According to Microsoft's Zig Sarafin (general manager, Real-Time Collaboration), "In the last year, because we were using Live Meeting and doing more Web conferencing, Microsoft saved about $70 million on travel expenses."

Although savings in a company's travel budget don't necessarily benefit IT budgets, Zig's implication is that if IT could save your company millions of dollars in travel costs this year, you could justify implementing a unified communications (UC) infrastructure. But even if IT could apply other departments' travel-cost savings to new technology, this month's 300 survey respondents say they'd need a better idea of the concepts, technologies, and benefits of UC before considering a UC implementation.

Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they understood UC concepts and benefits, 29 percent had heard of it but weren't familiar with the concept or benefits, and 13.7 percent didn't know about UC. Even many readers who said they understood UC were uncertain about how it differs from Unified Messaging (UM) and what role (if any) Exchange Server 2007 plays in a UC solution. Many survey respondents asked "What specifically is UC, and how does it save us time and money?"

Expanding on UM
"Often people think UM means UC," Zig said. "In the survey, people said UC meant email and voicemail integration," which is actually the basis for UM. Exchange 2007 Enterprise Edition and Outlook 2007 let you access your voice and email messages from your Inbox. Zig noted, with these products you get "speech-recognition access to calendaring and to your corporate directory. For example, you can call Microsoft's main corporate number, ask for someone, and the voice recognition system will route the call."

Complementing the Exchange-based non-realtime UM platform is Live Communications Server (LCS), the foundation for UC. Zig explained, "To define UC, we start by looking at the different silos of business communications today: audio conferencing, PBX, Instant Messaging, email, voicemail, video, mobile phones. UC is about breaking down those silos into one software experience that works on your PC, on your mobile device, on a telephone in your office. Instead of going to four or five different applications to reach a person, you go to one source of communication. Instead of trying to find a phone number for that person, you type in the name or look at your buddy list and see if they're available. That is the beginning of unified communications."

Like Exchange with Outlook, LCS works with "Office Communicator, which is a unified communications client. Communicator looks like an IM client. But you can also make calls from this client. It's a soft phone. Communicator is the user experience on the PC for Web, video and audio conferencing, making phone calls, doing IM, and being able to look up users based on their availability."

Lighting Up Presence
The concept of availability, or "presence," is important for understanding UC. The exemplar of presence capability is IM: In your IM application, you can see whether a person you want to communicate with is online, busy, or accessible via a mobile device. UC extends this capability by accessing Active Directory (AD) information to provide presence data about all members of your organization for all your communications technologies.

Referring to this month's survey data, Zig said, "I found a bit of irony. On the one hand, survey respondents have an issue with being able to reach people and wish they could know people's availability, or reachability. On the other hand, 65 percent of respondents' companies don't allow people to use IM."

But Zig pointed out, "IM's presence capability hasn't been fully taken advantage of. Today, in the consumer IM experience, I can manually click on ‘busy' or ‘out to lunch.' But that's barely scratching the surface. What's interesting is when people deploy secure IM through LCS, integrated with AD. You can think about presence as ‘lighting up' user identity in a corporation's AD infrastructure. So any application that's integrated with AD can surface up the availability and reachability of someone" in the context of that application.

For instance, Zig said, "If you type in a person's name anywhere in Office, using SmartTag resolution in association with AD, you can see the person's availability. If I'm in my office and typing away, the system knows I'm online. But if I integrate my phone system with presence capability and AD, when I go to a meeting, calendar information from Exchange tells the presence server that I'm not available and puts my phone on Do Not Disturb. That happens because everything is integrated with one source of presence, which is integrated with AD, the core identity system in a company."

Integrating AD with presence has implications for systems management and security. "Surrounding presence," Zig explained, AD provides "context on where users sit organizationally and their role in the company. You can instantiate policies with respect to what group I'm a member of and what rights I have for accessing other people's presence."

So, Zig continued, "From within Outlook 2007, you'll be able to receive an email and instantly respond with an IM. Groups and distribution lists in email are simultaneously supported in IM, so if you want to send a group IM, it's the same group distribution list as you're using in email. It also has implications for cross-network or cross-domain policies around users."

I commented that Microsoft recently moved the Exchange development team from the Server and Tools Division into the business organization responsible for Office and LCS and asked Zig whether the move might foreshadow a future merging of Exchange and LCS into one product. He replied, "They will remain distinct products, but from an evolution standpoint, there's a reason why we have both products under a single business unit at Microsoft. We deeply believe that the two experiences have a lot of complementary synergies, particularly with respect to rules, identity, security, management, IT infrastructure, even the user experience and reachability."

UC Components
Zig explained what you need to get started with UM, "The application components are email, voicemail, IM, video and audio conferencing, Web conferencing, and call management (the call control you typically have in a PBX). First, upgrade email \[to Exchange 2007 and Outlook 2007\] and deploy LCS in parallel. Then get ready for Office Communications Server \[OCS, which supersedes LCS\]. If you upgrade Exchange and deploy LCS right away, Office 2007 lets you light up your AD with presence capability. You won't get those things if you don't deploy both at the same time."

I asked Zig to expand on OCS. "OCS is committed to ship in the end of the second quarter of 2007. It's in beta now. OCS offers some interesting possibilities even from a SKU perspective. For example, you get cell phone functionality today as part of LCS. But OCS will offer a separate SKU for that and will give you call management. Companies have a lot of Skype users, and people will be able to do secure VoIP calls and integrate with the corporate dialing plan, running off the same system they're running their IM platform on. In addition, you can run SIP-based phone endpoints off it. You get that experience over a non-VPN environment. Just as when you're traveling and have access to Outlook using HTTPS-based login, you get the same experience with Communicator—not just for IM, but for voice and video."

Justifying UC
Surveyed readers were split on the value of deploying UC, to which Zig replied, "In some ways, email wasn't cost justified in the early 90s, but it crept into the way people work. An interesting fact: The adoption rate of LCS corporate-grade IM today is similar to what we saw from 1997 to 2000 when corporations started standardizing on an email platform. Companies are using IM as a productivity tool that also provides IM archiving capabilities so you can meet compliance requirements, deal with HR, have encrypted traffic, and do federation."

Because 57 percent of readers surveyed requested articles on UC, we'll be writing about this technology in the near future. Let me know what you'd like to learn about UC.