LAS VEGAS -- It's rare for an enterprise to go with a single vendor to meet all its unified communications (UC) needs, so as enterprise users integrate more video, IM, voice and presence into their daily routines, multi-vendor UC interoperability is an increasingly important issue.
Users demand simpler and more easily integrated UC tools, and vendors must do their part to help enterprises achieve maximum gain and minimal risk from their UC deployments, said Marty Parker, principal consultant at UniComm Consulting and moderator of the "Unified Communications Interoperability" panel discussion at Interop 2012 in Las Vegas.
Enterprises are tired of the lip service, said one Interop 2012 attendee, an enterprise IT architect for an electric company.
UC interoperability is important in making the experience much broader for the customers. You have to be not only competitors, but [also] cooperators.
UC Product Manager and Architect, Siemens Enterprise Communications
"Cisco is claiming the only way to achieve full and seamless UC functionality is to replace [Microsoft] Lync with [Cisco] Jabber and WebEx," said the IT pro, who requested anonymity. "They are not helping their customers integrate with Lync."
Some UC vendors at the panel discussion also said they were dissatisfied with the state of the industry.
"[Siemens] gets frustrated when we see a vendor not pushing to try to establish that standardization," said Frank Fender, UC product manager and architect at Siemens Enterprise Communications. "UC interoperability is important in making the experience much broader for the customers. You have to be not only competitors, but [also] cooperators."
The demand for interoperability is two-pronged. Users want various UC applications to work seamlessly -- voice with video, video with IM, IM with social networking and so on. They also expect that a multi-vendor environment won't inhibit a given communications technology, such as video-conferencing interoperability between Cisco Systems and Polycom units.
Vendors are currently addressing UC interoperability with varying degrees of success, depending on the industries they serve and their install base. But even as the issue is complicated by ongoing innovation, emerging applications and new features, one thing remains unchanged: "Everything just needs to interoperate for the user," Parker said.
Simplicity, federation key to UC interoperability
Even the integration of established technologies like IM can disrupt the enterprise UC model, Parker said. "Once you add IM into the enterprise, your users are going to start communicating differently."
Business application vendors have picked up on the trend and begun to embed communication functionalities into their products. Salesforce.com changed the UC market in 2009 when it embedded an IM, collaboration and social networking platform, Chatter, into its flagship, cloud-based customer relationship management (CRM) application, Parker said. "Salesforce can now be thought of as a UC client."
By embedding different UC functionalities into their offerings, business applications vendors seem to be getting away with not necessarily having to interoperate with traditional UC vendors. As in the case of Salesforce, an enterprise using Chatter as its primary UC client must integrate it with its public branch exchange (PBX) and email, Parker said.
But what specific functionality tops the UC interoperability and integration wish list? Voice integration is one of the most common requests, which Cisco Systems strives to fulfill in its telephony product line, said Wade Hamblin, manager of the IP Communications business unit at Cisco.
"Many enterprises have legacy PBXs, and they want integration between the old and the new for UC," Hamblin said. "No one is looking to rip and replace."
IM and presence federation are becoming crucial to enterprises looking to interact with business partners outside of the enterprise. Enterprises demand UC platforms that enable them to talk to partners using another vendor's platform, noted Alan Klein, director of enterprise solutions engineering at Acme Packet.
"The user wants to have a very rich communication or collaboration experience, so that talking to their business partners feels like talking to another internal employee," Klein said.
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Other experts on the panel agreed that federation is critical to improving UC adoption. These platforms, said Hamblin, should be flexible enough to federate a service, such as IM, in a multi-vendor environment and across all devices. "That integration is important in giving users common experience."
The objective of Google's Chrome platform is to offer an efficient browser that can work on any platform -- whether the user has an Android, iPhone or any other operating system on their mobile device, according to Hugh Finnan, director of product management at Google.
"Vendors have a huge opportunity right now to create a common experience for the users," Finnan said. "Make it simple for the users at both the consumer and enterprise level."
UC interoperability: Are the vendors following through?
Users should not have to think about the best way to reach a business partner, Klein said. It should be as easy as placing a phone call. Someone placing a call picks up a phone and doesn't think about the service provider or phone manufacturer; UC applications should be just as natural to use.
While the user should not have to waste time worrying about what method of UC they use for contact outside of the enterprise, there is still a great deal vendors must accomplish to make UC interoperability a reality. Acme Packet is working with the UC Interoperability Forum and conducting interoperability testing with video-conferencing vendors.
"There are different protocols involved with SIP, and different ways of handling security and sharing data between protocols, and even transcoding between different video vendors," Klein said. "These considerations have to be made seamless, and not interfere with the user's experience."
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Gina Narcisi, News Writer.