Interoperability among unified communications (UC) vendors ensures that one vendor's system can talk to another's, but unified communications integration -- consolidating a portfolio of competing vendors' UC tools into what looks like a single application -- will matter most to end users.
"It basically makes you more efficient and quicker at getting your job done," said Steve Brescia, enterprise architect at American Water, a water and wastewater utility company based in Voorhees, N.J. "You're not flipping back and forth between applications. You're able to graduate into different levels of collaboration right from one place.... It makes you think less about the technology, where it is and how to use it, and more about what it is we need to get done."
Brescia's nine-person enterprise architecture team has been using IBM's Lotus platform as the foundation for his company's unified communications integration project. The utility's 5,600 Lotus Notes users will interact with one application (Lotus Notes) for all their communications and collaboration needs.
From within Notes, users will find a coworker's availability from the company's Cisco Unified Presence server, fire up a Cisco WebEx session when collaboration starts, drag and drop files from Microsoft SharePoint into the Web conference, and click to call a coworker's Cisco or Avaya phones if a voice conversation becomes necessary.
The unified communications integration project -- expected to roll out early next year -- also enables users to combine their personal and professional calendar applications into a single interface, Brescia said.
"[Our team] is trying to provide a single pane of glass to our employees so that they can work smarter, more efficiently and more productively," he said. "I'll know my meeting is finishing at 5:00, I've got a doctor's appointment at 5:30, and tomorrow my colleague's in Hershey, so I shouldn't walk over to his desk if I need to talk to him."
Open APIs, standards enable unified communications integration
Why should competitors like Microsoft, IBM and Cisco play nice? Because customers are demanding it and they have no choice, according to Amy Huson, director of unified communications at Plantronics, which recently announced that it would offer a plug-in for its headsets to interoperate with Lotus softphone clients.
"[Enterprises] are looking more at what those software bridges and what those hardware bridges are," Huson said. "Neither Cisco nor Microsoft likes to talk about it … but [enterprises] are saying, 'Give us a bridge so I can use my Cisco call routing and access it through my desktop tool.'"
Whether grudgingly or enthusiastically, the top dogs in UC have begun to put aside their differences and offer -- in varying degrees -- open application programming interfaces (APIs) that enable such examples of unified communications integration.
"We often beat up the vendors and say, 'You're just trying to get us to buy more of your products,' but let's give credit where credit is due. A lot of vendors are providing open APIs … for heterogeneous stacks," said Rob Koplowitz, principal analyst at Forrester Research. "We're seeing a real movement in that direction. We have more tools than we've ever had before, and to the extent they are integrated in context, it lowers user confusion."
UC leader Avaya has shifted focus from its hardware heritage to its Aura software platform as a means for unified communications integration. Unlike IBM's open API approach, Avaya's unified communications integration is based on session-initiation protocol (SIP). Avaya has positioned Aura as a foundation on which other UC tools can be layered. Whether through SIP or open APIs, most vendors are pushing integration.
"That's really what we call the heart of unified communications and collaboration," said John Del Pizzo, IBM's program director for UC and collaboration software. "Really, [Lotus] is a UC platform that allows you to bring into the equation the video conferencing, telepresence and telephony systems you've already invested in … and bring all those services together in a common user experience."
IBM's open architecture allows other UC or third-party vendors to offer plug-ins or middleware based on the Eclipse open source software license, Del Pizzo said. Many IBM customers script their own plug-ins using the APIs as well, he added.
Brescia said the open platform his team is working with saves them from having to slave over coding to deliver sophisticated unified communications integration. Instead, he licensed and configured a few plug-ins from their Cisco value-added reseller and bought middleware from Mainsoft, a vendor that specializes in integrating Microsoft and IBM products.
Brescia says his team has run into a few configuration hiccups but no major bugs. "We're dealing with big hitters … [so] I think that helps us, too," he said. "These guys, to some extent, want to play together or at least feel the need to."
Who troubleshoots unified communications integration?
Brescia said the complex unified communciations integration that his team is building could present some support and troubleshooting challenges for his company's help-desk team. This concern has factored into his team's decision to spend about a year on proof of concept, financial analysis and technical analysis before diving in, he said.
"I think troubleshooting is probably going to be a challenge for us, as compared to a single-vendor solution," he said. "I think that's why we've taken a slower road to do this."
Although unified communications integration enables enterprises to get more mileage out of their existing infrastructure, there is a point where it gets too complicated to manage, with too many applications, according to Huson.
"The integration patterns that we've seen are very much driven by the business need that led to the investment of UC," she said. "But you can also go so far down the path of integrating so many pieces that the burden of integration breaks under its own weight."
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer