For systems integrator and service provider Eurodata, unified communications was a case of 'eating its own dog-food.' The company claims to have been the first in the UK after Microsoft itself to implement the latter's Office Communications Server (OCS).

"The opportunity is that what was once very expensive technology has now come down in price," says Eurodata MD and co-founder Des Lekerman.

The choice of suppliers - Microsoft for the software and Mitel for the phones and other IP telephony hardware - was pretty much governed by Eurodata's existing partnerships with those companies.

However, Lekerman claims that those relationships - and the fact that it had already been involved in hundreds of installations of Microsoft's earlier Live Comms Server (LCS) - meant Eurodata staff had a good idea of what was going to be involved.

In particular, they knew that this was going to very different from past projects to move communications onto IP networks. Lekerman says that's because unified comms (UC) it is not merely an enhanced digital version of what went before, as IP telephony was, but something that lets his team do things and work in ways that they couldn't before.

"Things like VoIP didn't impact the business user - it was all back-end stuff only. UC is different," he adds.

He notes that it is not just an office-based system - Eurodata's consultants use it from home as well. "Voice works fine at home over a 2Mbit/s link, with better quality than people are used to, though video [over home broadband] is more of a problem," he says.

The key is that the UC system gives each individual a single identity on the network, no matter what device they're using. That single ID can then find them wherever they are, making the system people-centric and device-agnostic, says Eurodata.

It's not for everyone though, says Neil Keating, the company's commercial director. For instance, not all staff need to stay in contact on the road or out of hours, so an important part of the project was to figure out who would benefit from having a full UC set-up, rather than just the individual applications they needed.

"Our knowledge workers are our consultants - they're constantly exchanging information and data," he adds. "Then there's our road warriors - the salespeople. They need to check proposal status, update their projects and so on. Our team uses a lot of instant messaging and an awful lot of LiveMeeting."

He says that while the HQ support staff and others all have Mitel handsets of one type or another, "We don't buy phones for our consultants any more - they have laptops with soft-phones."

According to Keating, a big benefit of the UC set-up is the ability to mix different comms media. For instance, the system could respond to a voice message with an out-of-office email, giving the caller information on how else to reach that person.

However, there are things in unified comms - or in the Microsoft version of it, at least - that aren't quite there yet, according to some of those involved in the Eurodata project. For example, there's not enough context in the OCS presence data, says Mitel UK director Marcus Jewell.

More context might tell you how best to contact that person, depending on how they're connected or where they are, he suggests, adding that Mitel says it is working with Microsoft to fix that.

"We'll probably have Lotus SameTime integration by February," he continues. "After that, the next big thing will be integration with Google when it enters the UC space."

And Neil Keating cautions that the set-up Eurodata chose, with Microsoft Exchange 2007 driving its email, will not suit every other mid-sized company - not least because of the hardware and software costs involved.

"Business managers want it now when they see the demo, but IT people see the upgrade requirements and so on," he says.

"A lot of enterprises won't buy Exchange 2007, because if you have 2000 to 4000 ports and aren't on Software Assurance, the cost is astronomical - but Exchange 2005 goes end-of-life in 2010," so they might not have a choice, he warns.

However, Des Lekerman says that for those that can afford the outlay - and whose business organisations can take advantage of the technology - it can be worth worth it.

"We create virtual teams for every project and need collaboration, so we have taken our existing Active Directory and Exchange infrastructure and layered UC on top," he says. "We have seen gains of up to 23 percent from things such as communications escalation - it has speeded up our decision time."