world, where I run anything on anything and if I spend a day getting it to work, that's fine. Whereas, spending a day without communications is not fine.

Avaya doesn't sell directly, do they? Is there a partner program?
Absolutely, we have thousands of resellers worldwide. Now, we do sell both directly and indirectly. Some of largest clients buy directly from Avaya, but we sell the majority through our resellers and through our channel. We have our business partner program, we have different levels up to our platinum partner. We certify our partners. We work with them sometimes, particularly in North America, through distribution to give them access to all our software and other products and they get compensated on all the reselling. When they do, they get training from Avaya, so it's a comprehensive program, one we've had in place for many years.

We mentioned how unified communications is being deployed in contact centers and customer service scenarios. Can you talk about how unified communications applies to the rest of the enterprise?
Part of business is about serving the contact center and customer service needs of our customers. We're a global leader with dominant market share in the contact center space. That certainly taught us a lot about what happens when a customer calls. What we're seeing, and what unified communications is enabling, is for us to see how the whole enterprise come together to serve the customer. It's not just, you call this number for service ... meanwhile, if you walk into a store or a branch or anybody else, you don't get service increasingly. We think this is where our Avaya Aura announcement and utilization of our end-to-end SIP architecture makes it much easier to connect all these places together.

Here's an example we've been working with for many years now. You can have, say, an insurance agent or a broker who's a local person. You have their phone number and you call them. When you call them, they say, "Hey, I'm terribly sorry; Lawrence isn't in; can I help you?" That's great; Lawrence has an assistant, the assistant seems to know an awful lot about my account and in fact able to solve a problem for me. I'll talk to Lawrence later. In actual fact, that was a contact center somewhere and that contact center can be anywhere in the world. What you've done is connected all the points of customer-facing presences back with other resources. This is an example where, increasingly, there's a mixture.

And you've got mixtures the other way. When you call customer service, the person answering the phone is actually a temporary home worker and they're using unified communications to get access to the contact center. Or there is somebody sitting in a financial branch who, in the afternoon, helps take customers' calls. So, you've extended your contact center that's highly virtualized.

What's happening is basically the boundary between the people in the big building who talk to customers and everybody else in the enterprise is disappearing. It's where is the customer across the enterprise and what's the right service.

Another area for us where we have strong products is in self-service. When you call, there's a speech application that talks to you, and we deliver video to your 3G wireless phone, which is something that we're doing in Asia with customers, but it's not quite here in the United States. How does all that self-service capability fit with the incoming customer interactions and if you finally do need to talk to somebody, how does it end up? Am I talking to the right person, wherever they are? This is the interplay between customer service and unified communications, which essentially makes the whole enterprise an integrated organization which can serve customers everywhere.

The video scenario seems interesting. Can you explain that one a little bit more and talk about some unique scenarios where it's been deployed?
Yeah, let me first talk about video. One is this notion that if you look at a modern 3G phone with a screen and a customer is calling from it -- the customer calling from an old black phone at home and all you can do is talk, is kind of long gone. The customer has a highly powerful device and all you're doing is speaking to them. While you're speaking to them, why not show them some stuff? If they're trying to buy a ticket in a stadium, why am I not showing them the stadium? There are three choices of things they want to buy and why can't they just see them?

What we're seeing -- and we're seeing this in countries like Korea and other parts of Asia that have strong 3G networks and strong cultural tendencies to seeing things flashing on your mobile phone -- when we're serving a customer and I can see that they're using a 3G device, how can I start to play information? Now, I don't want to see necessarily a picture of the agent. I want to see stuff that's being pushed to me that helps with the interaction. That's a video mode that we see, you know, in the early days, in countries and cultures where 3G is widely adopted.

Let's take a different example, where, in this case, you may want to see the agent. You walk into a retail store, you have a fairly technical product that you're wanting help with, and increasingly in these economic times, I don't have the skills and resources in all the retail stores to help everybody. So what would it be like if, instead there was a video kiosk, where you could say, well, you need to talk to one of our technical experts, and here she is. It's a video kiosk and the camera is able to see you and it's able to see your device and they're able to talk you through how to fix it or whether there's a problem or whether you should hand it in for service. What you've done is you've taken what is essentially a contact center resource and you've projected it into the store and you've now made a centralized resource available to all of your retail stores.

Just to show the flexibility of that, let me give you another real example. You walk into a hospital, you're seeing a doctor and you happen to speak Chinese or Vietnamese or Spanish and the doctor does not. Traditionally, you would sit around for hours while the right translator was found and finally you're sitting with the translator and the doctor and you could explain what the problem was. Today, there could be video in that room, where the translator is essentially a contact center resource and they could be anywhere. It's very rapid to bring that resource into the meeting. In that case, you do want to see the person, because they're talking to you and they're trying to understand what you mean and there may be some difficulties. You want to see each other and then you're assisting the doctor in the diagnosis and the translation.

These are all examples of where video is either rich, rich experience for a customer on the end of a 3G phone, and what they want to see is the product or service or the stadium or whatever it is that they're looking at, or alternative uses of video that make customer service resources available in locations where you don't have a physical person. You just have the video endpoint.

So tell me about some unique scenarios where your UC solutions have been deployed.
Every customer in some sense is unique, but one customer that comes to mind is LifeNet Health. They've been in business now over 25 years. They're the nation's largest, non-profit organ donation and biomedical tissue bank. Their business is about saving lives and saving peoples' health. Thousands of live, millions of people who get tissue grafts and things you need in surgery and they're a non-profit organization. I certainly recommend those to people looking to become donors or make donations.

Obviously for them, communications is mission-critical. Time for most of us is money, time for them is about saving lives. So, 24 by 7 response, and being able to rapidly get hold of people is very, very key. Unified communications for them means things like being able to work at home, being able to reached where you are when you're mobile, being able to have contact center agents available 24 by 7, so making use of home agents and distributed agents, messaging and find-me/reach-me kind of capabilities is in our unified messaging product. LifeNet is an Avaya customer and they're also a Microsoft customer, so there's integration between the Microsoft environment and Avaya, making it faster and easier to reach people. They're able to increase the speed and reliability of their communications when they're rushing against time to get the right tissues or organs to the right locations to save someone's life, increasing their ability to get work done.

I think it's an example that if unified communications is important, it's also mission-critical. What they look for in Avaya and Microsoft is working with a truly mission-critical environment, with the reliability, with the effort that we put into our business continuity and disaster recovery architecture so that everything stays up and you have the communication you need when you need it. I think that is what some of the strengths that Avaya brings and what Avaya bring to our Microsoft partners to people who are looking at the right combination of Microsoft and a market-leading but open and standards-based vendor that can work with them, I think Avaya can do that.

Let's move to another topic. Services like messaging have been moving to the cloud and services like that seem to be gaining traction. How does that complicate adoption of unified communication?
I think all of these cloud services will complicate unified communications if you have a poor unified communications architecture. So the same problem you have internally, which is, how do I add a desktop Microsoft integration or how do I add back-end business integration? If I have to go around and do it differently for every user and every location and every system and everything is kind of unique and separate, then I can barely deploy applications internally, effectively. And if there are new applications arriving in the cloud, any additional application is more difficult. But if I move to an architecture that gives me control, one that gives me an end-to-end connection between the users, their applications and different systems, and we believe that SIP is that foundation, then as customers start to deploy that architecture which is enabled by our own new software product, Avaya Aura, then suddenly the architecture has dramatically changed. It becomes easier to start thinking about external messaging or video or some other service because you know have a control point where you can bring it in.

The challenge that companies have is that all these external services, they don't want flying around the network in an uncontrolled, unsecured way. So, there's constantly a fight between IT and consumer-based services, which go in different directions. Yet, there's increasingly these cloud-based services and Microsoft's initiative with Azure will continue to drive more of those. The enterprise question is, how do we bring them in, how do we control them and how do we make sure the right users have access to them, how do we understand the bandwidth requirements and control usage based on bandwidth, how do we track what actually happened? If you see these services arriving in succession, then an end-to-end, secure, high-scale, centrally managed SIP architecture will allow you to bring in these kinds of services. It will become feasible, it will become easy. I'm saying that if it's hard today to anything, it's hard today to add cloud services. But if we make it easy to deploy the right UC applications to the right users wherever they are with an enterprise-wide approach, then it will also become easier to integrate the external clouds. The external clouds and the internal clouds will be simpler to deploy and we'll move away from the current architecture, which is, everything is a separate system, everything has be separately integrated. If you've got one communications system running, you're in a good place, but if you've got, like most of our customers, multiple systems from multiple vendors and multiple locations across the world, then I'm in no position to deploy unified communications.

This brings us back to our original discussion, which is, unified communications architecture: how you make it fit all together across your enterprise is very key to the success of unified communications.

You mentioned earlier that you announced something at VoiceCon. Can you talk about Aura and how significant it is in the lineup of all Avaya products?
Avaya views our portfolio in terms of three core layers. The top level is how do we integrate in a multi-vendor way, with all the environments that we need to be on, hundreds of different mobile devices, desktop environments from Microsoft and others, business application environments from SAP and others, physical phones, physical PCs -- that's the environment in which communications is surfaced. We work with Microsoft and others in a multi-vendor way to make sure our communications appear on the screen or on the device in the right way.

Underneath that are our Unified Communications and Contact Center Solutions -- our messaging, collaboration, self-service contact center agent and supervisor software, all of which is delivered to solve business needs.

The third layer, what does that rest on, the real-time architecture underneath that? Avaya Aura is our new product to meet that foundation need. It's all of the core communication services that you need. It builds on Avaya Communication Manager, which has been our traditional telephony and video control software, which has many decades of investment and all of the features that were the traditional PBX, which then became software features in the world of the IP-PBX, and became much more distributed and IP-based. And now what we're doing is stretching that out even further and decoupling application functionality, like how does my phone work and how does messaging happen how to all the operations on my device, my screen, my phone come together? We're decoupling that from the connectivity, how do I get connected?

Avaya Aura Session Manager is this new, end-to-end SIP layer that connects everything together, so that systems and phones and users and applications can all be correctly routed, it can be all securely managed and users can have their profiles that access their particular applications in a high-scale, global way. That's delivering on Avaya's strengths.