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Automating Unified Communications

Jamin Horton
January 16, 2019

So when you think “automation” what comes to mind? Your thermostat or sprinkler system, maybe your coffee maker or online bill pay? Perhaps something a little more with an industrial feel like robots in a car factory or bottle processing at a beverage plant? Or is it something really sinister like out of control automated artificial intelligence that eliminates all our jobs? Hey, at least we’d all get universal income right? I guess the point is that whether you really think about it or not automation does play some part of your daily life.

Where it may be more obvious is in your work life. As budgets get tighter and the competitive pressures grow to be more productive business units are looking for repetitive tasks that can be automated. They do this so their true assets their people can focus on more proactive initiates that hold more value not only to the overall business but to them personally as well (think growth path, retention, etc.)

What automation actually looks like can vary exponentially depending on the organization and the tasks being automated. Now that automation is becoming more of a prominent business initiative for organizations we are seeing this start to filter over to items traditionally thought out of the realms of possibilities.

In our realm of influence, talking specifically about Unified Communications it’s been the conventional approach that the provisioning and de-provisioning of communication services are handled by a highly skilled resource. The systems that provided these services while powerful in their ability to offer options have not been intuitive or easy to navigate. The time and effort necessary to learn these skills don’t come quickly and at significant costs. Think about some of the conventional technology silos like Data Center, Networking and Security and what tasks are currently being automated. It was simply a question of time before it became of equal importance within Unified Communications.

I’ve tried to think about the evolution of Cisco UC automation throughout my career. Inevitably I’m missing some things, but the first thing that came to mind was the Bulk Administration Tool.

Provisioning or changing things was painstaking slowly but this feature at the time seemed like magic to me. It was however not without its drawbacks; there was a lot of testing, modification, configuration and maybe an outage or two before I got the hang of it. Next came things like TAPS or Self Provisioning, this was nice as it didn’t require me personally to build complicated spreadsheets and I could just type in a few digits and abracadabra the phone was provisioned, but it just did the phone not the other multitude of services that usually accompanied it. Even if that wasn’t enough then came a native and some third-party applications that while powerful were arguably equally as complex and cumbersome to operate.

UC Engineers are a bright bunch, and they like to overcome challenges. With the discovery of the AXL API, JSON, and Python Coding, I would see Engineers coming up with their homegrown scripts to accomplish some basic tasks. This was really cool, and I was super impressed with the ingenuity and creativity. The problem is they have day jobs, they can’t focus on something like this and with the lists of available services constantly growing keeping up with something like this really requires a dedicated team of Developers, UC Engineers, Software Architects, Product Managers, QA Engineers, shall I go on?

Stack8, enter stage left, please! So Stack8 was founded by former Cisco guys who recognized the power of the Unified Communications platform but also understood its complexity and wanted to create products and services that allowed customers to realize that promise of digital communications. As a Managed Services Provider, we quickly became overwhelmed with the day to day request for MAC’s. SMACS (Stack8 Move Add Change’s) quickly became our flagship product. It allowed organizations to engage non-traditional users who knew very little about Cisco UC to be able to quickly and easily provision and de-provision UC services. It also ensured the configurations were following the standard and were put in place correctly all without having to give access to the actual backend applications. This eliminated the possibility of an accidental potentially catastrophic outage.

However this has started to evolve as well, customers are now asking questions about additional automation capabilities including zero touch and end-user self-provisioning. Luckily for us, we have been expecting this and have developed viable answers for these. Before I touch more on those, I’d be remiss if I didn’t call out some things beforehand. Now it’s important to note that not every automation conversation with a customer is alike, but there are some similar pitfalls that we see that can inhibit and even sometimes all together stop an automation initiative.

  1. Automating Everything – This is just not feasible in 99.9% of use cases. Instead, try to focus on those things that are most important and easy to implement into your business processes. Inevitably you will learn things along the way, and as you receive feedback, you can then decide and more importantly justify what next to automate in your automation journey. Remember, there will always be things that you can’t just automate.
  2. Unnecessarily Complex – One of the things I sincerely enjoy is the awakening of the creative juices when customers start to realize the endless possibilities of automation. However, this can be a double edge sword because this boundless imagination while indeed possible does add a great deal of complexity and costs but to what real business benefit? This is hard because you almost feel like you are bursting this genuine creative bubble, but you want them to be mindful of being able to recognize the law of diminishing returns.
  3. Interdepartmental Collaboration – The topic of automation usually does not involve just one line of business. This can force business units that don’t traditionally interface that often to have to work together. Additionally, it’s not like all of these stakeholders came up with this automation idea simultaneously so some may feel threatened that work they normally did is now talked about becoming automated. It’s imperative that Executive Sponsorship or at the very least cooperation be established before engaging in substitutive conversations with a broader audience.

So back to our answers for enhanced automation capabilities. Luckily for us, our super smart developers have built in Restful API capability. This, in short, allows us to communicate effectively with other systems. So whether it’s tools like ServiceNow, ZenDesk, SailPoint, WorkDay or SalesForce if it has an API, we can integrate with it. This has allowed customers to drive all requests through their ITSM tool and kick off “zero-touch” provisioning or de-provisioning requests. This means a physical user doesn’t have to make the changes instead business intelligence is built into the automation that accomplishes the task without anyone having to touch the backend systems. Some customers have said as soon as a new end user shows up in Active Directory automatically provision their services and should they leave de-provision their services when they are removed from Active Directory.

Another option we have is self-provisioning. Whether it’s a web portal or even a chatbot we can provide an interface that allows users to select their services or request services and based on your organization’s preferences automatically (there’s that word again) provision services. Now every organization’s requirement is different, so the beauty of our solutions is they are custom for your unique needs and user experience. Some of our customers like this as it cuts down on the administrative overhead and allows users the freedom and flexibility to manage their unified communications needs. If you reach out for a SMACS demo, I’ll show you the self-provisioning experience as well!

Pretty cool right? No longer do you have to wait 3-5 business days or potentially longer to satisfy requests. Think about how this affects end-user satisfaction. How often do end users express negative perceptions about request time, or how often do you receive a follow-up ticket stating that the initial request was executed inaccurately? How much time does this cost you? What else would you be working on instead if you didn’t have to deal with these types of issues?

For our customers with the technical expertise, we have a fully published API smoke page that allows you to create your own automation processes and test them. If not fear not we have a dedicated team that can be retained for any questions or configuration feedback if required.

Now ultimately you have to evaluate all the options and decide on what solution(s) would ultimately be the best fit for you. The inherent value of SMACS is that it combines both Day 2 Operations Support as well as Automation capability giving you the best of both worlds. The SMACS application is in itself a form of automation and is currently being utilized by countless happy customers around the globe! I could go on, but I’m sure I’m limited to a certain number of characters or something. Why not request a demo and I’ll show you personally how the tool works and how it can help you and your organization!


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