Small Office, Home Office Solutions

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Presenting a unified front to communicate and collaborate

By David Barbosa

Increasing productivity, reducing operational costs, and simplifying communications among employees have always been the core objectives of most large companies with elaborate IT and data communications infrastructures.

In fact, 96% of mid-to-large size companies in the U.S. that rely on multi-model communications systems and products have plans to integrate all of these technology islands into a single unified system, according to a survey conducted late last year by Infonetics Research.

Smaller businesses and home office workers are also tuned into these core goals, especially as video, short messaging, social networking technologies, and cloud-based computing techniques come into play. The technology commitment may pale when it comes to larger IT departments, but the passion is still very much there to develop and use tools that work across communications networks and boundaries to deliver a fluid and pervasive experience.

This effort is fueled by such companies as Microsoft, Google and others as they develop solutions that make use of smaller and more portable devices, such as laptops, tablets and smartphones.

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.

Voicing a need for communications

One of the more popular efforts among the SOHO set is voice over wireless LAN (VoWLAN) solutions that allow cost conscious small office/home office users to reduce telephone communications costs by using systems that channel voice communications through local wireless networks and out through the global Internet. These solutions offer computer-to-computer voice communications, and can connect and integrate with traditional phone lines as well.

Setting such a system up requires little more than a standard Internet connection, a wireless (or wired) router, a PC Wi-FI capability (either built in or through a wireless PCMCIA or USB-connected card) and some specialized software. The software can be downloaded through such services as Skype (which provides both a free and a fee-based premium service), or by subscribing to one of many available services (such as Vonage).

The VoWLAN are pretty simple and work relatively well, although there can be some quality of service (QoS) issues when communicating over wireless LANs, or when more than a small handful of people are communicating at the same time.

Equipment vendors like Motorola counter such difficulties by using different Wi-Fi 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 through different access points (APs) in larger setups.

Security is always an issue in wireless voice communications, especially if a SOHO user handles sensitive information, like that in the medical and healthcare fields. For the most part, standard IEEE safeguards developed to protect wireless networks are sufficient, although in reality, nothing can be totally protected from a determined and talented hacker. One rule of thumb, though, is to make use of solutions that wipe client devices clean of data following each use to prevent unauthorized use or access should the device be lost or stolen.

Since most security breaches are the result of user errors or taking shortcuts when it comes to security routines, there is a rising effort to eliminate user interaction from the equation and completely automate such things as authentication and access to different types of data and people.

Large companies like IBM are investing a lot of time and money into developing systems that interweave such technologies as collaborative computing, social networks, and cloud computing into something the company collectively calls Business Events Processing. Basically, this means getting the right information to the right person at the right time.

Making a play for presence

Obviously, large companies with hundreds or even thousands of employees, and a whopping IT budget to match may have the resources to put more effort into developing such elaborate systems. But smaller companies can also take advantage of data-aware applications and so-called \’presence systems\’ that automatically group people into assigned work teams and associate the right data to those teams.

Solutions providers like Agito Networks, acquired last year by ShoreTel, specializes in call control, voice over WLAN and location-based technologies for mobile systems and networks, and has increasingly focused on developing a strategy that integrates mobile tools and instant messaging. The company\’s technologies support major players like Cisco and Microsoft’s unified communications platform as well as traditional phone systems.

The combined companies presently offer a variety of unified communications solutions, ranging from call management systems to Internet Protocol (IP) telephony, which can be utilized by smaller companies and home office users to create a more big business feel for smaller operations.

Cloud-based applications and solutions have also leveled the playing field when it comes to making use of some very sophisticated alternatives as well. One solution of note, for example, is Jive Software, which has developed a solution that is said to combine community software with social networking and social media monitoring.

The result is a business engagement environment that connects mobile workers and lets them collaborate on projects and share experiences and opportunities in real time – in essence, creating a virtual office that is unrestricted by physical barriers, place or time.

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