The Great Unifier

The Great Unifier

Now that AV, IT, and telephony are tied together, how do you manage them effectively? What do the concepts of visual communications, rich media, collaboration technology, electronic work, and interactive learning have in common? They have all been used describe elements of what is now being referred to as unified

communications (see "Integrating Communications into Your Business Process," beginning on page 22). Unified communications is a result of the convergence of AV, IT, and telephony systems that were previously operating as separate "stovepipes" within most organizations. Over the last few years many companies have developed solutions to tie together all of the disparate elements of collaboration and communication into unified communications systems. These systems link together software applications, including email, IM, presence, data conferencing, calendaring, text chat, wikis, polling, application sharing, and social networking, and connect them to communication devices such as VoIP and traditional telephones, mobile phones, IP soft phones, videoconferencing units, and streaming media capture devices. Unified communications systems enable collaboration processes and help organizations improve their workflows by automating connections via the best available means of communication in real time.

So what does all this mean to government AV and IT technology managers? It means we need to understand IT while maintaining and enhancing our specialization in AV technologies. As major IT players embrace unified communications, AV systems that were traditionally standalone have been migrated onto the network. This is not an issue of "if" AV will converge with IT. It isn't even a question of "when" the convergence will occur. It has already happened. AV systems are now network resources and are being managed as such. The question is, how will we take advantage of the opportunities that convergence creates? Will we use it to add value to our organizations and to contribute to our agencies' missions, or will we miss out?

Convergence and unified communications do not come without their challenges. Some big organizational problems are created by the increase of AV traffic on formerly data-only networks. If you ask an IT practitioner, most likely they will tell you the biggest problem is bandwidth. The bandwidth demands of AV - especially "V" - put an enormous strain on network infrastructure. But bandwidth is not the only challenge. The scarcity of adequate bandwidth often requires complex provisioning and prioritization of IP resources. Some networks require a complete overhaul to manage things like multicasting and videoconferencing traffic.

Unified communications infrastructures are often complex, and this complexity can cause problems. Few people understand the intricate engineering required to develop effective unified communications systems. Subject matter experts from various components of unified communications elements need to work together to figure out what is needed to seam systems together to create communication and collaboration networks that are more effective than the sum of their parts.

In the Intelligence Community, various working groups and "tiger teams" are working on federating network infrastructures, integrating telephony systems, and standardizing videoconferencing and streaming media solutions. There are groups looking broadly at collaboration and narrowly at telephony numbering schemes. These are all good efforts by themselves, but when these efforts are combined, the resulting unified communications systems will be great assets for the community.

Avoiding problems from increased communications and collaboration requires policies, governance, and oversight. For these reasons, many agencies are expanding their IT departments to include AV specialists. AV technology managers, engineers, and operators are becoming increasingly more important to the overall health of organizations as the systems they support become mission critical elements of business operations. This is leading to the rise of a previously underrepresented segment of the AV community. As government AV practitioners find a stronger voice, they will increase their influence on the direction of the industry. Manufacturers, designers, and integrators that embrace partnerships with these customers will benefit from their knowledge and input as much as from their purchases. The results of these partnerships will move the industry forward and will help to overcome the challenges of end users and their agencies as they move from stovepipe AV systems to unified communications architectures.

There are no simple ways to develop unified communications architectures, at least none that I have found. There is no website that lists all the components needed, how to configure those components, and what links are needed between systems elements. Any list of this type would be overly simplistic or unrealistic since no agency has the budget to completely overhaul their entire enterprise architecture. This means we need to work with our legacy systems and have to figure out how to develop unified communications systems that leverage our existing technology investments. Every unified communications system must be a custom design.

How do we even start to design custom unified communications architectures? We start by identifying the right stakeholders. Once the right AV and IT subject matter experts and end-user representatives have been identified, it is a good idea to conduct an audit of the existing assets. Working from the list of assets and an understanding of end-user functional needs, subject matter experts can begin the process of designing the unified communications architecture. They can determine which existing assets can be utilized and what new components, programming, and configuration changes will be required to meet the needs of the end users.

We must also be careful to identify all of the necessary core components of the system to avoid missing opportunities. For example, AV control systems are often overlooked by IT unified communications designers. These systems should be a core element of any unified communications system that includes conference rooms, classrooms, and other AV collaboration spaces. If the budget is available, or can be justified to establish a prototype lab, do it. If your budget does not allow you to establish a lab, reach out to other agencies and participate in their prototyping efforts. Even if the budget is available for prototyping, look for partnerships with other agencies that have similar requirements. Partnering will result in greater diversity of ideas and will pay long-term dividends when the requirement comes to connect your architecture with other mission partner agencies.

We are in the midst of a shift away from stovepipe communications networks and toward real-time, ad-hoc global collaboration. Those who embrace the changes will profit and their agencies will prosper. Those who ignore or resist change will become irrelevant and their agencies will wither. Our individual goals, organizational health, and national security are all dependent on our abilities to communicate effectively, collaborate quickly, and to build and maintain valuable partnerships. Unified communications helps to facilitate all of these, and will be a driving force in the global, knowledge-based economy.