Unified Communications: Will It Transform Your Workplace?

By  Tim Scannell — January 19, 2009

NEVER MISS AN ORDER

Finding a few blackberries lying around wouldn't be unusual at the Anthony Marano Co. After all, the firm is one of the largest fresh fruit and vegetable distributors in the Midwest.  Each day it logs up to 3,000 orders for its highly perishable products; nearly 90% of these orders are for same-day delivery.

What you may also see bouncing around within the firm's massive 460,000 square foot distribution center located in Chicago's South Side, however, are a handful of Research in Motion BlackBerrys. They're part of a unified communications and fixed-mobile convergence deployment that also incorporates about 50 Nokia dual-mode smartphones.


Handy on Handoffs

The solution delivers full PBX phone functionality, as well as email and data, to the wireless handsets, so the operation's highly mobile staff can keep in constant contact with customers -- and never miss an order.

The multi-faceted deployment zaps voice and data traffic through a session initiation protocol (SIP)-based RoamAnywhere Mobility Router developed by Agito Networks. The Agito appliance juggles communications traffic between a Meru Networks WiFi system, the T-Mobile cellular network, and the company's PBX telephone network.  The UC appliance also manages access to user email and contact databases.

Anthony Marano decided on the Agito Networks solution because of its ability to quickly channel messaging throughout the cavernous and communications-challenging facility, the consistent user interface, and its compatibility with the existing Avaya PBX equipment, says Christopher Nowak, Anthony Marano's CTO.

The company's metal and concrete facility is virtually impenetrable by cellular signals, and is flanked outside by an expressway and a printing company. "The previous system only worked on campus and worked slowly," explains Nowak. "Users also like the fact that it can handle smart phones and their email delivery and contact stuff."

There is also the Agito appliance's ability to speedily hand off connections from WiFi to cellular and back again, although Nowak admits the sales team may be oblivious to this service, which is just fine with the people at Agito Networks.

"The Marano deployment is relatively small," says Pej Roshan, Agito Co-Founder / VP of Marketing. "In fact, the company is one of our smallest.  But, from a mission-critical standpoint, they are the best example of people who need immediate and fast access."

The A. Marano sales and administrative staff are just glad that communications speeds over the WiFi network are substantially faster than with previous solutions, which have been used since 2001. 

There are about 100 Meru Networks wireless AP208 APs installed throughout the facility that communicate through redundant Meru MC3000 network controllers. 

Dual-mode communications extends throughout the facility and outside as well, including at the company's 75 receiving docks, which accept and quickly ship fresh produce to Chicago-area food stores seven days a week.

The Marano sales team hasn't yet run into any serious glitches communicating over the WiFi network, mostly because the company has already encountered and solved any possible problems while cycling through previous WiFi installations.  Site surveys and AP placement issues are a bridge that have been crossed long ago, says Nowak.

Agito Networks also partners with Avaya, so integrating with the existing PBX as well as any multi-vendor legacy networks wasn't a problem. This was helpful since the PBX functions are used 80% of the time, says Nowak.


Planning for the Future

While the UC system is primarily used by A. Marano sales and administrative staff, the company also hooks a few customers into the system when they visit. This helps visitors avoid the otherwise spotty cell phone coverage created by the massive concrete and steel distribution center and surrounding structures, none of which are friendly to cell signals.

Future plans call for implementing a secure remote voice capability, and perhaps upgrading the 802.11 a/b/g wireless network to a more robust 802.11n. Another goal is to tweak the system to avoid conflicts with aggressive short-range wireless networks such as Bluetooth, adds Nowak. 

His team is also looking into splitting voice and data traffic between different 802.11 technologies to further improve the quality of service.

In the meantime, A. Marano is satisfied to have had a return on investment on the Meru wireless network, and an increasing range of options with the addition of the Agito Networks unified communications appliance.

"The major objective was to use a single handset for voice and data within the company, and that has been accomplished," says Nowak.





SIDEBAR: A UNIFIED FRONT

For most companies, the decision to update or replace an outdated telephony system usually comes after months of careful planning, countless reviews by internal technology and user committees, and maybe a pilot project or two. 

At Brock White Co., however, the tipping point came at the touch of a reset button. Or, more specifically, the number of times the small I.T. staff at the St. Paul, MN, construction material distributor had to shut down and restart the aging PBX and Nortel system. 

"You had to reboot the old phone system every other day," says Mike Somers, I.T. Director at the more than 50-year-old firm. The company went shopping for a unified communications solution that would not only give the boot to the rebooting alternative, but provide a state-of-the-art resource for a sales force whose territories stretch across the upper Midwest U.S. 

A ShoreTel UC solution was installed in August 2008. There are presently about 120 users of the system at three locations, roughly 40 of whom are directly involved in sales, notes Somers.  Three quarters of the workers are considered "mobile," although in Brock White's world, that mobility doesn't usually extend beyond the surrounding offices, meeting rooms and warehouses at the company's St. Paul campus.


Beyond Class Telephony

Unified Communications (UC) is a hot topic for companies of all sizes, especially as these firms look to maintain costs and improve communications and collaboration among employees and suppliers. 

In fact, despite a challenging economy, more than 47% of executives polled by Nemertes Research indicate they are deploying or planning to deploy UC systems in 2009, a jump of about 17% from 2008.

The types of UC systems being deployed, however, run the gamut from simple automated telephony to more sophisticated collaborative environments that mix virtual presence, instant messaging, intuitive telephony and even a bit of Web 2.0 and so-called 'cloud computing' thrown in for good measure. 

At Brock White, for example, workers rely on the 'find me' capabilities of the ShoreTel UC technology and its ShoreWare Call Manager software.  Eventually, the company plans to roll out ShoreTel's Mobile Call manager platform as more Blackberrys are utilized for the sales team. "As the word spreads, there are more people interested in deploying the feature at their locations, especially the sales staff," says Somers.

UC vendors are already looking beyond simple 'find me' capabilities and PBX extensions to providing sophisticated services that take advantage of existing and emerging communications networks.

One of these is Motorola, Inc., which in November 2008 unveiled a an integrated voice over wireless LAN (VoWLAN) solution that is the first of a planned series of products from the company's new Total Enterprise and Access Mobility (TEAM) portfolio. 

The technology integrates existing WLAN and PBX infrastructures into a single common platform to deliver voice and data services, including via Windows Mobile VoWLAN smartphones, says Russ Knister, Senior Director, Converged Enterprise Communications at Motorola's Enterprise Mobility business unit.

"Most of the new systems operate over Ethernet, which is a pretty well-conquered world," says Knister, adding that simple IP telephony is no big deal today.  In wireless LANs, one of the biggest issues is quality of service (QoS), especially as a user wanders from one wireless access point to the next and 802.11 signals bounce and fade throughout the workplace.

To counteract any QoS problems, Motorola uses different WiFi channels to send and receive voice and data transmissions.  The technology also reserves necessary bandwidth where needed, prioritizes voice packets, and will block or reroute signals from access points (APs) that are temporarily busy. 

Seamless handoff is the hot-button topic in the unified communications space. This term refers to the ability to quickly and effortlessly pass voice and data communications from one wireless access point to the next, as well as the ability to jump from WiFi to cellular and eventually to mobile WiMAX networks.

"We want to work underneath the layers to make sure the handover from VoWLANs to cellular is seamless, accurate and secure," says Peter Thornycroft, a technologist with Aruba Networks.

It's no easy task, when dealing with fickle cellular signals, to keep one step ahead of coverage quirks.  Aruba is working on edge detection technologies that can quickly detect when a handset is about to lose coverage. 

While there are some WiFi/cellular solutions out there, the company elected to develop its own thin client approach that is installed underneath the UC layers to provide edge detections and smooth handovers. The technology is now in Beta trials, says Thornycroft.

For Agito Networks, the solution is to design a mobility router that fuses the capabilities of Internet Protocol (IP), telephony, WLANs, cellular and even location-based technology into a single, flexible appliance.

"No one has the time to pick and chose which network to be on," says Pej Roshan, Agito Co-Founder / VP of Marketing.  "The Roam Anywhere Mobility Appliance abstracts out all of these different networks, and then connects to the right network while providing end-to-end security.

The Agito appliance provides a number of mobile management tools, which appeal to customers such as Anthony Marano Company, that have a range of different devices deployed across a mobile workforce and suppliers (See case study, page 14).

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