Unified Communications: Data Center Virtualization's Final Frontier?

As organizations get comfortable with the idea of virtualizing mission critical applications, they're turning their attention to unified communications (UC). Some even see it as the next big thing in data center virtualization.

But while there's a lot of potential business here for VARs, the fact that UC touches many vital parts of the enterprise IT architecture makes it challenging to work with. This isn’t just file and print servers -- voice and collaboration are as mission critical as it gets and there is zero margin for error. The good news, according to solution providers, is that virtual UC has reached a point in its maturity where companies are deploying it with confidence.

Steve Kaplan, vice president of data center virtualization at INX, a Dallas, Texas-based solution provider, says all of INX's UC deployments today involve virtual Cisco Unified Computing System (UCS) running on VMware. And it's not just large enterprises that are taking the plunge. "We're encouraging all of our customers to go this route," Kaplan said. "Convergence used to be about voice and data, but now we're seeing voice converging with virtual infrastructure."

Neil Brenner, vice president of converged technology at Consolidated Technologies, a Port Chester, N.Y.-based solution provider, says between 65 and 70 percent of his firm's UC business involves virtualization. "Voice and data have collided, and voice is now one component of the enterprise applications suite," he said. "Organizations are recognizing that voice and UC have been tested and accepted as reliable and robust on the virtualized platform."

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As with other forms of virtualization, there are immediate economic benefits to deploying virtual UC, including server consolidation and lower power and cooling costs. But virtual UC fits in a strategic sense too, offering easier management, portability, and scalability, while laying a foundation for an organization's disaster recovery and business continuity planning.

"Running Cisco UC on VMware means you can have a highly available environment, you don’t need redundant hosts. You can actually have disaster recovery for voice mail systems as well," said Kaplan.

The redundancy aspect is one advantage that ICI, a Marlborough, Mass.-based solution provider, plays up when recommending virtual UC to customers. "Virtual UC allows customers to take advantage of disaster recovery and business continuity. The last thing a customer wants is to have to recover anything from a backup," said Jamie Shepard, executive vice president of technology solutions at ICI.

Virtual UC is especially compelling for organizations that have distributed offices because of the flexibility it can provide, says Mike Strohl, president of Entisys, a Concord, Calif.-based virtualization VAR. Once resources are virtualized, they're more easily managed. "One of the things driving virtual UC is organizations' desire to get centralized control over their IT operations," he said.

Next: Virtual Unified Communications And The Risks Companies Face

Any technology that solves nagging customer pain points is tailor-made for the channel, and this is true of virtual UC. However, virtual UC also comes with risks: Voice is a real time medium and organizations simply won't accept downtime, or even spotty performance. Therefore, virtual UC is a technology that screams out for careful, methodical planning and implementation, according to virtualization experts.

"There's definitely a risk disruption to business with virtual UC," said Shepard. "Every time you touch one aspect of IT you’re also touching a lot of other things."

From a skills standpoint, solution providers must be versed in the arts of core telephony and the UC applications that wrap around it. In the Microsoft world, Active Directory, System Center and Exchange integration skills come in handy, and knowledge of interoperability of UC solutions with other enterprise applications is also important, according to BJ Haberkorn, group product manager for Microsoft Lync Server.

But complexity in virtual UC doesn't just stem from technical issues -- and organizations that expand or alter their UC deployments without a sufficient amount of forethought often find this out the hard way. "The challenge is that 95 percent of organizations haven’t done any form of assessment up front in terms of business process around virtual UC and how it's aligned with IT," Shepard said.

UC isn't like other forms of virtualization, and that's where organizations sometimes run into problems when they try to expand deployments on their own. The complexity of UC, and its interconnectedness to other parts of enterprise IT architecture, means that even minor changes can cause big problems.

"With server and file virtualization, you have a one-level approach in which customer can explore and expand on their own without a high degree of risk," Strohl said. "Not only is there a high degree of risk with UC, if you look at how IT organizations are structured, people that own UC are different from those who own the servers."

To mitigate up-front risks, UC vendors have developed meticulous guidelines for channel partners to follow when deploying virtual UC. VMware and Cisco have been working together at an engineering level for the past several years to get their products running smoothly in virtual environments.

"UC apps can run on anyone's virtualization platform, but the voice component, which requires real time protocols, is still subject to vendor specified virtualized platforms," Brenner said.

To ensure that voice quality doesn't degrade in a virtual environment, Cisco allows only two virtual machines per blade, Kaplan said. "Cisco is taking a very crawl before you run approach to UC as a virtual machine," he said.

Next: What Microsoft Is Doing In Virtual Unified Communications

Microsoft, meanwhile, gives its partners prescriptive guidance on factors to consider when deploying its Lync Server. The software giant also has a UC competency in the Microsoft Partner Network that includes readiness training, certifications, and guidance for integrating UC with enterprise infrastructure. And through its Windows Server Virtualization Validation Program (SVPP), Microsoft provides a list of virtualization products and configurations that have been tested to work with Windows Server, Haberkorn said.

Microsoft sees its support for multiple hypervisors, and the flexibility that gives customers, as one of its chief advantages in the virtualization space. "A lot of the benefits customers from this get are efficiencies of scale and being able to use the same virtualization solution across a variety of workloads. Customers want to use the same virtualization for UC as they do for the rest of the enterprise, which is why this is important," said Haberkorn.

Is virtual UC really the next big thing in the data center? There's some evidence to suggest this is the case. Security, performance and reliability have now been proven, and pre-existing barriers have now dissolved. Organizations are taking the plunge into virtual UC with less fear than in the past.

But perhaps the biggest impact of virtual UC will be to illustrate how pretty much any workload, no matter how complex or resource intensive, can function well in a virtual environment.