Unified Communications Featured Article

The True Cost of Unified Communications: Tales of the Unexpected

March 14, 2011

In the past, whenever you wanted to make a telephone call to someone, you really needed one key piece of information. That was, of course, the telephone number to dial.

In the future, that won’t be necessary. This is possibly one of the great, new conveniences for users of unified communications (UC) -- a real change to an age old paradigm.

“Unified Communications” is actually a very broad term and applies to the integration of many types of modern communications services, but in this short article I will focus on how UC has been applied in a real-life corporate Internet Protocol (IP) telephone system for voice calls and will reveal how a seemingly improved environment can lead to some unexpected and costly side effects.

 Almost everyone is familiar with the concept of IP telephony (often referred to as Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP). Companies such as Skype made VoIP a household name. It stands to reason that making almost “free” calls over the internet would be very attractive to large multi-national corporations, and so it is no surprise that today the majority of have introduced enterprise VoIP systems into their organizations.

For the purpose of reading this article, think of UC as an application with a nice, friendly user interface that sits on top of a VoIP network. It appears as a window on your PC, laptop, IPad, mobile phone, etc. UC often also incorporates “instant messaging.” Here you would see a list of names of work colleagues and friends who you wish to exchange messages with, and by simply clicking on their names you can establish a sort of instant textual conversation with them. There is often some sort of indication of whether they are available and able to take part in the conversation. This is known as their “presence state.” They may be “away from their desk” and so on.

So let’s now add the idea of being able to establish a voice connection to the names on this same list. Simple really, just click on the name of the person you want to speak with, and their phone rings. So far, not much different than the directory in your mobile phone.

nd it can be as simple as that, but most people have more than one phone. These will be known in UC terms as “end points.” I may have a phone on my desk, a mobile device, a phone at home and a Skype type phone as part of my laptop. So what happens when you click on my name in the list?

This will depend on how the UC system has been configured, and my “presence state,” but it can be configured so that all my “end points” ring. This actually makes a lot of sense. Firstly, if you do not know where I may be, and secondly, if like me, you are hopeless at remembering all your different numbers! You can simply click and I can simply answer my phone wherever I am and we are connected. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

The answer is not always. Well not always great from a financial point of view, as many companies are discovering.

The following scenario is based on real life events. Fictional names are used, of course. The ABC Alphabet Soup company has offices in New York, London, Paris and Tokyo and has installed a private VoIP network for all voice services between them. They used a number of leading suppliers to build their environment including Microsoft OCS, Cisco and Avaya. The network includes a number of “mediation gateways,” at least one at each major site. These devices act as bridges between the internal private network and the external or Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN).

One afternoon, Janet in New York wishes to call John in London. From her PC, Janet clicks on John’s name in the company directory and shortly after hears a ringing tone – 30 seconds later John is on the line and, even though John sounds sleepy, they have a nice chat.

John has been visiting a client in Dubai and has answered this call on his mobile phone at 12.30 a.m.

A few weeks later the Paris office receives an invoice for a call made very late one evening to a mobile device in Dubai. There is no one in the Paris office that knows anything about this call or recognizes the number (we never use numbers). The local telecoms manager wants to know if this is an error or at least, and who should be charged for it. Now multiply this problem 1,000 times and spread it across all the offices. Here we are seeing an unexpected side effect of UC. Our call was answered on a mobile phone that was nowhere near our private VoIP network.

Why has this happened in the Paris office? It just so happens that this was the mediation server chosen by the network to make the “off net” call to John’s mobile, and so, this is where the bill is eventually sent.

Janet’s call was made on a Tuesday. It was already Wednesday for John. What number did Janet dial? Actually she can’t know the answer. So how do you attempt to solve this problem?

At MDSL, we actually won an award for solving this problem. Moreover, by trying to solve this problem, we unearthed a few other issues that we were not expecting. 

 At our client, there was a central telecom team who were responsible for the deployment of telecoms systems and services to all members of the corporate group. They did a great job in selecting and deploying the technical solutions, but were also responsible for recharging each part of the group for the services consumed. Imagine their problem, when a vast number of expensive calls could not be re-charged correctly. The problem was costing them a lot of time, a lot of money and a serious loss of face.

Re-charging for off-net calls is becoming more of an issue as UC is introduced by more and more large firms. Make sure you have a Telecoms Expense Management system capable of solving the re-charge problem; or, what starts off with lots of smiles from happy, connected users, can end up with inaccuracies, blame and frustration when it comes to paying the bills.

Ben Mendoza founded MDSL in 1995 with a vision to provide financial trading organisations with the tools to drastically improve the management of their market data services costs down to an individual user level. MDSL’s solution quickly became the de facto standard and today the company remains the world leader in market data cost management with the MDM software system.

Ben's technology career began in 1974 and has included telecommunications engineering with British Telecom, applied electronics design with Marconi Space and Defence Systems, data network design with Timeplex Ltd, and North Sea oil platform systems implementations with Marathon Oil UK Ltd.

Ben founded his first company in 1984. Digital Networks International Limited (DNI) was an independent IT consultancy firm providing network design and implementation services to customers such as Lehman Brothers, BAII and The Target Group. In 1987 Ben turned his hand to software, creating a Help Desk system called HDE. HDE customers included British Telecom, BP Oil, Barclays Bank, Robert Fleming & Co. and Levi Strauss & Co.

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Edited by Tammy Wolf