Microsoft's development of Lync and its acquisition of Skype have given Microsoft presence in the unified communications market; but Cisco has a mainstay in UC with its WebEx and ever-nimble Jabber applications. While both companies have overall strengths and weaknesses, their competitiveness may well produce good innovation for the unified communications market.
Is it too early to compare Cisco and Lync?
The decision to go Microsoft or Cisco … is generally not as simple as comparing how many features each can offer.
senior director of product management, IntelePeer
So how does one UC platform stack up against the other? Is it too early to tell?
Neil Griffiths, senior director of product management at IntelePeer, does not believe it is too early to compare Cisco and Microsoft UC products. Both companies are established enterprises, are quite competitive, and offer leading-edge features and products.
"Both [Cisco UCS and Lync] are mature, full-featured products at this point, and the enterprise adoption data confirms that both are adding users," he said. "That said, the decision to go Microsoft or Cisco -- or more likely in a larger enterprise, both -- is generally not as simple as comparing how many features each can offer. Customers choose one over the other based on their total package from either company, as well as their existing installed solutions and attractive grandfather licensing models on offer from both companies."
How to decide between Cisco and Lync UC platforms
According to David Bakke, a financial columnist with knowledge and experience in these platforms, Microsoft Lync functions well if a firm is already using other Microsoft products. But Cisco, he contends, works better for companies already using its products. He further points out that one of Cisco's strengths is that it offers physical products -- something that Microsoft doesn't. "One other advantage of Microsoft Lync is that it offers seamless integration between voice, video and instant messaging (IM) in one singular interface; however, Cisco now offers this feature as well," Bakke said. "Microsoft does offer a more streamlined hardware experience, in my opinion." (Also see this story on Microsoft Lync versus Cisco UC for further decision factors.)
How do Cisco and Lync features compare?
A cross-comparison between each platform's features shows advantages and disadvantageous from each vendor.
First off, Microsoft's Office suite is a first choice for many users. When it comes to unified communications, Microsoft has the advantage of Lync falling under the same umbrella as Skype. Its use may be strengthened if Skype is rolled into Office -- all under the Microsoft name.
However, Cisco may also integrate with Office. "Although, Cisco has offered a number of plug-ins that work well [with Office], such as scheduling a WebEx meeting inside the Outlook calendar," said Art Schoeller, vice president and principal analyst who focuses on applications development and delivery professionals with Forrester Research. "But their telephony integration to the Lync client, CUCILync [Cisco Unified Communication Integration for Microsoft Lync], is not that well received by customers."
More about Cisco
Lync monitoring needed to ensure UC performance
Polycom and Microsoft Lync for better video
Will the Skype-Lync integration spark UC federation?
When it comes to IM, Lync's IM capability and Cisco's IM product, Jabber, have subtle differences. According to Griffiths, both solutions would seem to offer broadly similar capabilities on the surface. However, there are significant differences when the layers are peeled back.
"Jabber deployments are perceived to be [of] low incremental cost on top of an existing CUCM [Cisco Unified Communications Manager] deployment and can incorporate room systems," he said. "Lync requires a wholesale swap out of devices. Lync offers peer-to-peer and fully federated voice and video. Jabber does not. While both solutions support XMPP [Extensive Messaging and Presence Protocol], the Cisco implementation is far more capable and robust than the Microsoft implementation."
Voice communications features vary by platform as well. Schoeller believes Cisco has much more experience with voice. "Cisco Unified Communications Manager is a full PBX [private branch exchange] system," he explained. "That said, Lync 2013 now offers sufficient voice features for a number of companies to seriously consider replacing their PBX with it."
Costs of Cisco and Lync
From a cost perspective, both Cisco and Microsoft appear to be well matched against the other. According to Griffiths, Microsoft offers some compelling licensing, where adding enterprise voice is a nominal incremental cost, or it may already be included in an existing enterprise license agreement. Additionally, Microsoft offers a high degree of flexibility by supporting license mobility.
"This enables an enterprise to use their Lync licenses for an on-premises or hosted Lync implementation," he said. "That said, Lync requires supporting server and OS licenses, and a typical deployment involves multiple servers -- physical or virtual -- with related deployment, integration, operation and maintenance costs. While there may be a higher up-front cost with Cisco, particularly when factoring in the cost of Cisco handsets over the typical usable life of the solution, the cost is surprisingly similar."
Cisco-Lync competition brings better UC features to market
Overall, Cisco and Microsoft are both dominant technology companies, and Griffiths describes this as "a battle of relative equals." He points out that Cisco can take advantage of its huge equipment-installed base, while Microsoft can leverage its installed software deployments and dominance in enterprise email.
Both companies are established, each with inherent strengths and market followings. For unified communication offerings, it's not a match of David versus Goliath, but Goliath versus Goliath, and this may be a good thing for end users at large.
"It's tough to call either an underdog," Griffiths added. "I'd also make the case that the level of competition between Cisco and Microsoft is great for enterprise customers, because it fuels innovation and drive to provide better services and technology."
This was first published in December 2013