What is Unified Communications?
Unified communications or UC refers to the integration of multiple forms of real-time communications including voice, video, collaboration and text messaging. Businesses are augmenting or replacing traditional voice-centric PBX systems with unified communications solutions to improve employee productivity and collaboration as well as to support mobility and BYOD initiatives.
Unified communications solutions offer the promise of a single place to manage multiple interactions including the integration of the user’s business phone number. UC solutions offer clients integration for a variety of endpoints including PCs, smartphones and tablets. UC solutions can be delivered in the form of IT infrastructure installed on the customer site or in the form of a cloud-based service.
What is Unified Communications: Functions
UC solutions minimally support real-time voice, video and text chat (instant messaging) capabilities. Most provide color-coded, presence-based directories (interactive user lists) that display real-time user status (i.e. on-line, off-line, or do-not-disturb). Most also offer PBX-like features such as hold, transfer, redial and three-way calling. Many offer advanced capabilities such as session recording, multiparty audio conferencing, multiparty video conferencing and screen sharing for hosting on-line meetings, presentations or product demonstrations. Often unified communication solutions also include a unified messaging component for voicemail and e-mail integration.
Many UC systems support APIs for integrating real-time communications capabilities into enterprise applications and business processes. Examples include the ability to call a customer directly from a CRM application or the ability to automatically direct an incoming call to the best employee based on skillset or presence state.
Unified Communications Components
A unified communications solution is composed of server-side and client-side components. The server-side component (sometimes referred to as an application server) is implemented as a traditional on-site IT solution or delivered as a cloud-based service. For the on-site case, some UC vendors offer turn-key UC server appliances, while others offer software-based solutions that run on industry-standard servers (typically x86 platforms running some version of Linux). Virtualized components are extremely common as they reduce the need for dedicated hardware and can simplify implementation; ultimately reducing the cost of the solution.
UC solutions also rely on media server technology for conferencing services and collaboration services. Managing multiple streams of real-time media is still a resource-intensive process and continues to be one of the largest costs and potential points of resource constraint.
Cloud-based UC services are often referred to as Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS) solutions. UCaaS solutions allow businesses to take advantage of the latest communications and collaboration technologies while avoiding capital equipment investments and ongoing management, maintenance and support expenses. They are ideal for mobility initiatives––users can access communications services from any place, at any time over the Internet. They are also well suited for “overlay” applications such as providing disaster recovery or business continuity support for an on-site PBX or UC implementation.
Mobile Unified Communications
Most UC solution providers offer clients for a variety of endpoints including PCs and laptops as well as smartphones and tablets. Some vendors offer mobile unified communications clients with user interfaces specifically designed for small form-factor devices. Many UC solutions support traditional IP phones as well (often SIP-compliant endpoints). Many UC vendors also offer softphone clients that replicate traditional PBX attendant consoles, executive phones or administrative-assistant phones.
Many UC vendors offer browser-based clients as well. Some now support Web Real-Time Communications (WebRTC)––an emerging industry standard for enabling Web browsers with interactive communications capabilities. WebRTC simplifies UC client administration and enables better user experiences by eliminating vendor specific, browser-specific plug-ins. Many popular browsers including Google (Chrome™), Mozilla® (Firefox®) and Opera™ now support WebRTC.
Relationship to Unified Messaging
Unified communications is sometimes conflated with unified messaging. Unified messaging generally refers to the integration of distinct electronic messaging systems such as voicemail, email and fax. Unified messaging systems often provide advanced features like text-to-voice (conversion of email to spoken word) or voice-to-text (visual representation of voicemail). Many UC clients provide a common user interface for invoking real-time communications functions and unified messaging functions in an integrated fashion.
What is Microsoft Teams?
Microsoft Teams is a persistent chat-based collaboration platform complete with document sharing, online meetings, and many more extremely useful features for business communications.
Having an excellent team space is key to being able to make creative decisions and communicate with one another. Shared workspace software makes this much easier to achieve, especially if a particular team is based in a very large company, has many remote employees, or is made up of a significant amount of team members.
Microsoft Teams has many core components that make it stand out from other collaboration software:
Teams and channels. Teams are made up of channels, which are conversation boards between teammates.
Conversations within channels and teams. All team members can view and add to different conversations in the General channel and can use an @ function to invite other members to different conversations, not unlike Slack.
A chat function. The basic chat function is commonly found within most collaboration apps and can take place between teams, groups, and individuals.
Document storage in SharePoint. Every team who uses Microsoft Teams will have a site in SharePoint Online, which will contain a default document library folder. All files shared across all conversations will automatically save to this folder. Permissions and security options can also be customized for sensitive information.
Online video calling and screen sharing. Enjoy seamless and fast video calls to employees within your business or clients outside your business. A good video call feature is great to have on a collaboration platform. One can also enjoy simple and fast desktop sharing for technical assistance and multi-user real-time collaboration.
Online meetings. This feature can help enhance your communications, company-wide meetings, and even training with an online meetings function that can host up to 10,000 users. Online meetings can include anyone outside or inside a business. This feature also includes a scheduling aid, a note-taking app, file uploading, and in-meeting chat messaging.
Audio conferencing. This is a feature you won’t find in many collaboration platforms. With audio conferencing, anyone can join an online meeting via phone. With a dial-in number that spans hundreds of cities, even users that are on the go can participate with no internet required. Note this requires additional licensing.
Full telephony. That’s right! The days of seeking VoIP vendors and overspending on a phone system are finally over. Microsoft Teams can completely replace your business’ existing phone system. Note this requires additional licensing.
To put it simply, Microsoft Teams is similar in concept to the popular collaboration software Slack with a lot more bells and whistles. Plus, Microsoft Teams is included in Office 365 for free.
Why Should Your Business Use Microsoft Teams?
When it comes down to it, businesses should use Microsoft Teams because it is extremely user-friendly and can facilitate a work environment between remote users or within a large business. Projects, productions, and other business elements can benefit from Microsoft Teams.
For businesses already using Skype for Business, the Teams client will replace the Skype client, but all additional existing functionality will remain the same.
Using Microsoft Teams
Teams is incredibly straightforward and user-friendly. There is little to no set up required. Still, some thought should be put into how a business wants to use the platform before rolling it out across the company.
There are two main options to consider:
The Organic Approach. A business can choose to immediately implement Microsoft Teams in a “complete free for all” fashion where everyone in the company can do whatever they want with the platform, and the adoption and usage of the Teams platform can grow organically.
The Controlled Approach. This more managed approach involves mandating Microsoft Teams’ use for specific aspects of the company. It also involves tightly controlling who is able to use it and who can do certain things within it, resulting in a phased rollout plan across the company.
You can choose to do something involving both of these approaches or something somewhere in between. What is right for a particular business depends on its culture and use cases. Teams can be controlled and configured directly from the Teams admin centre.
From the user standpoint, Teams is very intuitive and the learning curve is quite small compared to more complicated collaboration tools.Teams is a powerful and extremely useful collaboration environment that will only get more popular. Microsoft Teams is included in Office 365 for free, so any Office user can enjoy all the benefits of this collaboration solution. In summary, it brings simplicity to teamwork by collaborating, sharing, communicating and doing it all under one platform.