Selling Points of Unity Connection 8.5

I was recently involved in the requirements analysis, architecture, and product selection for a client who is interested in upgrading from a current Unified Communications implementation using CallManager 4.1(3), Unity 4.0(5), and IPIVR 3.5.

One major decision point was whether to continue with the current Unity architecture or move to Unity Connection, which is a Linux-based alternative.  Cisco is clearly nudging customers to start using Unity Connection because the company is extending  their future development for Voice and Unified Messaging to that platform.

Up until Unity Connection 8.5 (which is due for release by Cisco in the next few weeks), I was partial to the original Unity for environments that had Microsoft Exchange because of the ability to use a Unified Inbox. Conversely, Unity Connection could only allow for Integrated Messaging, which would not have been acceptable to the customer since it requires a separate IMAP-based Inbox when using the Email interface.

That being said, Unity Connection 8.5 provides substantial feature enhancements and operational benefits that drove our ultimate selection for this customer (which is by no means exhaustive):

  • Allows for creation of a Single Inbox for both Email and Voicemail by synchronizing with Exchange, instead of direct integration. Unity Connection 8.5 will be able to maintain a separate mailstore for voice messages and reduces Exchange dependencies using Web APIs instead of MAPI. It also doesn’t require an Active Directory schema extension.
  • Allows for running in a virtualized environment on the Cisco UCS C-Series Rack Mount Servers (actually applies to all Unity Connection 8.x versions). This allowed the customer to enjoy the benefits of virtualization of their Unified Communications applications without requiring that they run a Fibre Channel SAN (this is required by both Unity and/or the UCS B-Series chassis). The customer has a limited iSCSI SAN deployment today.
  • Allows a simplified way of providing improved resiliency without having to use dedicated backup or standby servers. Since Unity Connection runs in an “Active/Active” mode, we will be able to run two geographically-dispersed servers located in different data centers that can take on full operation in the event that one of the data centers or servers suffers a failure. Unity would have required 4 servers to provide similar functionality.
  • Greatly simplifies the ability to deploy voice-only mailboxes where desired.
  • Voice Recognition Capabilities (Speech Connect). By providing the ability for inbound callers to simply speak the name of the person they want to reach, we are going to attempt to both remove the use of Attendant Console and IPIVR for external inbound calls. Removing Attendant Console is one of the more challenging aspects of our deployment – I will write more on this in the future.

The biggest drawback with Unity Connection 8.5 at this point is that when it is released on 12/16/2010, it won’t immediately support the use of a Single Inbox / Dual Message Store with Exchange 2003 (It will only support this feature with Exchange 2010 out of the gate). This may cause a tight timeline for our implementation. Stay tuned for more on that later.