What is unified communications?
Unified Communications solutions eliminate the separation between phones and computers. Email, voicemail, faxes, IM, and calendar events all arrive in one place: the inbox. And a single, familiar interface for PC, web, or mobile devices makes it easy to use, regardless of location. When communication is faster and easier, productivity goes up and travel costs go down.
Unified Communication includes technologies for presence, instant messaging, conferencing, unified messaging, email and enterprise voice.

Why is it becoming increasingly popular?
As a solution Unified Communications (UC) drastically save time connecting people. UC can improve the way we do business and make us so much more effective, and companies more competitive, it really makes sense.
Apart from the productivity benefits UC allows us to work the way we want. Since the younger workforce generation are familiar with more ‘modern’ ways of communicating by using consumer versions of Windows Live Messenger, Skype, Yahoo, etc; having ‘similar’ tools controlled and available in business allows companies to attract and retain staff.

How can unified communications benefit companies of all sizes?
One of the key capabilities of UC is presence and instant messaging. Presence is the ability to see someone status before you communicate with them. In the business context my presence is updated based on my calendar and what I’m doing. For instance when I’m logged in and in a meeting my presence is red, if I’m away its yellow and when I’m available its green. There are many more statuses for presence, but essentially it allows people to know if / how I’m available to talk to. If I’m offline the best way is to email or call me on my mobile phone, and if I’m online an instant message will be the most effective. Since I’m online most of the time it means that I can quickly deal with communications via instant messaging without having to deal with hordes of email or be on the phone the whole time, which also saves phone charges.
The above scenario in essence explains why it is so attractive for companies of all sizes. Even if you’re a small business with two offices, allowing staff to communicate between the two effectively is a big productivity booster and cost saver. Systems can be federated between companies (i.e. key suppliers / customers) so that presence info is shared making it even more attractive.

Even though presence and instant messaging is only part of the solution it is quick to deploy and provides a quick win.

It is key to understand that unified communications solutions for business is very different to the publicly available / free programs like Windows Live Messenger, Skype, etc. Although they may sound similar, business versions are far more capable, integrated and secure. For example, in a business context all communication should be encrypted, seeing someone’s availability in frequently used programs, I.E. Microsoft Outlook, and your buddy list comes directly from the company directory (i.e. Microsoft Active Directory). Beyond presence and instant messaging described above lies conferencing, unified messaging and VOIP which provides tremendous increased value.

When is it advisable to implement a unified communications solution?
Any business, whether office bound or on the move, with more than two staff members will find a UC solution beneficial. Businesses that have more than one location / floor will definitely find a lot of value in such a solution.

What should one look for in a unified communications solution?
Look for a solution that has the ability to integrate with most / all of your existing communication systems. This includes your email system (i.e. Microsoft Exchange) and your productivity suite (i.e. Microsoft Office). Key to the success of UC is having the new capabilities is programs that people use all the time, such as Microsoft Outlook. Being able to see someone’s presence, like a green, yellow or red icon next to the person’s name on an email and click on it for options is very powerful.
Also look for secure, extensible solutions that you can build on. Being able to start with presence and instant messaging and add on VOIP, conference or Unified Messaging later makes it a lot more realistic to implement. Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 R2 (www.microsoft.com/uc) is built with all of these requirements in mind.

What should one beware of when implementing a unified communications solution?
Unified Communications solutions sounds complicated, but it can easily be understood when taking bite size chunks at a time. I suggest starting with presence and instant messaging which is simple to deploy and to get familiarised with the system. One can then add to the communication options with VOIP and conferencing.
When deploying presence and instant messaging it is important to deploy it across the entire company. The real value of it is being able to look up anyone in the company at any time and know how to reach them. For instance if you have a customer on the phone and you need a question answered quickly, being able to find someone to chat to over instant messaging and resolve the query there and then is real business value. If you only part deploy presence and instant messaging this value is lost.
When deploying voice or conferencing workloads consider the impact to your network as well as any integration requirements or costs.

What direct business benefits can be achieved as a result of unified communications?
Increased productivity, much improved collaboration, employee retention, reduced telephony charges, reduced travel charges, and if allowing remote work scenarios also real estate savings.

If a company makes the move to unified communications, is it required to buy both new hardware and software? Can you enhance what you already own?
You can definitely build on what you already own. The beauty of Microsoft Unified Communications is that in most cases you can add it onto your existing network / telephony system and derive excellent benefits. At a minimum it does mean that you will require a new server with the UC software but not at the expense of replacing all other existing systems.