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Unified communications spurring storage services

Customers who have implemented unified communications may be surprised by how that impacts their storage strategies. To comply with federal regulations, they'll need to archive all that UC-driven data.

Service provider takeaway: Storage service providers have an opportunity to build archival services around their customers' unified communications implementations.

While it's been simmering for years as a useful but hard-to-justify technology, the pace of unified communications (UC) deployment is picking up. Many CIOs are actively evaluating the benefits of unified communications and are looking for ways to integrate the concepts of UC into key business processes. This presents a very lucrative opportunity for service providers to help facilitate enterprise UC plans and capabilities while profiting handsomely in the process. The good news for readers is that this can be done by helping enterprises with the new and challenging demands that unified communications places on storage.

UC is nothing more than the consolidation of all forms of communication (voice, video and data) into a common IP-based format facilitated by applications that combine capabilities of each. The virtue of UC is that it can provide extreme improvements in business process efficiency by making communications a fundamental part of any data-based transaction. Think voice-enabled customer relationship management (CRM) or instant messaging that also allows access to collaboration applications.

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The downside for enterprises is that unified communications also drags along the requirement -- driven by Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) compliance initiatives -- to store and manage large amounts of data. Additionally, the litigation requirements for most businesses to facilitate electronic discovery make the storage and retrieval, even of instant messages, a significant business-enabling activity. The net result is the need for vast amounts of archival storage that has a long latency but is subject to relatively frequent retrieval.

Many storage service providers already offer their customers archival storage services. And many enterprises and even small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) already understand and use online storage backup. But many companies don't truly understand the implications of moving into a unified communications environment and what that may mean for their storage needs.

Businesses may not realize that once voice and presence communications like instant messages become just another form of data, the same data retention and discovery rules apply to them as to other corporate data. Service providers who want to supply UC archival services must first educate their customers on the storage implications of unified communications. If the VAR is also selling the customer UC technology and is helping the customer in the implementation process, this is a natural activity. If the VAR has not helped with the implementation, then a casual inquiry concerning the customer's UC plans may be sufficient to get the ball rolling.

Service providers may not be comfortable taking on the education process in an area as complex as UC can be. This is not necessarily a problem since there are many analyst firms (Nemertes Research being one of them) that can serve as a good source of information and expertise to bolster service provider training efforts. Such training can be delivered to the customer through seminars and one-on-one meetings hosted by the service provider.

Once the dialogue on requirements and implications begins, service providers will benefit from having a number of unified communications archival services packages to offer. These might range from an introductory package that provides low-end archival -- for instance, enough on-demand capacity to cover a standard legal discovery period -- to complete storage solutions that offer both on-site storage and storage management, as well as periodic storage audits and discovery support in the event of litigation.

The important thing is that the delivery of education should not leave the use of archival services to customers' imaginations; it should ensure that customers are crystal-clear about what UC means for their archival strategy. UC represents a very extensive change to both the business operations of a company as well as the way in which IT supports those operations. Helping an IT organization understand how archival can complete the UC picture will be welcomed, especially if the message is packaged in a way that allows the IT organization to articulate the need to management.

But building more complexity into this process of change will not be welcomed by customers. The key to playing a role in unified communications is to simplify the lives of both IT and the business decision makers who, most probably, are putting their jobs on the line with the commitment to UC. To make things simple, you should ensure that the archival services are mapped to the company's UC strategy, and follow up with supporting documentation and training.

The bottom line is that UC is the next transformation change for IT. It will profoundly change the landscape of IT as well as the way business is conducted. Storage services, especially those that tie archival to unified communications data management requirements, will prove very popular and are likely to be a major way in which channel pros can play in the emerging UC market. The key is to educate and make the solutions simple for customers who may not yet understand what the evolution of UC will mean for storage and archiving.

About the author
Mike Jude, a senior analyst at Nemertes Research, is an expert in business process analysis and optimization. He is also co-founder of Nova Amber, a consulting firm specializing in business process implementation and technology.

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