Unified communications or UC (in some cases the acronym UCC is used to emphasize the addition of Collaboration) refers to the integration of multiple forms of real-time communications including voice, video, collaboration and text messaging. Businesses are augmenting or replacing traditional voice-centric PBX systems with unified communications solutions to improve employee productivity and collaboration as well as to support mobility and BYOD initiatives.

The interest in unifying communications has its origins in the late 1990s with the rise of the desktop PC, this accelerated in the late 2000s with the rise of smartphones and mobile internet access. New devices and increased connectivity offered users more ways to communicate but also drove a dizzying array of disparate contacts, alerts and conversations. Unified communications solutions offer the promise of a single place to manage multiple interactions including the integration of the user’s business phone number. UC solution providers offer clients for a variety of endpoints including PCs, smartphones and tablets.

UC solutions can be delivered in the form of IT infrastructure installed on the customer site or in the form of a contemporary cloud-based service.

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What is Unified Communications: Functions

UC solutions minimally support real-time voice, video and text chat (instant messaging) capabilities. Most provide color-coded, presence-based directories (interactive user lists) that display real-time user status (i.e. on-line, off-line, or do-not-disturb). Most also offer PBX-like features such as hold, transfer, redial and three-way calling. Many offer advanced capabilities such as session recording, multiparty audio conferencing, multiparty video conferencing and screen sharing for hosting on-line meetings, presentations or product demonstrations. Often unified communication solutions also include a unified messaging component for voicemail and e-mail integration.

Many UC systems support APIs for integrating real-time communications capabilities into enterprise applications and business processes. Examples include the ability to call a customer directly from a CRM application or the ability to automatically direct an incoming call to the best employee based on skillset or presence state.

Unified Communications Components

A unified communications solution is composed of server-side and client-side components. The server-side component (sometimes referred to as an application server) is implemented as a traditional on-site IT solution or delivered as a cloud-based service. For the on-site case, some UC vendors offer turn-key UC server appliances, while others offer software-based solutions that run on industry-standard servers (typically x86 platforms running some version of Linux). Virtualized components are extremely common as they reduce the need for dedicated hardware and can simplify implementation; ultimately reducing the cost of the solution.

UC solutions also rely on media server technology for conferencing services and collaboration services. Managing multiple streams of real-time media is still a resource-intensive process and continues to be one of the largest costs and potential points of resource constraint.

Cloud-based UC services are often referred to as Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS) solutions. UCaaS solutions allow businesses to take advantage of the latest communications and collaboration technologies while avoiding capital equipment investments and ongoing management, maintenance and support expenses. They are ideal for mobility initiatives––users can access communications services from any place, at any time over the Internet. They are also well suited for “overlay” applications such as providing disaster recovery or business continuity support for an on-site PBX or UC implementation.

Mobile Unified Communications

Most UC solution providers offer clients for a variety of endpoints including PCs and laptops as well as smartphones and tablets. Some vendors offer mobile unified communications clients with user interfaces specifically designed for small form-factor devices. Many UC solutions support traditional IP phones as well (often SIP-compliant endpoints). Many UC vendors also offer softphone clients that replicate traditional PBX attendant consoles, executive phones or administrative-assistant phones.

Many UC vendors offer browser-based clients as well. Some now support Web Real-Time Communications (WebRTC)––an emerging industry standard for enabling Web browsers with interactive communications capabilities. WebRTC simplifies UC client administration and enables better user experiences by eliminating vendor specific, browser-specific plug-ins. Many popular browsers including Google (Chrome™), Mozilla® (Firefox®) and Opera™ now support WebRTC.

Relationship to Unified Messaging

Unified communications is sometimes conflated with unified messaging. Unified messaging generally refers to the integration of distinct electronic messaging systems such as voicemail, email and fax. Unified messaging systems often provide advanced features like text-to-voice (conversion of email to spoken word) or voice-to-text (visual representation of voicemail). Many UC clients provide a common user interface for invoking real-time communications functions and unified messaging functions in an integrated fashion.