Four steps for managing multiple unified communications vendors

The promise of unified communications lies in its definition: the "unification" of a disparate set of collaboration applications into an integrated service. In the unified communications

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(UC) world, individual and group collaboration should easily move from chat to voice call to Web or video conference -- all with a few clicks of a mouse or swipes of a finger.

The reality of managing multiple unified communications vendors

That's the promise from unified communications vendors. The reality is often much different. Yes, if you are building a greenfield deployment with a brand new set of applications, you can go to almost any UC vendor and buy an integrated UC application platform that provides text, voice, video and Web conferencing and extends from desktop to conference room to mobile device. But few IT shops have this luxury. Instead, they must integrate what they already have with new and emerging services, to deliver the same consistent user experience.

Steps for managing multiple unified communications vendors

Managing a multi-vendor UC environment entails the following steps:

  • Audit what you have: What applications are already in use? How well do they integrate? What native features might be available that you aren't already using? For instance, if you have IM today from one vendor and Web conferencing from another, it's likely that your IM vendor also offers an integrated Web conferencing platform.
  • Assess strategic alliances: Do any of your existing UC vendors already interoperate? Do they work together in standards groups like the UC Interoperability Forum (UCIF) or the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) to support published implementations of features and protocols? Have they achieved interoperability certifications? As you assess new vendors to bring into the mix, pay special attention to those who are partnering with your existing vendors, to ease implementation and integration challenges.
  • Assess management strategies: Managing multi-vendor UC environments is difficult, especially as many vendors still rely on proprietary protocols for implementing voice, video and the like. Consider leveraging a managed service providers (MSPs) that has expertise managing the vendors you currently use. Nemertes consistently finds that using MSPs to both implement and manage UC applications results in higher overall UC success. If you are self-managing, look to vendors who can deliver configuration, performance and policy management in a multi-vendor environment.
  • Plan for a more difficult future: While almost every vendor touts openness and interoperability as a core tenet of their product offering, the reality is that interoperability is getting more difficult, not less. As UC vendors broaden their offerings, they increasingly want a bigger piece of the UC pie, and for most, the grand prizes are the desktop and the mobile device. A UC vendor that sits in the background -- perhaps just providing voice call control services underneath someone else's IM and conferencing application -- risks being relegated to a commodity provider; this makes the UC vendor easier to replace. While many UC vendors can plug into each other's desktop applications, few to none have the ability to plug into mobile clients. Here, again, is where a solid understanding of vendor alliances and development roadmaps is required to help you align your strategy with those of your strategic vendors.

Managing multiple unified communications vendors is not without its challenges. Develop a structured approach that starts with assessing:

  • what you have today;
  • which vendors are interoperable; and
  • which third-parties or multi-vendor management platforms might reduce your UC complexity.

But even if you solve today's problems, understand that multi-vendor interoperability will continue to increase in complexity. Continue to look for ways to leverage vendor alliances and third party support to reduce cost and deliver the best possible experience to your end-users.

This was first published in April 2013

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