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Top three things to know about unified communications certifications

With unified communications increasing in popularity, it might be worthwhile for a networking solution provider to consider unified communications certifications. This tip outlines the top three things you should know before investing in UC certifications as a networking solution provider.

Depending on the market research you believe, the worldwide market for unified communications (UC) solutions could...

reach $1 billion by 2013.

Against this backdrop, traditional data networks technology vendors are tussling with legacy voice technology leaders for market share dominance --- leaving solution providers with a myriad of choices as to where they should place their training and unified communications certification bets. Here are three tips for helping make those choices.

#1: Seek a vendor-neutral UC foundation

Even though you will need product-specific training, successful technology solution providers in the business of selling UC solutions suggest investing in underlying technologies and concepts crucial to successful implementations.

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Dale Stein, cofounder of the Technology Assurance Group (TAG), an independent group of telecommunications solution integrators, says almost all of TAG's members hold or are pursuing UC certifications. The most commonly held vendor-neutral certification for those companies is the Convergence Technologies Professional (CTP) designation offered by the Telecommunications Industry Association.

What makes CTP valuable is its focus on concepts, not products, according to Stein. For example, one especially important standard for VARs to understand and get trained on is the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), which offers a means of controlling user sessions. "SIP is the most radical change that our industry has seen in 20 years," Stein said. "Everything originates from here." Applications including speech-to-text, presence, instant messaging and video conferencing all call upon SIP.

Ali Elahi, practice lead for UC and collaboration with integrator Unis Lumin in Oakville, Ontario, says there are some generic foundational courses around SIP that are worth considering, but key technology vendors also put a focus on skills in this area. So if your team isn't considering a vendor-neutral certification, it will be able to build SIP skills in this way.

VARs that come from the data networking worldwide might also consider the three-year-old Convergence+ certification from CompTIA, which is designed to help technology professionals develop the skills to specify, implement and manage data, voice and multimedia convergence applications.

"We try very hard to keep it vendor-neutral," said Terry Erdle, senior vice president of skills certification at CompTIA. The organization encourages individuals considering Convergence+ to have at least 18 to 24 months of IT industry experience along with a foundation in networking or basic computing skills.

To date, roughly 2,000 professionals have earned the Convergence+ certification, according to CompTIA. One word of caution: Stay tuned for developments regarding the future of this training during the summer, Erdle said. CompTIA is currently talking to the CTP program leaders about how to leverage their mutual efforts in this area in order to reduce the investments required by technology professionals.

#2: Prepare to commit time and money when considering UC certification

Speaking of investments, TAG's Stein estimates that it costs $1,300 to $1,400 for the foundational elements of the CTP certification -- including the on-demand training and the testing and certification process.

Realistically speaking, technology integrators will need to layer a specific product certification atop those basic skills, depending on the nature of the project. In fact, those certifications are required to represent certain product lines.

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"Our UC team is arguably the most well-rounded talent we employ because of the integration with Microsoft apps and the networking platform the UC system is built upon," said Chris Poe, chief technology officer of Atrion Networking of Warwick, R.I. "We require Microsoft and Cisco networking expertise in addition to the UC-specific knowledge. This helps us to better leverage talent, as we can have a single engineer do what would take three or more engineers to do separately."

Support skills are another serious consideration, Unis Lumin's Alahi said. Supporting UC thoroughly requires a fully staffed network operations center that can provide trouble ticketing, policy updates and other support services that go beyond pure implementation. Indeed, these skills are necessary to achieve "master" status for Cisco UC solutions, Alahi said. It took about 12 months for Unis Lumin to build these skills after they were introduced. Currently, he estimates that about 80% of the Unis Lumin team has some level of certification in voice and UC.

"It can take years to work up to a certain capability company-wide," Alahi said.

#3: Take time to understand business applications for UC

Applications are the fourth most heavily weighted portion of the CompTIA Convergence+ certification, after core telephony, network engineering and hardware skills. That's because successful UC implementations are driven by a specific business application, according to technology solution providers.

"Software skills are quite important, especially as more and more UC deployments are integrated with existing CRM, contact center, presence and productivity applications," Poe said. "We employ a group of developers in-house to enable us to do essentially any level of custom integration required."

Dave Casey, president of Westron Communications in Carrollton, Texas, prefers to take a more opportunistic approach to the whole issue of UC certifications. His company's most important technical investment right now is in various video and video-conferencing technologies, and that's where it will focus training money. But that doesn't mean Westron often turns away from opportunities outside its comfort zone -- especially since Casey says he is rarely asked for specific certifications. Rather, Westron is asked to demonstrate evidence that it can manage and support total solutions that build on a UC foundation.

Casey says he sizes up each project with an eye to the technical skills it will require and the applications that are really important to the customer. "If we require the certification, we will bring in a business partner who has the experience and credentials," he said. "We will partner if we need to do so. We are responsible for the system design and management."


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