What is Unified Communications? What does the term mean? Is it the same as videoconferencing?

Unified Communications is a term to describe a set of technologies that enable communication. The term “Unified” denotes a of grouping of different types of communication into a manageable user case. For example, you may have audio-only communication or video-enabled communication. You can have an audio-enabled or a chat-enabled application. If these are completely different systems then they are not unified. If these belong to the same system or are parts of a greater system  somehow integrate those various features into a simple use case, then they are unified.

Videoconferencing is the term used to describe video communication. Today, videoconferencing occurs almost exclusively over IP networks. The last ISDN-based video systems have almost dissapeared completely. I say this knowing that there are some “resistive” end users who are still keeping ISDN interfaces for backward compatibility. Compared to the term “Unified Communications”, Videoconferencing would likely be regarded as a subset or as a component of a UC architecture.


Types of UC systems

The main communication types of a UC system are Video, Audio, and Instant Messaging. The components and systems that enable this communication can vary widely. However we can classify them into a few main categories: Video endpoints, Audio endpoints, application servers.


Video Endpoints

We can also break down Video endpoints to two main subcategories. These are room systems (hardware endpoints) and desktop software clients. The former are systems with cameras and microphones that you see in corporate meeting rooms to facilitate videoconferencing connections. The latter are software applications which run on a computer. These facilitate personal conferencing using a web camera and a computer microphone or a headset.


Audio Endpoints

Audio endpoints are devices also found in meeting rooms. These are essentially specialised speakerphones. They have been designed for audio conferencing and have better quality than an ordinary phone. They have round or triangular shapes to enable people to talk from all directions while sat at a meeting table.


Application Servers

Application Servers are systems that enable video, audio and other forms of conferencing. An example is a multipoint control unit (MCU, which allows more than two locations to connect to the same video call. In a multipoint call users look at a screen that is divided into several windows, one window for each location to connect from. Other examples include servers such as a gatekeeper for H.323 videoconferencing or a SIP registrar for SIP videoconferencing, monitoring servers, WebRTC servers, web collaboration servers.

Many vendors are supplying UC systems in the global market. The standard solution includes software clients for the computers of a corporate environment, application servers such as an IM system or a MCU, and hardware-based videoconferencing endpoints.

A Unified Communications system enhances productivity and helps people be more efficient while working. This is because they have several ways of communicating with their colleagues, peers and third parties, in a simple and intuitive way. UC systems contribute to spending control via travel reduction, since many people are now able to communicate remotely instead of a visit onsite.