Vendors broaden portfolios, but is a multi-vendor UC strategy safer?

Although a single-vendor approach simplifies support and management, UC pros may prefer the freedom and flexibility of a multi-vendor unified communications strategy.

Large unified communications (UC) vendors are consolidating and fleshing out their lineups to entice enterprises to build their UC strategy around a single product portfolio, but no vendor has yet mastered every domain of UC. Some industry experts say that's not such a bad thing. A single-vendor UC strategy simplifies support and management, but some UC pros prefer the freedom and flexibility of a multi-vendor unified communications...

strategy.

"We prefer to use products from different vendors, basically picking what's best [for the] price and the value," said Ed Garcia, IT director of the Horn Group, a San Francisco-based PR firm. "I used to think more [from a] traditional IT [perspective], where standardization is key to saving costs … [but] with new products emerging in the market, I'm changing my philosophy now. I'm more open to having multiple vendors."

Flexibility is probably better than the risk of managing more vendors.
Ed Garcia
IT DirectorHorn Group

As the sole IT presence for his 50-person company, Garcia used to believe that a single-vendor UC strategy would make his life easier. But he wants to avoid vendor lock-in above all, saying that if he tried to build a UC strategy around Cisco and only Cisco, he'd find himself saying no to users who want to experiment with other vendors' products.

"Flexibility is probably better than the risk of managing more vendors," he said.

After Horn Group had invested heavily in a Polycom video conferencing system years ago, Garcia hesitated to evaluate or deploy later releases from other vendors because of thousands of dollars sunk into the Polycom implementation.

He has since moved to Skype for Business, Apple iChat, Paltalk and Google Apps for video conferencing and instant messaging (IM). Although Garcia acknowledged they are not as full-featured as Polycom, he said they meet his users' needs and leave him more agile.

For the rest of his UC environment, users favor Citrix Online's GoToMeeting for Web conferencing, but he said they use Cisco Systems' WebEx occasionally. Although unified messaging has been less popular with his users than video and IM, Garcia uses M5 Networks for voice over IP (VoIP) and unified messaging capabilities.

"Managing multiple vendors is really not that big of a deal," he said. "Even if somebody can do [all aspects of UC] right, I don't think it's enough to lure a lot of people because they like the freedom of choice -- especially if the choices are good."

Single-vendor unified communications strategy: A loss of control?

The UC market saw some major mergers and acquisitions over the past year -- namely, Avaya-Nortel and Cisco-Tandberg -- and those merged companies have begun moving toward product integration. For Cisco, that meant rounding out its video-conferencing portfolio to include not just telepresence but traditional room-based and desktop video conferencing as well.

Cisco has made a number of other moves recently to flesh out its UC and collaboration portfolio to give enterprises that one-stop-shop feel. It debuted Quad, a collaboration and social networking platform, at VoiceCon earlier this year. A few months later at Cisco Live 2010, CEO John Chambers showed off the Cius, Cisco's Android-based tablet device that comes populated with mobile versions of Cisco's most popular UC applications.

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But IT pros should remain skeptical of vendors that promise flawless delivery across all aspects of UC and collaboration, according to Bern Elliot, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner Inc.

Enterprises can reduce the number of their UC vendors as a result of recent market consolidation -- and expect more of it, particularly in voice products, Elliot said -- but it is unlikely that even a vendor with a full lineup will deliver the highest quality for every technology.

"You can't actually get a [full UC] solution from a single vendor, despite what they're saying," said Elliot, who advocates a multi-vendor unified communications strategy in Gartner's 2010 Magic Quadrant for Unified Communications. "There's so much hype around this that people forget that vendors are making optimistic statements about their capabilities."

The most serious risk enterprises face is losing control over their own unified communications strategy when taking a single-vendor approach, he said. Their roadmap becomes the vendor's roadmap, and negotiating discounts can also become difficult when a vendor knows its customer has no way out.

"When you lose control, what happens is you start basically buying what the vendors are telling you to buy," Elliot said. "Your choice is limited and your ability to make company-affecting decisions is limited."

Ideally, enterprises should aim for three to four vendors to cover telephony, video, collaboration and mobility, he said, adding that niche vendors are also more likely to work harder toward interoperability, whereas larger, catch-all vendors are motivated to prioritize having their own products integrate.

"You can't do a reasonable approach to UC as an enterprise if you're going to have too many vendors, but you can't expect to do it with one," Elliot said.

Single-vendor approach brings harmony for some

Not everyone agrees, however, that a single-vendor unified communications strategy means leaving yourself without options or influence.

Rob Minshall, MIS administrator for Volunteers of America of Florida, a nonprofit social services organization, said his all-Microsoft UC environment has been more of a benefit than a burden.

"A one-vendor solution creates the same user experience and the same technical support experience," said Minshall, who serves as the IT lead for most technologies within the organization. "If some other vendor came in, it'd be a complete revamp and even more challenging to switch gears [rather] than wait for [Office] Communications Server 14 to come out at the end of the year."

Supporting about 200 UC users across 30 offices, Minshall uses Microsoft's OCS 2007 platform and Office Communicator for IP telephony, direct inward dialing (DID), IM, presence, unified messaging, and Web and video conferencing. He also has a subscription to Microsoft Development Network (MSDN) to test products before they are put into production.

Minshall disagreed that vendor monogamy has left his unified communications strategy vulnerable to Microsoft's whim, saying he feels the approach has earned him more clout than just another Outlook customer.

"Streamlining is really being able to get someone who knows us and who's dedicated because the bigger the account, the more attention you get and the bigger the discount, generally," he said. "I think I actually get more attention by leveraging more and more services through Microsoft than if I had them broken up [among multiple vendors]."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer

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