Unified Communications – A Green Solution for Business
As a small business owner, I’m well aware of the many expenses involved in meeting my company’s technology needs: an Internet connection, a telephone network, mobile phones, smart phones, voicemail, and probably a lot of other time-saving devices coming in the future. It all costs money. And that’s a critical factor for a small business, especially one that’s just getting started.
When I learned about Alteva’s approach to Unified Communications, I was struck not only by the lower cost, but also by the lower impact on the environment. I spoke with Louis Hayner, Alteva’s Chief Sales Officer, by phone from his Philadelphia office. I wanted to learn why his company’s services might be a good idea for small — and large — businesses to consider. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
BPGL: What is it that Alteva does, and why is it a good thing for the world?
HAYNER: I love the whole mantra of only doing good for the environment, only doing good for the individual enterprises, and not bashing anyone. One of my favorite people, who I try to model myself after — especially being from Philadelphia — is Ben Franklin. He always said, “Profit from doing good.” What we do at Alteva is provide hosted Voice over IP (VoIP) and Unified Communications solutions to both small businesses and large enterprise companies.
BPGL: Which means?
HAYNER: Unified Communications means we unify all the applications that you use to communicate – voice, video, workflow applications, CRM, AIM, presence, etc. We take these different forms of communications and mediate one solution or interface. For example, we make your voice (phone) and data (your computer) aware of one another. With our solution, you’re able to dial into your Microsoft Exchange mailbox, move calendar events, delete emails, and respond to emails all via voice prompts. That’s as opposed to just interacting with your Exchange via your Blackberry, PDA device or computer.
BPGL: So, when you use the voice prompts, your computer reads your messages to you?
HAYNER: Correct. It reads your messages to you, via any phone, when you dial in.
BPGL: How “friendly” is the voice? Does it sound human?
HAYNER: I consider it normal speech. It says, “Welcome to Exchange. You have three voicemails, two emails, and a meeting,” in a female’s voice.
BPGL: So it reads your email to you, too?
HAYNER: Yes. It will ask, “What do you want to do?” And you say, “Read email.” Then it says, “Your first message is ….” When you say, “Delete,” it will delete the message. Or you can say, “Respond; reply to all.” Then you record your message and send it off, just as if you were typing it.
The other piece of it is your calendar. Say you’re a busy person, and you need to figure out what calendar events you have. You’re running 15 minutes late for a meeting. You listen to your calendar event, and then you can say, “I’m running 15 minutes late for the meeting.” It will automatically send out a message to all the attendees on that meeting saying you’re running 15 minutes late. That’s one product that we have, called Voice-Enabled Microsoft Exchange.
BPGL: That’s certainly helpful, especially if you’re running from an airport or don’t have time to let everyone in the meeting know that you’ll be late.
What else do you offer?
HAYNER: Another product we provide is Microsoft OCS or Office Communication Server. OCS provides such capabilities as instant messaging (IM), presence status, and video calling, among other features. What that does is allow you, when integrated with the other products, to have a circular path of communication. So, right now, we’re just having a conversation. If I want to launch a video call, or if I want to share my desktop with you and give you control, it’s as simple as a click of my mouse.
Why would I want to do that? Well, let’s say you and I are communicating, and it’s not effective enough, for whatever reason. We’re talking about a strategy, a contract, or a specific written word. I may want to show it to you on my desktop. When you share my desktop — meaning you can see my desktop from your computer — I can highlight the section we’re talking about. I can change that section, because it’s on my desktop. But that may not be feature-rich enough. I may say, “Here is the control of the document; now you can edit the document.” Then you can point to what you’re seeing or what you’re talking about, or make changes to the document directly on my desktop.
BPGL: I can see how that would be helpful in some circumstances.
HAYNER: It is. But sometimes, unfortunately, on these business documents, it’s very complex. So let’s say that’s not enough. Say you want to escalate that communication to a video. Now you click a button, and as long as your computer has a camera, whether it is internal or external, you can launch video communication. Now you have voice; you have video; and you have the ability to share your desktop, all integrated together. So it’s not like you’re hanging up and calling a conference bridge. All you’re doing is escalating the communication paths to meet the needs of your call, when you start out as a call.
You could start out as an instant message. You could IM an employee to ask how everything is going. But then it starts to become cumbersome when you go back and forth. You decide to just launch a call. So, you click a button, and all of a sudden, your phone rings.You pick it up, and it calls the other party. You’re talking instead of IM’ing.
Another component of OCS is presence, which is a valuable feature of the product for companies looking to increase productivity. Many companies are very geographically dispersed, which is perfect for a hosted application. You’re able to see who is available and who’s not available, no matter where in the world they are working.
You can even see if somebody is available but they haven’t touched their machine in ten minutes. If you wanted to supervise someone, you could see exactly what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, if they’re available, or if they’re in a meeting.
When it is fully integrated with your voice and email, as Alteva’s solution is — that presence status changes automatically. It’s going to look at the Exchange calendar and say, “This person is in a meeting.” Or, when they answer or make a phone call, it will say, “This person is on a call.” It will basically tell you all of the different statuses of that individual through this OCS client. The beautiful thing is, it’s only $14 a month.
BPGL: For all of those services?
HAYNER: Yes, $14 for the OCS service and $14 for the email Exchange. The other piece of it is hosted VoIP. That’s all of your phone system functionality. The thing is, it’s all integrated and tied together. The last challenge with communications as it sits today is there’s still a separation between what you do on your PC and what you do on your phone. The phone’s not aware of your PC, and your PC is not aware of the phone — until now. That’s what Unified Communications is. And, in my opinion, the fact that it’s hosted is really what’s relevant to this conversation.
The host services are where you put all of these services and make them available in a managed data center. This is as opposed to the individual companies going out and buying all of these servers and putting them all on premise.
What you do is leverage the multi-tenant environment by reducing the carbon footprint, because you’re spending less electricity to service the end customer.
BPGL: Presumably, you’re also buying less equipment, and reducing the need for conflict minerals.
HAYNER: Exactly. We’ve never really talked about buying less equipment and what that means. Most of our focus, in terms of the green factor, has been on less consumption of electricity. As opposed to buying phone systems for each one of the companies and putting them at their individual locations, they just buy the phones. Then those phones talk to our phone system in the cloud.
BPGL: Do those phones plug into a computer, or how does that look at an office?
HAYNER: The phones will plug into the wall, and then the computer plugs into the back of the phone. You only need one data jack.
BPGL: Do you sell Internet access, too?
HAYNER: Yes. As part of our VoIP solution, you’re able to get Internet access from our company.
BPGL: How fast is the Internet access that you provide?
HAYNER: It depends on what your subscription rate is and how far you are from the POP [post office protocol, or mail server]. The technology is the limiting factor. We haven’t come up with new technology, we’ve just been able to integrate it in a more efficient manner.
BPGL: Can you give an example of how you’re integrating technology more efficiently?
HAYNER: Let’s go back to Ben Franklin. When he first lobbied for our efforts in the American Revolution, he was world famous. He had tamed electricity from the sky. The problem was electricity was a parlor room trick; it had no real relevance, no real use. It wasn’t able to be channeled; it was just cool. I think that’s part of where technology was.
When you start to talk about Unified Communications, to me the next analogy is that it took a New Jerseyan, Thomas Edison, to take that electricity and harness it for the use of mankind. You can go over to the wall and flip a switch, and lo and behold, now electricity has a use, and it powers a home. Without that component, taking something that naturally exists on the planet and harnessing it in a more efficient manner, it doesn’t really mean anything.
Unified Communications is not about disrupting a business’s way of communicating; it’s about collaborating. Making things that we use every day more efficient, greener, responsive to one another, and aware of one another. Eventually, what you’re going to see is this is going to be the lowest common denominator of how people will expect to communicate.
BPGL: We have a lot of choices in communication now. How does unifying these means of communication make someone’s work life more efficient or effective?
HAYNER: We’re just so used to our email, phones, IM-ing and all of the other pieces of communication being totally separate, with separate companies. If I want to IM, it’s not connected to my phone, my email, my presence. A lot of people have IM, and they’ll IM somebody to ask, “Are you available?” You shouldn’t have to do that. You should be able to see if they’re available.
And you should initiate to communicate in the way that they feel most comfortable. So, I’m a phone guy. In a lot of ways, I hate email and IM. I feel like sometimes you go back and forth five and ten times, where you could have a five minute conversation and take care of it. Don’t get me wrong; email’s perfect for documentation, perfect for other scenarios. But I feel like as a society, we’ve grown so scared of the phone. If somebody wants to communicate with me, it’s more effective for them to pick up the phone and call me; we can accomplish pretty much anything via the phone. If somebody else is not a phone guy, and they like email, I should communicate with them via email.
That type of interconnection between phone, email, IM, desktop sharing, video — they all should be aware of one another. They should be accessible, and the person should be able to choose how they want to be communicated with. That way communication still happens, but it happens on their own terms.
BPGL: How do you see Unified Communications affecting the future of business?
HAYNER: As this younger generation comes into power in the marketplace, you’re going to see instant communication that’s always on. Quite honestly, sometimes that’s good, sometimes it’s bad. But it’s like two fleas arguing over who owns the dog; it doesn’t matter.
Unified Communications is going to be the lowest common denominator. You’re going to expect, if you’re in a business, that you’re going to have these capabilities. And maybe Microsoft will be the predominant one; I think they will be, and we’ve invested pretty heavily in that relationship.
The bottom line is, the way that people communicate — whether it’s a Droid or an iPhone, or another type of PDA device — the conversation, the way you’re using your phone has changed so drastically. And you’re going to see the same thing with Unified Communications. It’s going to be so prevalent; it’s going to be the way that you communicate.
For everything we’ve talked about, there is going to be premise-based gear. The challenge with on-premise gear is that it consumes electricity in a less efficient manner. You need hardware at your premise for each individual service, whereas we build big servers, and we make it available to the cloud.
BPGL: Would you mind explaining the cloud in layman’s language?
HAYNER: The cloud is where all of the technology services — the servers, the intelligence for the entire back-end Internet, public-switch telephone network — live. When you make a call, the way it works is that, regardless what phone service you’re using, they’re all interconnected. This industry is so incestuous, meaning that there are so many different providers hitting so many different connections. The cloud is where the aggregation of those providers comes together.
BPGL: Would you say that the cloud is similar to the web, in that it’s “out there” on some computers, but we consumers don’t ever see precisely where it is? Or do you know where these services reside?
HAYNER: You know where they are. It’s just that, if you’re not a telecommunications carrier or an Internet service provider [ISP], you’ll never visit the cloud. You’ll never go to these carrier access points.
There are 52 carrier access points across the country, and that’s where all of the centralized connections come in. These are centralized aggregation points where all of the carriers put their switching infrastructure. Up until hosted solutions became available, you would always have an on-premise box at your location that would connect to the cloud.
The cloud is not new, it’s just a new way of describing hosted solutions. You’re connecting your on-premise box to this cloud or carrier POP. If you get direct connections to the cloud, you can eliminate that on-premises box, and therefore eliminate some of the power consumption that exists in running that on-premise box.
BPGL: Do you see an equivalent rise in the power you use in hosting in the cloud? So, if I’m using less electricity by using the cloud, is the cloud correspondingly using more?
HAYNER: No, because it’s so much more efficient that you get the power of scale. When you put in these cloud-based buildings, all of the consumption and generation is very well thought out because it has to be. That’s the whole purpose of the building: to power and supply connectivity. That’s why there is 86 percent or so less consumption using cloud-based services versus premise-based services.
BPGL: Also, I gather there’s the advantage that you have some more space available in your own data center. In other words, when you have a big computer, you’re not going to use it all the time, because different people are accessing it at different times. So, there’s more efficiency with the cloud, as far as data storage and data use. Is that a correct assumption?
HAYNER: Yes. You’re hitting on the key points. You’re leveraging the power of the cloud or leveraging the power of scale to reduce your overall cost and consumption, whether it is bandwidth, power, consumption of resources or revenue, or what have you.
That’s why Microsoft and Google are battling for dominance in the cloud. That’s why Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, came out in March and said, “Lead with the cloud.” They’re all positioning themselves to deliver application access from the cloud, because as a service provider, and as a company, as a cloud aggregator, you’re able to scale these solutions so much more effectively than scaling them at your own premise.
And then in disaster recovery or scalability — and all of the other different components — the fundamental benefit from the consumption perspective is when you put it in the cloud. A big enterprise may have its own cloud, and that adds further confusion as to what the cloud is. In my definition, the cloud is the central aggregation point for both the Public Switch Telephone Network [PSTN] and the Internet backbone.
BPGL: I want to go back to another term that I don’t quite understand. Please define POP in words that mean more to me than “post office protocol,” the definition I found on Google.
HAYNER: POP means point of presence. Let’s take your situation for example. You have a phone, and you have Internet lines coming into your home office. You’re connecting to a local central office, a brick building in your town. That central office is then connected to a regional office, that’s connected to a tandem office, that’s then connected to a carrier POP or a carrier hotel.
Telephony started in 1876 when Alexander Graham Bell said, “Mr. Watson, can you hear me?” or something along those lines. And the Internet was thought of way after the PSTN but was built on the same principles.
The reason why the PSTN was built the way it was built is that the primary means of communication that started it all off was the railroad. The railroad is very similar to the PSTN or the POPs in the sense that you have connections across the country. Then you have centralized aggregation points, like the railroad stations, like Penn Station in New York or the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, where all the trains come in, pick up the passengers, and go on their way. They’re the POPs.
Fundamentally, the differences are in innovation and technology. It always seems that you stand on the shoulders of great people. In 1876, the Transcontinental Railroad was already built out, and along with it the whole process of how to disseminate information or people. How do you do it? You have centralized information points and railroads across the country, that’s who built the PSTN.
AT&T leveraged that type of concept to build out the public switch telephone network, which was the first Internet backbone. And the Internet backbone was built on the same type of method that the PSTN was. In essence, you have different media. As opposed to the Internet lines, you have phone lines; but they’re pretty much aggregating in the same places, which is the carrier hotels or the POPs – points of presence.
BPGL: You touched on disaster recovery. So, if I trust Alteva to send my data through the cloud, how confident can I be that you will always have my data, even if Philadelphia happens to be the next disaster scene?
HAYNER: The way we build out our solution, we have our gear in four carrier POPs: Philadelphia, St. Louis, Colorado, and Los Angeles. Our resiliency or disaster recovery plan is to have the gear spread out throughout the entire country.
The other thing that’s worth understanding is this: If you have an interruption from your location to the cloud, so to speak, from the telephony perspective, you get a fast busy signal in the traditional world. The call control is outside of your building. In essence, anything can happen to your building and you’re still able to receive your calls, just as though your building was up in operation.
So with Unified Communication, it’s immaterial whether your building is in operation. You’re able to take your calls on your cell phone. When you called me today, you called my office phone. It rang my office phone and my cell phone at the same time.
In a cloud-based solution, my office could lose power. My office is in a normal building. But all my data hardware, all of the hardware that services my customers, is in a hardened building. The walls are three feet thick. There are three feet of glass. There are three power grids feeding these buildings. There’s 72 hours of power, even if all power grids go down. It has to be that way, because it would be a national emergency if that building had problems and we weren’t able to get electricity.
The whole concept here is that building has to be that way anyway, why not leverage that resource? If you start to spread your resources across the country, you mitigate any instance of being out. That‘s what hosted VoIP or UC is about. Because your building is a normal enterprise, it doesn’t have to have three-foot thick walls. It doesn’t need generation of power for 72 hours. It doesn’t need three power grids. No buildings have this except carrier POPs.
BPGL: Let’s talk about savings. What are companies using Alteva’s hosted Unified Communications saving money on?
HAYNER: They’re paying all the different services, but what they’re doing is leveraging the efficiency of consolidation. So, I’m going to use a ridiculous example. Say you have four cars. You have a red car, a blue car, a green car, and a yellow car. You can only use the yellow car to go to your supermarket. You can only use the green to go to Lowe’s or Home Depot. You can only use the red car to go to the post office; you can never take the red car to the supermarket. You also have four car payments.
What if I said to you, “I have a new way of doing things”? You can take that red car and go to the supermarket. You can go to Home Depot. You can go to the post office. And you can even get in that red car and drive to your grandmother’s house over the river and through the woods. It would obviously save you on the car payments of three other cars. And it would even spare you the time of having to write a separate monthly check to pay for each of the four cars.
Sounds ridiculous, but that’s what telecommunication has always been. It’s always been separate voice and separate data, because they weren’t consolidated. Where the savings comes from is through the consolidation and leveraging of these assets.
So you already have Internet access, and it’s a necessity. What else can I do with that Internet line? I can run voice over it or video over it and get rid of my legacy telecommunications infrastructure.
The other benefit is, when you go hosted, since you’re buying less hardware, your capital expense to realize that savings is a lot less. So the difference between the hardware needed for hosted services versus on-premise services is about $350 one-time per user versus $2,000 one-time per user.
The challenge with on-premise hardware is that no one has the money, and the ROI is not quick enough. So hosted services are grabbing hold like never before. The economy has always helped the lower-cost option. And in this case, in my opinion, it’s not only the lower-cost option, but it’s also the more efficient option, the more scalable option, the more disaster-recovery option.
Hosted services mitigate any single point of failure in a more efficient manner. Hosted services do everything on-premise can do, plus they’re accessible for the small business as well as the large business.
BPGL: You say that this is a one-time $350 purchase as opposed to a one-time $2,000 purchase. What are consumers purchasing for $350?
HAYNER: Just the phones.
BPGL: Are they special phones?
HAYNER: They’re not special phones; they’re VoIP phones. When you purchase a new phone system, if you buy an on-premise-based phone system, you need to buy phones, the phone system, and then the carrier services. With our solution, if you choose VoIP, you just buy the phones. The phone system functionality is in the cloud. So you avoid that whole additional purchase.
With the email piece of it, you no longer need to buy the servers and all of the Exchange services. All of that stuff is just run on your desktop, and you’re just connecting your computer to the cloud.
BPGL: What is your background? What brought you into the company, and why do you care about things like reducing energy consumption and saving money for consumers?
HAYNER: I have a biochemistry degree, so when I was an undergraduate, I took a lot of environmental classes. If I hit the lottery or something, I would love to go back into that field. I love to learn. I’m very familiar with what the potential is if we don’t do something different. That’s really where my interest is. I’m an informed citizen, so to speak. I have enough science in my background to make me dangerous, but I can understand how everything is interconnected.
From a work experience perspective, I grew up in sales, and sold everything from phone lines to phones, to Internet to phone systems, both on-premises and hosted. I did disaster recovery consulting for Fortune 500 companies. I landed here and am now one of the principals of Alteva. It’s my baby.
We try to make Alteva represent who we are as people. We’re very environmentally conscious, environmentally friendly, young individuals who are trying to make our mark in the world. And we’re young executives who really care about the environment. Personally, I understand what the implications are, so that’s what my interest is. To me, if you promote this and make people aware of it, maybe more people will buy into that — profit by doing good, not just profit.
And, I just had my first son April 1st.
BPGL: Congratulations. You have more reason than ever to be environmentally conscious now.
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