Banks, other organizations use UC to improve client service and user experience

The unified communications market is changing. Feature-rich Internet messaging and voice-over-IP telephony were once mostly the domain of CIOs and IT departments, but these services are entering the mainstream, driven by employees’ uptake of mobile hardware through BYOD initiatives and easy-to-use applications, as well as the subsequent entry of these endpoints into the workplace. Costs have declined and the underlying technology has been simplified, making UC, whether delivered through the cloud or on-premises infrastructure, an increasingly attractive option.

“[F]ocus has shifted to the end-user experience, including ease of use, as well as the business value of UC,” observed COMMfusion president Blair Pleasant in article for No Jitter. “There’s a growing realization that the user experience must be intuitive, relevant to the user’s work and tools, and competitive with the experiences delivered by consumer devices and apps. It’s no longer about getting the ‘latest and greatest’ – it’s delivering intuitive and contextual UC solutions, and the business results that are achieved by simplifying collaboration and meetings and enhancing the mobile experience.”

Unified communications market reshaped by consumer focus
The shifts toward intuitive UC user experience comes at just the right time, as UC begins displacing legacy systems. In the past, communications infrastructure was too limited, costly and complex to cater to the end user. Much of IT’s time was devoted to simply maintaining the status quo, with little left over for improving usability or refining the user interface.

With the emergence of cloud computing as well as flexible, highly capable on-premises solutions, all of that has changed. Third-party hosting companies now steward UC technology, optimizing it for day-to-day use by their clients. At the same time, organizations with large call volumes increasingly utilize on-site UC – with installation help from managed services providers – for maximum stability and cost-effectiveness. Either way, businesses and their clients now benefit from amenities such as:

  • Contextual services: Relevant call histories, emails, texts and documents can be retrieved for each conversation.
  • Embedded technologies: Computer telephony integration in integrated into most contact center solutions, and UC is moving in the same direction. It is no longer a standalone services so much as fundamental communications infrastructure.
  • Video meeting rooms: Video conferencing enables better remote collaboration, and with VMRs it is possible for users to connect using a client of their choice, whether they are inside or outside the company firewall.

All of these features add up to a rich UC experience for users and tangible benefits for the organization. Banks, for instance, have deployed wide-area networks and contact centers to better support UC and improve interactions with clients. According to AllAfrica, Comnavig ICT Advisers CEO Olufemi Adeagbo recently identified a well-designed, technologically sound contact center – with features such as UC and video conferencing – as the only way to ensure that business opportunities are realized and brand reputation maintained.

“Imagine a car sale opportunity that is lost because the advertised mobile number is off, unavailable or cannot be answered,” stated Adeagbo. “Imagine the dormant account the bank does not proactively place a call about to understand the issue and reactivate.”

How BYOD can be made easier through desktop virtualization

 

Bring your own device policies, already buoyed by rapid uptake of smartphones and tablets, may gather additional momentum as prominent technology vendors devote attention to making mobile hardware valuable in the workplace. Dropbox for Business has made several big acquisitions related to BYOD, with the aim of helping businesses transition to multi-device, highly consumerized IT environments. Meanwhile, Apple has included advanced support for email, device enrollment and calendar collaboration in iOS 8, making the mobile OS more amenable to BYOD than ever.

It’s clear that BYOD isn’t going away. However, organizations are still adjusting to the new pressures that the phenomenon places on data control, security and compliance. While major firms continue to work on BYOD-centric solutions, enterprises have to assess their mobility needs and decide whether to implement measures such as desktop virtualization to enable BYOD.

Virtualization makes BYOD more secure for leading steel producer
The central issue with any BYOD policy is the transfer of control – over hardware, software and data – from the IT department to employees, who may be less scrupulous in terms of what applications they use. For example, files that should remain behind the company firewall may be shared with consumer-facing cloud services. Mobile devices enable such habits, even as they hold potential to enhance collaboration and remote work.

Fortunately, desktop virtualization facilitates a middle ground between BYOD adoption and enterprise security. Rather than let each endpoint have its own OS and applications, IT departments distribute a single desktop experience via a virtual machine. Devices connect to the VM securely and gain access to approved software. Data is not retained on user hardware after a session ends.

Essar Group, a conglomerate involved in steel, oil and telecom services, turned to desktop virtualization to standardize and secure its employees’ mobile experience when working with company assets. Ultimately, it moved 5,000 users to its new virtualized platform.

“Security of data was the primary point of scope for looking for [a] desktop virtualization solution,” Jayantha Prabhu, CTO at the Essar Group, told Dataquest. “We had a good experience of the ability to control the data at the disposal of the employee when we deployed the same for some of our teams which handled data which was very critical both from a confidentiality and a brand perspective. We had around 3,000 BlackBerry users and more than 2,000 people with tablets, and with all the applications being accessed on the tablets, it was tough to ensure security of critical information.”

Desktop virtualization is a powerful tool for securing data and controlling mobile devices, but its benefits don’t stop there. Other perks include:

  • Reduced power consumption through the use of thin clients (machines that depend on a server for most or all of their software).
  • Centralized management of software and devices, with much more efficient patch distribution and application upgrades.
  • Support for remote collaboration since users can get the same experience from any Internet-enabled device.

With a broad set of advantages for organizations in finance, healthcare, education and other sectors, desktop virtualization is a practical, versatile way to incorporate BYOD while maintaining the integrity of company data.

Getting better device and data security through desktop virtualization

Desktop virtualization is an increasingly popular way to get more out of old IT systems while enabling access to company applications from virtually any device. By hosting an operating system on a centralized virtual machine, organizations can avoid the hassle of installing and managing extra software on every last piece of equipment. Under ideal circumstances, virtualization contributes to high levels of security and convenience.

Virtual desktop infrastructure and mobile security
The influx of mobile endpoints into the workplace, fueled by bring-your-own-device policies, has made such virtual desktop infrastructure appealing. IDC recently estimated that 155 million smartphones would be used for BYOD in the Asia-Pacific region in 2014.

But what about security? Employees who use their own hardware may be prone to mingling personal habits and data with corporate assets. A classic example is managing sensitive work documents through consumer applications such as Dropbox.

Enter VDI. Important data can be kept in cloud storage services and accessed exclusively via secure connections. Information is usually not retained locally, and all permissions are protected by authentication mechanisms. VDI basically provides a catch-all solution to managing application access in the context of BYOD.

"The move to BYOD was a wakeup call for mobile security because information security is a key IT responsibility – regardless of whether the mobile device in question is company-provided or user-owned," observed Michael Finneran for TechTarget. "Unless an organization opts for a solution that avoids storing corporate data on a mobile device, systems will be needed to protect that information."

Virtualization vendors target health care, financial industries
VDI's potential for securing applications and data has caught the attention of organizations in health care, finance and other regulated sectors. At the same time, major technology vendors have worked on thin client solutions for these markets, crafting products and services that enable desktop virtualization through minimal infrastructure.

Still, as virtualization becomes more popular, there have been concerns about balancing performance and security. Network Computing's Jim O'Reilly dug into the dilemma by noting that many providers have added instance storage, which are usually solid-state drives that provide the speed and muscle to overcome common bottlenecks such as VDI boot storms (i.e., when everyone logs in at around the same time).

Instance storage enables outstanding performance, but it also results in data states being preserved and, in theory, prone to surveillance and theft. Persistent data could be an issue for health care organizations obligated to comply with legislation such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Organizations should understand the ins and out of any virtualization solution before entrusting data to it.

BYOD could evolve into bring your own everything

Bring your own device has certainly had its fans in recent years, with a growing number of organizations drawn to the collaborative and productive capabilities of smartphones and tablets. Gartner has estimated that by 2017 half of firms will not only allow but encourage employees to take advantage of company BYOD policies.

BYOD and the path toward bringing in anything and everything
Although BYOD is commonly associated with someone simply bringing in a personal device and connecting it to various company applications (as well as attendant security mechanisms), it has the potential to become, or at least influence, something much bigger. Some firms believe that the same ethos behind BYOD could lead to employee-supplied software, storage and services – basically a bring your own anything/everything state of affairs.

According to the Australian government document "Victorian Government ICT Strategy 2014 to 2015," chronicled the shift to BYOD by public sector agencies, citing core benefits such as:

  • Efficient working arrangements: Employees can work from anywhere, potentially driving down organizational costs for office space and power
  • Higher productivity: Workers may feel more comfortable operating out of their homes and using their own devices
  • Easier hardware management: Organizations don't have to buy new endpoints as often, if at all.

The implications of BYOD adoption are wide-reaching. With enterprises becoming increasingly less reliant on hardware, software and even facilities that they have paid for upfront, there's the allure of supporting more operations through cloud computing services that can be delivered to any device, anywhere. It's possible that workers could supplement their personal smartphones and tablets with productivity tools and online storage of their choosing.

"Underpinning BYOD, a range of policies and standards are required to ensure that security, interoperability and performance are not compromised. BYOD is a first step in a broader approach to employee [information and communications technology] productivity, leading to bringing your own productivity software and some storage – i.e. BYOE ('bring your own everything')," wrote the report authors.

The range of use cases for BYOD is certainly impressive. Eight years ago, Seton Academy in South Holland, Indiana introduced student laptops, containing 70 percent of the required textbooks, and now it is transitioning to BYOD. More specifically, its educators plan to use cutting-edge hardware to support school-wide initiatives such as delivering books through the cloud and moving to electronic-only submission of papers.

Clear policies and user education enable effective BYOD

Bring your own device has been all the rage in recent years, ever since iOS and Android smartphones and tablets entered the mainstream. Although modestly powered compared to a modern desktop PC, these devices have many built-in advantages over older hardware, including high-resolution, pixel-dense displays, 3G and 4G LTE cellular connectivity, and excellent portability.

Still, there are some key considerations to make when adopting a BYOD strategy. Are devices properly secured? How much will it take to support each new endpoint? There are plenty of options out there for organizations seeking to make the most of BYOD and overcome common obstacles related to security and cost.

BYOD has solid momentum, raising the stakes for user education and sound implementation
One of the biggest benefits of BYOD is that it potentially frees the organization from having to shoulder the costs of additional hardware upgrades, since each user supplies his or her own device. On top of that, the freedom and flexibility conferred by BYOD can translate into new business opportunities, such as ones for sales teams that need to make presentations or access corporate data while on the road.

“BYOD strategies are the most radical change to the economics and the culture of client computing in business in decades,” stated Gartner analyst David Willis. “The benefits of BYOD include creating new mobile workforce opportunities, increasing employee satisfaction, and reducing or avoiding costs.”

Gartner predicts that by 2017, half of all businesses will require employees to adopt  BYOD, in hopes of achieving these benefits and others. Setting up and enforcing BYOD policies could save companies a lot of money that would have otherwise gone toward building dedicated networks and procuring compatible hardware.

Solutions such as desktop virtualization have come to the fore alongside BYOD, making it increasingly possible to provide a consistent operating system experience to every device within the organization. Vendors such as Samsung have also created device-specific security suites designed to ease BYOD management.

Ensuring security and productivity with a BYOD strategy
It is important to have an actionable plan in place before implementing BYOD. As ZDNet’s Adrian Kingsley-Hughes pointed out, a seat-of-the-pants approach usually does not work since companies can run into trouble trying to ensure that, for instance, assets are not moved from the internal network to public-facing cloud storage services.

Instead, companies have to train employees on using BYOD-enabled hardware responsibly and regularly reinforce guidelines. More specifically, some considerations for a sensible BYOD policy might include:

  • Guidance on how to deal with lost devices
  • What happens if a BYOD user leaves the organization
  • Listing of what company data, if any, is governed by regulations

Ultimately, BYOD is an exciting opportunity for organizations, but one that must be approached with care. Common sense and technical know-how can transform employee devices into valuable company assets.

“We are now entering a period of transformation,” Samsung Telecommunications America vice president David Lowe told FierceMobileIT. “It started out with clients being very reluctant to support mobility in their enterprise, trying to figure a way to keep it out. We are now in the transformation stage where enterprises are finally embracing it. That’s where the real innovation is going to come.”

Government agencies show power, potential of VDI

Why use virtual desktop infrastructure? Many government agencies have found plenty of reasons to do so, including supporting their increasingly diverse device fleets and reducing overall power consumption.

What are the main benefits of VDI?
With VDI, the computing power needed to deliver a desktop environment moves from on-site PCs to servers housed in a data center. For public and private sector organizations alike, there are several key benefits to this arrangement, including:

  • Heightened device and data security – hardware running virtual desktops via VDI is connected to servers through an encrypted channel. That means it is safe to grant these devices access to core applications, such as enterprise resource planning and client relationship management.
  • Streamlined system administration – IT personnel can worry less about having to implement complex mobile device management for smartphones and tablets
  • Lower costs – VDI can be a viable alternative to building entirely new applications and services tailored specifically for mobile screens. The use of zero/thin clients – minimal hardware with little to no installed software – also drives down electricity consumption compared to desktop PCs.
  • Support for mobility – teams working off-site can still access important assets by connecting to VDI.

U.S. government sees success with VDI implementations
Implementing virtualization and VDI have already produced real gains for the U.S. Department of Energy, as well as the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Navy. For instance, FCW reported that the DOE conducted a 500-seat VDI pilot program that exhibited an excellent level of user experience and proved that VDI could also help trim expenses.

Going forward, VDI may evolve, moving off-premises and into cloud computing environments. More specifically, desktop-as-a-service may provide similar amenities to VDI, with the exception that infrastructure is managed by a cloud services provider rather than the organization itself.

Freeing IT of this responsibility could potentially streamline costs even further. However, there are still the core issues of ensuring that data is kept safe in the cloud and that organization’s particular needs, especially for bandwidth, are being met.

VDI and bandwidth requirements
For organizations that adopt VDI, it’s critical to figure out right away what is expected from the VDI implementation. That way, they reduce the risk of setting up something that doesn’t align with their goals and ends up running over budget. In many cases, these issues manifest themselves as poor end-user experiences or insufficient bandwidth as a result of “boot storms” (many users connecting to VDI simultaneously).

“You also need to bear in mind that VDI almost always results in a change in usage patterns,” explained The Register’s Trevor Pott. “Whatever your usage patterns are today, expect that VDI deployments will ultimately see more people working remotely, be that telecommuting from home or pulling down their desktop at a hotel or business meeting. You need enough [wide area network] bandwidth to meet not just today’s needs, but tomorrow’s.”

Handling changes in bandwidth usage requires careful consideration of VDI storage and networking equipment such as switches and ports. Managers also have to learn more about what types of applications teams will be using via VDI. While word processors won’t really push server CPUs to their limits, any software that works with graphics and/or video will significantly alter calculations of what kinds of resources will be required to ensure optimal VDI experience.

With the help of a managed services provider, companies can set up VDI that works for them. When VDI first became a hot topic several years ago, organizations were eager to use it as a catch-all solution, which led to many underperforming implementations. If aligned to specific goals, though, VDI is an effective, economical way to use the same applications anywhere.

How desktop virtualization enables better BYOD management

Virtual desktop infrastructure gained traction recently as more organizations adopt and support mobility initiatives. Employees, empowered by bring-your-own-device policies, are increasingly capable of working from anywhere. Companies that are phasing out Windows XP PCs may even choose to replace these aging machines with mobile devices that provide more streamlined user experiences and offer a slew of modern applications.

VDI’s role in enabling mobility
Where does VDI fit into this picture? With device fleets becoming more fragmented, VDI can be a cost-effective means of providing critical access to core company assets such as enterprise resource planning, client relationship management and line-of-business applications. It’s economical because it requires less investment, both in time and money, than crafting mobile experiences from scratch.

“Applications can also be enhanced for mobile access on the server end, without building a mobile development capability within your organization or hiring expensive outside help,” explained TechRepublic contributor Patrick Gray. “You could use your existing ERP developers to create a dozen screens and reports that have a limited number of fields, and space them more appropriately for mobile use, without writing a single line of mobile code.”

In practical terms, VDI can give sales teams access to full desktops so that they can make use of important tools such as CRM and PowerPoint while on the road. Even if the organization has a BYOD initiative in place, VDI simplifies common BYOD issues such as hardware management and security enforcement – each device communicates securely with the VDI servers via an encrypted session.

VDI and the growing uses of desktop virtualization
Moreover, VDI fits into many organizations’ growing interest in virtualization. Forrester Research’s David Johnson told InfoWorld that more than half of IT decision-makers cite desktop virtualization as a top priority for 2014. Although the market for PCs may be stagnant right now, there is still enough demand for virtual desktops that many companies have turned to VDI to deliver secure computing environments and access to applications on any device.

Certainly, there can be technical and financial challenges in implementing effective VDI, but these obstacles can be overcome with the expertise of an IT solutions and managed services provider. Organizations can also optimize VDI through the use of thin-client software to connect to VDI systems. Eventually, VDI implementations can pay for themselves by making workers more capable, regardless of where they are, while also streamlining mobile device management.

Who really cares about BYOD?

The bring-your-own-device movement is well on its way to fundamentally reshaping enterprise communications. So why do so few organizations seem to care about device management? A fairly wide gap formed almost immediately between BYOD user excitement and enterprise policy engagement, and it's only going to expand.

Entrenched employee attitudes absolving them of responsibility create problems for IT, and many organizations let worker preferences overwhelm clear-cut business priorities. The central problem with BYOD is a company's capacity to show that its cares – not only about the ways that BYOD can be hazardous, but about creating strategies that cater to worker preferences while keeping security at the forefront.

BYOD is clearly important to employees. One recent LANDESK survey found that the average European worker spends more on BYOD every year than he or she does on tea of coffee. They care about having the devices, but not protecting the data stored on them.

"It's not my problem" was a common refrain in a recent survey by Absolute Software about data security in the mobile enterprise. More than a quarter of those surveyed said they felt there should be no penalties for leaked or lost corporate data. Additionally, more than one third of respondents who lost their mobile devices said that they didn't make any changes to their security habits, while 59 percent estimated that their corporate data was barely worth more than the cost of replacing a phone.

Who is to blame for BYOD problems?
It's up to companies to exhibit the same passion for data security that employees have for using their own smartphones. Of those who acknowledged a penalty for data loss might be in order, most received nothing more than a slap on the wrist from employers, and often much less – 21 percent had a talking-to, 30 percent had to replace their lost device themselves and 34 percent reported that "nothing" happened when they lost company information. This reflects poorly on companies, observed Absolute mobile enterprise data expert Tim Williams, and will continue unless companies get proactive about BYOD management.

"If firms don't set clear policies that reflect the priority of corporate data security, they can't expect employees to make it a priority on their own," Williams said.

Establishing and enforcing BYOD practices is a good first step. Regulations have to acknowledge the ways personnel use BYOD and avoid limiting productivity as much as possible. There are several technological tools that can help a company secure mobile devices behind the scenes. Investing in managed infrastructure and IT support services provides a scalable, adaptable and continuous resource for effective network monitoring and data management

Desktop virtualization: Why companies need to stop dragging their feet

Desktop virtualization is a necessary investment that reflects the changing technological paradigm. With employees increasingly mobile and companies more globalized, personnel need to be able to access their desktop operating system and applications from anywhere. Many organizations are eagerly sending data storage to the cloud and investing in as-a-service solutions to better manage and protect growing application environments. However, this accelerated investment wanes when it comes to desktop virtualization. Why? Shouldn't location-independent services extend to the level of the end user?

Cost continues to be an impediment to desktop virtualization in the eyes of many companies. While organizations acknowledge that the Internet offers a much more cost-effective and centralized medium through which to provide enterprise application and information access, they are worried about the expenses involved in reconfiguring enterprise infrastructure to make it compatible, according to a recent TechNavio report. While it's true that this can represent a sizeable capital investment, the long-term operational savings are enormous.

Bearing this in mind, ZDNet contributor Ken Hess wrote that it's surprising that companies are "still having this conversation" about the merits of desktop virtualization. Many companies who are worried about the costs of deploying virtual desktops and other infrastructure are the same ones clinging to hardware that is approaching or past its fifth year in use.Old equipment breaks down more frequently and often costs more to repair, and the more outdated hardware is, the more difficult it is to transition to a new IT program. Newer hardware likely has virtualization capacity. It makes sense to upgrade now, knowing that doing so when it is inevitable or reached a critical point will be extra complex.

Curing data management issues in the healthcare sector

Data management in the healthcare industry is reaching a tipping point. According to CDW Healthcare, the medical sector is gearing up to massive data growth – the 500 petabytes of data in 2013 are set to rise to 25,000 PBs by 2020. By 2015, the average hospital could be producing around 665 terabytes of data.

It's not just the amount of data that's the issue, but the types of information organizations collect. About 80 percent of data is unstructured, with imaging, scans and video requiring huge swaths of server space. Also, many healthcare providers are storing redundant information – the average hospital has 800,000 total records, but as many as 96,000 are duplicates. They are costly to store, making filing systems and data management efforts more complex without delivering additional security.

While big data offers potential benefits in patient care, research and treatment, the healthcare sector is flailing. In part, it's due to a relatively unique set of circumstances. The healthcare sector is traditionally fairly tech-averse – that acres of file cabinets containing patient records in manila folders still persist is a testament to how difficult it is to go digital. Initiatives such as electronic health records and healthcare information exchanges that increase the value of data have to contend with a slew of compliance, privacy and confidentiality issues.

Data management services can help healthcare organizations wield their vast information reserves in a cost-effective and secure way. Modern information technology infrastructure and business intelligence tools are critical to the effective utilization and protection of game-changing data-driven strategies, wrote Forbes contributor John Foley. Not only are massive file systems difficult to back up in a comprehensive way, many medical providers don't have any idea how long it would take to make files available following an unplanned incident. A data management services provider can help the organization establish a customized storage and backup system that prioritizes continuity and compliance. With people's lives potentially hanging in the balance, it's vital that healthcare providers alleviate big data headaches.