Supporting unified communications and collaboration applications on the wide-area network (WAN) is a growing challenge,
given the fact that nearly 90% of enterprises now have employees who work remotely. Among those companies, 29.8% of employees work apart from their workgroups and/or supervisors.
The idea of employees quickly meeting around a conference room table to make a decision is gone. So, in order to get work done more efficiently, enterprises extend unified communications (UC) and collaboration applications to employees in their homes and in branch offices, hotels, coffee shops and airports.
But extending these applications to remote workers means a heavy strain on bandwidth. So VARs and managed service providers must increasingly help enterprises implement bandwidth management and optimization tools to make sure these applications are always dependable, while not bottlenecking the network.
Drivers of UC in the virtual organization
The opportunity to provide WAN management services to support UC will only grow in coming years since the number of remote workers is expected to continue increasing.
One major driver of this growth is increased adoption of green and teleworking policies. Thirty-seven percent of organizations now have teleworking policies, and another 23% have green initiatives in place to promote the use of real-time collaboration applications such as video and Web conferencing, with the goal of reducing business travel.
Although UC and collaboration tools are considered "nice to have" in many other circumstances, they are critical to the success of these virtual organizations. Only 16% of companies are doing absolutely nothing with UC. More than one-third are in the initial planning stage. Another 28% are in a limited deployment, meaning they are implementing a few applications to a limited number of locations. The remaining companies have already adopted and are implementing a UC strategy.
These UC tools include non-real-time (asynchronous) applications such as shared document repositories, wikis, blogs and, of course, email. Real-time (synchronous) applications include audio/video/Web conferencing, instant messaging and, increasingly, social messaging such as short message service (SMS), chat and micro-blogging. The tools have grown in number as have the methods of access to these applications, including desktop, mobile and virtual -- or thin -- clients.
Bandwidth management for UC poses challenges
Prior to converged networking, most companies operated separate networks for voice, data and video traffic, and some even ran a separate WAN for each application. Now, most companies have converged an astounding number of applications over a single IP network, making traffic prioritization and bandwidth management critical.
This presents a challenge to the IT department. Only 18% of branch offices have on-site IT personnel, so virtual employees are managed remotely. Moreover, UC and collaboration applications are complex to deploy, integrate and monitor, and they require high availability and stringent quality of service (QoS). Enterprises often don't have the internal staff resources to manage these applications on the network.
To meet management requirements, IT managers have a couple of options. The first is to manage the network internally and add optimization tools to make better use of bandwidth. That requires staff to identify and measure the performance of collaborative applications across the network using specialized monitoring tools.
In addition, they may also have to implement optimization tools in networks where distances are long or bandwidth is dear. Internal staff would also learn the technology that determines metrics for management and then find the time to provide support to the system.
Unfortunately, shrinking IT staff sizes, lack of internal expertise, and decreasing budgets are making it increasingly difficult to handle bandwidth management internally. That leaves a big opportunity open for managed service partners (MSP) or IT consultants to support some or all aspects of application and/or network management.
The MSP or VAR play
Typically in a UC managed-services scenario, companies own the equipment and house it on premises or at a third-party site. They then hire an MSP to manage the infrastructure. Some providers install remote monitoring tools and manage each enterprise site from a central location. Others assign staff members to work on the customer premises or use a combination of the two.
In either of these scenarios, MSPs and VARs are called on to provide a range of services. In some cases, MSPs handle WAN services while the internal IT staff oversees infrastructure and applications. In other cases, the MSP handles troubleshooting and installation all the way to the desktop, but internal IT addresses ongoing management and monitoring.
Either way, MSPs are able to build long-term relationships with their customers, charging a monthly subscription fee. Some providers charge a fee per device managed, however.
For MSPs and VARs, the sales pitch is that enterprise customers can outsource bandwidth management and optimization for UC, freeing up internal staff from day-to-day monitoring tasks and enabling them to focus on more high-value business initiatives. Enterprise customers will also see more predictable spending, potentially coupled with less capital investment and increased system reliability -- all benefits that are especially important during tough economic times.
Katherine Trost is a research analyst at Nemertes Research, where she focuses primarily on professional services.