Developing a Unified Communications Strategic Plan and Transformation Roadmap Part III

In our last discussion on strategic planning for Unified Communications (UC) the focus was on identifying, documenting and developing consensus on the key requirements for the proposed UC environment. The next step, which is addressed in this post, deals with evaluating the state of the current voice, data and UC/Collaboration application environments. This is critical from a planning perspective for three reasons:

  1. Evaluating the current environment allows us to develop a solid baseline for use in a later step focused on developing the transformation plan for UC.
  2. Assessing the current environment enables us to identify any critical gaps, performance problems or other significant issues that would require remediation and could potentially impact the schedule, budget and success of a UC deployment.
  3. Validation of the current operations posture is also a valuable step as it provides for establishing a strategy to introduce the UC specific management platforms (asset, configuration, performance, etc.) and service policy and conformance components.

In a current-state assessment, the existing voice and LAN/WAN data networks must be considered. The baseline assessment should include collection of topology, configuration and utilization or performance information.

This data can then be compared to industry, vendor and IT best practices.  It can also  provide an operating baseline characterization of the pre-deployment environment. Any resulting gaps should be clearly identified with recommendations for resolution. The costs to resolve these issues must be factored into any downstream economic analysis to determine the full impact.

The following list provides a summary of the typical information that needs to be collected to support the voice & data current state assessment:

  1. Physical and logical network topology and interconnection
  2. Existing traffic loads and growth patterns
  3. Capacity, performance and utilization

As part of the capacity consideration, there are two elements which should be analyzed, Data and Voice

For Data:

  • Bandwidth
  • Latency (delay)
  • Jitter (variation in delay)
  • Packet loss

When it comes to Voice attention should be paid to:

  • Generalized call accounting and call volume information with peak busy hour usage
  • Call blocking and traffic engineering

Other current state assessments include:

1. Device capacity, performance and utilization

A.  CPU usage

B.  Memory usage

C.  Buffer failures

D.  Average and peak interface utilization

2. Geographic needs in terms of core, distribution and access capability

3. Monitoring capabilities and service level requirements

4. Availability and business continuity

For the LAN/WAN environment, the required data can often be collected using off-the-shelf and open-source tools to automate the process. A common technique is to first perform a “ping sweep.” This uses the Internet Control Messaging Protocol (ICMP) to send an Echo Request to each IP address in a given range.

The set of devices that respond can then be investigated further using Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) queries and other methods as available. Using ICMP to determine which IP addresses belong to which devices is not a perfect approach. Various conditions can interfere with a device’s ability to receive or respond to an Echo Request (e.g., firewalls, policy settings, etc.).

Additionally, the use of SNMP to collect inventory and other data requires that SNMP be correctly configured on all target devices. Existing network management and monitoring tools should be leveraged for data collection whenever possible.  This will  minimize the discovery duration, assuming that the tools have been configured and operate correctly as well.

Collecting information on the configuration and performance of the voice environment is often not as straightforward.  This is the case if the environment contains a variety of vendor platforms that are not IP-capable, not integrated from a management perspective or both. Systems that are not IP-capable often have proprietary management interfaces and applications.

Even newer systems that are IP-capable may still have management applications that only provide visibility into a given PBX rather than all of the devices across the enterprise. In most, if not all cases, this automated data collection process must be combined with manual approaches Some of these approaches include interviewing key Engineering & Operations personnel and leading facilitated working sessions across functional organizations.

In addition to evaluating the voice and data networks, several other related areas of discovery are often included in this step, such as:

1. Identification of existing UC & related applications

A.  Technology selection (considering existing investments; e.g., Microsoft Exchange, Cisco, Avaya, etc)

B.  Detailed list of UC components, services and applications currently deployed

C.  Existing UC integration requirements (e.g., instant messaging, presence, web collaboration, and unified messaging)

D.  Audio, video and web conferencing usage statistics

2. Discovery of key applications and associated characteristics, particularly those such as IP-based voice and video that have stringent network performance requirements

3. Determination of the people, processes and tools used to support service strategy, development, design, transition, operation and continual service improvement

4. Evaluation of required network services, especially shared services including DNS (Domain Name System), DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol), WINS (Worldwide Information Network System), etc.)

5. If a financial analysis or business case is ultimately to be developed, the current costs of the UC solution components (e.g., voice & telephony, conferencing, messaging, etc.)

Internal personnel are the best sources for collecting data on the current state environment.  It is optimal that these people have direct responsibility for developing and supporting the existing network infrastructure.

There are times when the discovery process is hampered by resource constraints.  This must be blended with executive sponsorship to ensure proper access to personnel and equipment.

There is often a desire for a “second set of eyes” to provide independent verification and validation of the current state. For these reasons, customers often turn to “Trusted Advisor” partners such as AT&T to address the gap.

Regardless of the path taken to evaluate the current voice and data (and application) environments, a solid understanding of the organization’s current state is crucial to effectively identifying and managing risk to the project. It is also necessary to help determine what needs to be done, in the proper  order and starting point.

In the next post in this series, we’ll discuss the development of the desired future state, which can be used to evaluate between potential solutions or to select the most appropriate solution based on the existing installed base of services and applications.

Eric Sineath Consulting Chief Architect AT&T About Eric