Updated: May 19, 2012
I must admit I was slightly apprehensive when I saw the mail asking me whether I might be interested in reviewing an administration cookbook on Cisco Unified Communications Manager (CUCM) software. It's not exactly a household item, nor is it easy to test one to its full potential, as it requires a handsome enterprise environment, replete with network communications devices. But I thought this could be an interesting reading challenge, more so as I would have to focus on the book only.
Anyhow, Cisco Unified Communications Manager 8: Expert Administration Cookbook, by Tanner Ezell, is a 310-page work on how to get the most from the call-processing system, including common tools and utilities, monitoring, advanced features, upgrades, recovery, security, and more. Let's take a look.
There are eleven chapters in the book, all following a similar format. You are briefly introduced to some of the notable features of the system and how it can be used, and then given a handful of recipes on implementing best practices and solutions. All examples are accompanied by multiple screenshots.
It is important to remember this is an expert work, so many items will remain unexplained in the book itself. You will either have prior knowledge or will need to explore extensively before you will fully understand the full contents. However, if you are somewhat familiar with network protocols and managing at least some rudimentary communication devices, like routers, you will not feel utterly lost. In fact, the cookbook is fairly easy to follow.
The first chapter explains about call routing and dial plans, as well as extensive features of the E.164 recommendation. You also learn how to create local route groups, load balance the work between devices and perform smarter routing.
One thing that will immediately become apparent is that the focus is on using the GUI tools for management. This can be useful for most people, but power users might ask the tricky question, where be the command line. In a way, the recipes will help you memorize the frontend options, but you might not necessarily gain absolute control and understanding of all the underlying functionality.
There's also some mention of time of day call scheduling, user experience, blacklisting fraud numbers, and a very basic use of regular expressions to create routing rules. For veteran Linux or UNIX users, the necessary logic will be a breeze.
In Chapter 2, you learn about Call Admission Control, bandwidth control, the importance of quality of service, Resource Reservation Protocol (RSVP), and some command line to get the sccp service configured on IOS devices. There's also some mention of alternate and automated alternate routing.
Chapter 3 was fun, but probably because it offers some glitter to the rather technical part of the book's work. It's mostly about setting up conference bridges, transcoding, Media Resources and Music On Hold AKA Clayderman's Ballade Pour Adeline. Not bad, but it does feel a bit clunky doing all that using the GUI only.
I found Chapter 4 to be of quite some interest, as it is handles some advanced troubleshooting and tracing tools. As part of the administration work, analyzing the work of network devices is quite important. Unfortunately, the GUI-only approach mentioned in the book undermines the importance of a proper detective work. Setting up tracing profiles using a point-and-click query wizard feels amateurish. There's some mention on how packets can be collected using a command-line tcpdump-like syntax. The chapter also teaches on using the Dialed Number Analyzer, which is sort of like traceroute for calls.
The fifth chapter focuses on device and unified mobility. You learn about setting up and finding roaming
devices, access codes, switching between hardphones, softphones and mobile phones, blocking call transfers, and
routing destination profiles.
My interest flared once again in Chapter 6 as it mentions user management and LDAP integration, but the focus is on directory services in general. Somewhat not surprisingly, the author used Microsoft Active Directory as the LDAP choice. The chapter felt like setting up users and permissions in Windows. Very labor-intensive, with focus on ringtones, background wallpapers for your phone devices, some custom filters using LDAP syntax, policies, user roles and configurations and access permissions. I was hoping for a more comprehensive read on the work behind the scenes and how it can be managed, but it kind of slipped through in an implied sort of a manner.
Chapter 7 is a light read. You learn about all kinds of user features, including direct transfer to voice mail,
Meet Me conferencing, Call Park, malicious call identification, custom ringtones, custom images, and a dual
mode for iPhone. The chapter feels jumbled and confusing, and I failed to understand the full relevance and
usage of conferencing and call parking, for example. I also wonder why iPhone is singled out as a device of
importance. The use of XML files from the command line to get your custom look and feel is a step in the right
direction, but then again, only very rudimentary and fully manual FTP-like commands are shown.
Advanced features are exposed in Chapter 8. Perhaps it's my lack of networking knowledge, but I didn't fully
understand Extension mobility. On the other hand, monitoring, call recording, geo-location, filters, and
hotlines were easy enough to follow. You also learn how to setup barge tones and calls, for those users late to
Security is the focus of the ninth chapter. You learn about security profiles, how to setup notifications on secure and non-secure calls, somewhat like HTTPS certificate warnings. In fact, if you think of the CUCM system as a very complex routing + web suite, then some of the logic comes naturally.
You also learn about digest authentication, endpoint hardening with things like gratuitous ARP, Web access, how
to setup secure conferences and some VPN functionality. Again, you get little to no command line.
Chapter 10 teaches Serviceability, Upgrades, and Disaster Recovery, aiming to cover configuration of alarms and tracing, along with configuration of the three versions of SNMP. It also covers the backup and restore process for the Unified Communications Manager publisher. For Linux admins, this will be familiar ground, as event severity and logging levels are identical to the syslog facility. You also learn about how you can use SNMP to trigger real-time monitoring. Finally, there's some mention of patching and upgrades and backup, done just like home routers using a GUI wizard. I'm really wondering about the backend commands that would allow for full, unattended scripting.
For me, Chapter 11 was supposed to be the most important part, as it talks about bulk administration using the Bulk Administration Tool (BAT). However, rather than having a command-line tool that parallelizes administration of users and device and permissions, you work with a GUI wizard, again, which loads Excel files and translates them into CSV files with known headers. Feels really weird. As the headers are known, expert users can easily into their own scripts and even export APIs, allowing for easy management of device profiles, gateways and codes. But the chapter only focuses on the very manual use of the wizard, denying the whole purpose of bulk administration.
Cisco Unified Communications Manager 8: Expert Administration Cookbook is an interesting and useful read. I do admit some of the topics were a bit out of my hand, but not by much. The terms were explained well and the flow easy to follow. Overall, any experienced network admin could use it with confidence.
However, I do lament the sore lack of the command line and the rather Windows approach, where you remember the location of buttons and drop-down menus in the GUI rather than fully understanding the core functionality of commands that do all that in the background. And for experts, the ability to put everything into a single shell, Perl or Python script is all the magic, especially on UNIX-like devices. I am particularly concerned about bulk user administration, patching and security, as running these through a wizard feels extremely tedious.
The book is priced GBP21.24, which is a fairly low price for this kind of work, making the book worth its value. Overall, Tanner Ezell did a good job with his recipes, but I'd like to see the next edition approach the same problems from a terminal window. That would really export the power and magic of the system. Grade wise, 7.5/10.