Unified Communications Key to Connecting Remote Workers

My company has been trying to figure out how we can do better at connecting our remote users to our main site, as well as making our other location seem like it's right next door. Any advice?

Connecting remote sites and remote workers is a challenge for a company of any size, but it has become more important for smaller businesses in recent years. The ability for employees to quickly and easily collaborate with colleagues that might be hundreds or thousands of miles away can directly lead to increased business agility and can also serve to bring employees closer together even though they may have never met in person.

These services generally revolve around a few core technologies. First is voice services, which should not only be tightly integrated into all sites, but should also extend to the home office for remote workers, and be available to employees on the go in a hotel room on the other side of the country.

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Quick Poll: How Do You Use Virtualization?

virtualization at work
Virtualization is continuing to make inroads into the data center. Despite concerns around management and security, the savings from consolidating many servers or clients into a single piece of hardware are too compelling to resist.

Vendors have made huge advances in ease of use and efficiencies of scale, such as thin provisioning of CPU, memory, storage, and input/output (I/O) resources. Other vendors such as RingCube, Moka, Spoon, and AccelOps add functionality to VMware and other virtualization platforms, making it easier to provide users with the experience they want while retaining control and saving on hardware costs.

The options for using virtualization are many and varied. Solutions include free and open-source solutions such as Xen and KVM, as well as free versions of production software from virtualization vendors such as VMware and Citrix. There's also virtualization software included with an OS, such as KVM with Red Hat Linux or Hyper-V with Windows Server 2008. In addition, VMWare, Citrix, and others profide full-production hypervisors. Tools are also available to migrate operating systems from physical servers to virtual ones--or from one hypervisor to another. It’s possible to try virtualization with a free product, and then move to a supported product if the pilot program works out well.

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Few Businesses Have Unified Communications: Poll Results

Few Businesses Have Unified Communications: Takeaways
Two days ago, we asked both business managers and IT managers about how much they had unified their various communications services. Based on the responses to the polls, very few have integrated some combination of voice, fax, email, video conferencing or instant messaging services.

The majority of respondents--62 percent of business and 45 percent of IT managers--said they have a completely un-integrated system. Only 7 percent of business managers and 18 percent of IT managers said they have a fully integrated system. However, more than twice as many IT managers than business managers told us they have an integrated system.

This isn't really surprising; achieving unified communications is less simple than advertising might lead you to believe, and there isn't generally a single box to buy that lets you easily put everything together. Even systems billed as "unified communications in a box" mostly consist of a Voice-over IP (VoIP) product.

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Five Reasons to Set Up Unified Communications

Five Reasons to Implement Unified Communications
There are so many different ways to communicate with partners, customers and co-workers--by phone, email, instant messaging, fax, video conferencing, and social media. Managing each system separately is not only inefficient, but can cause conflicts since they all use the same underlying technology--the Internet.

Instead, establishing a single system to manage all digital means of communication allows for a single management interface, as well as integrated archiving and backups. Most importantly, with unified communications (UC) users get a single interface to access all messages. They can hear voice mails, answer emails, post Twitter or Facebook entries, send and receive faxes, and engages in video conferences from an single application, whether in the office or on the road. Here’s why your company should invest in UC.

1. You’ll reduce costs in the long run.

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Quick Poll: How Unified Are Your Communications?

How Unified Are Your Communications?
Unifying communications doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing proposition. You can start with a platform--internal or hosted--and simply integrate email and voice-over IP (VoIP), with phones that connect to the data network or headsets connected to computers. You can then add in instant messaging, video conferencing, fax functionality, social media, and a remote access portal later and in the order that best suits your company’s priorities.

The best savings with unified communications (UC) will come when you integrate all of the functions your users need into a single system. As long as you have multiple silos to administer, manage, and back up, administrative costs are minimized, and you’ll no longer have to apply policies across multiple platforms or train users on understand multiple systems.

So, do you do the whole migration at once--and live with the inevitable training issues and the complexity of cutting over multiple systems at once during the transition? Or, do you gradually ease into the transition and integrate the pieces one at a time?

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Aging Network Creates an Opportunity for Upgrade

I have a business computer network for 275 users that's been mostly reliable, but is getting old and causing problems. I think it's time to refresh the hardware, but I'm not sure whether I need gigabit or if I can stay with 100 megabit for my users. What do I need, and where should I look?

This is a very good question, and timely. Network switches tend to have a long lifespan, and generally “just work,” causing them to be largely ignored unless they fail or begin under-performing. Many networks the size of yours were built or upgraded some time in the past decade, and those networks are now showing their age, meaning they’re ripe for replacement. Basically, now is the time to build your network for the next 10 years.

First off, there’s no reason to go with 100 megabit switching for your users. The low cost and prevalence of gigabit switching coupled with the fact that nearly all desktop PCs are now equipped with gigabit network interfaces makes the move to gigabit a no-brainer. For many day-to-day tasks your users may not notice the difference between 100 megabit and gigabit, but the extra bandwidth afforded by gigabit to the desktop cannot be overstated when working with more modern applications and the larger files they produce. In addition, as we transition into a more connected business environment, these users will be placing heavier loads on the network with increased voice and video traffic.

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No Telecommuting Policy Leaves IT Vulnerable

Yesterday I asked readers how they support telecommuting on the job with two polls--one for business managers and another for IT pros (results below).

No Telecommuting Software Policy Leaves IT Vulnerable
The most surprising response is that 32 percent of IT managers said they either have no telecommuting policy or provide support but let users pick their own tools--and 45 percent of business managers said the same. Granted, in 24 hours there were just 20 replies to each poll, so the results are more anecdotal than scientific.

However, with no set policies or guidance for users, organizations risk security holes both in their internal networks and among the user groups working on projects from afar.

This is an issue much like buying insurance, but with a lower cost. Simply developing a telecommuting policy with basics--such as not sharing passwords or accounts, ensuring that passwords can't be easily guessed, and making sure that data is encrypted--is easy to do. The potential risks are great, depending on the type of data lost--and can lead to losing competitive advantages, suffering financial penalties, and enduring lawsuits. A security policy for teleworkers doesn’t need to be complex or all-encompassing; users will probably best remember a one-page sheet covering the basics. It's better to spend a few minutes on a policy than waste untold time on the potential fallout.

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