Microsoft Lync vs. Cisco UC: What the decision really comes down to

Choosing between Microsoft Lync and Cisco UC requires a more strategic evaluation process beyond just comparing feature sets.

When evaluating unified communications vendors, it's tempting to think that merely comparing product spec sheets or completing isolated beta tests will point to an obvious winner. And while the lack of a specific feature may be an automatic deal-breaker for IT shops with explicit needs, one of the biggest factors in whether a deployment succeeds has little to do with the shiny new UC platform being considered.

If the users have to be trained to do something else or if they are not going to use the product, you are not going to get the full benefit out of it.

It's the investments an enterprise has already made with a vendor outside of UC that often influence how readily users will adopt new UC tools or how smoothly administrators will integrate and manage the deployment. In other words, users who are already familiar with Microsoft Office applications may be more likely to use Microsoft Lync Server to communicate and collaborate. Alternatively, an IT shop with a large Cisco Systems network may discover that back-end integration and management is much simpler with Cisco's UC offerings.

For many UC pros, vendor selection comes down to Cisco UC versus Microsoft Lync, the two biggest names in the UC market. Choosing between them requires a broader, more strategic evaluation process than comparing them by feature sets alone.

Robert Gagne, manager of systems operations and security at DMT Development Systems Group, a Canadian software developer for the automotive industry, is considering migrating away from Citrix's GoToMeeting, which DMT's employees use for internal meetings and demos for customers. Users often need help setting up GoToMeeting sessions, and while five minutes of troubleshooting here and there may not seem significant, those "five minutes" can build up to dozens of hours in lost productivity over the course of a year, he said.

Gagne is leaning toward Lync primarily because users want a tighter integration with other Microsoft tools for collaboration; moreover, there isn't a substantial-enough investment in Cisco infrastructure at DMT to give the Cisco UC platform any edge.

"Our guys are like, 'If I can do that through Outlook -- booking the meeting and sending the invite -- that's going to make it so much easier,'" Gagne said. "You have to do that [type of] business case analysis."

Don't forget to factor operational expenses into an evaluation

For enterprises that have made equally significant investments in both Cisco and Microsoft, identifying the better fit for a UC strategy partly comes down end user preference.

"If your user base is more familiar with a certain set of applications, that may mean that one is better over the other," said Kevin Kieller, a partner at enableUC, a unified communications consultancy and integrator based in Oakville, Ontario, speaking at Interop New York in October as part of a panel discussion, "Microsoft Lync vs. Cisco: Which Path Should You Choose?"

Selecting the right UC vendor also requires careful consideration of the operational costs a deployment could incur, he noted.

"As much as Cisco and Microsoft like to talk about their differences, they have very similar architectures," said Kieller, who represented the Microsoft perspective on the panel. "The solutions that you [choose] must be aligned to your specific business objective. Whether it's Microsoft or Cisco, things like training and change management are going to be important for your success."

Despite having a sizeable presence at the show, Microsoft declined to send an official spokesperson to participate in the face-off, according to the session's organizers.

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Tom Doria, a program manager in Cisco's collaboration technology group, offering the counterpoint for Cisco on the same panel, said UC pros have to consider the overall infrastructure environment. Enterprises that already use Cisco for networking, security and mobile device management will benefit from greater automation on the administration side, he said.

"When you have IT operational issues, you have to move things around. You have to create new VLANs, and you have to create new security policies," Doria said. "If I'm deploying a Microsoft Lync environment, I have to do that manually. If I use Cisco technologies that are designed to be recognized and authorized into the network automatically -- and then the network allows me to manage that and create my own policies dynamically -- there's an advantage."

Another point to consider is which IT team owns the deployment, enableUC's Kieller said.

"I would choose Lync if the apps or server team is running the show, because they are more familiar [with Microsoft]," he said. "On the other hand, you might want to choose Cisco if the telecom group is making the call, since most likely they are much more familiar with Cisco or other traditional PBX providers."

Microsoft Lync vs. Cisco UC: Where's the user benefit?

In addition to its lack of a networking portfolio, Microsoft doesn't sell any physical endpoints for voice or video. The vendor refers customers to specialized partners like Polycom that sell desk phones and video conferencing equipment instead. On its own, Lync provides softphone functionality and a desktop video conferencing client. Meanwhile, its video endpoint interoperability and high-definition video capabilities are limited compared to Cisco. However, the degree to which Microsoft has integrated Lync, SharePoint and Office -- and enabled federation between Lync customers -- has made it an attractive offering for some enterprises.

Cisco has a much stronger heritage in voice and video -- manufacturing its own IP phones, PBXes, room-based video conferencing units and immersive telepresence systems -- as well as contact center applications. These products all benefit from built-in integration, along with Cisco's other offerings for the network and data center. But like Microsoft, the full benefits of Cisco's UC offerings shine in an all-Cisco infrastructure environment.

Cisco offers some basic integration with Outlook in many of its UC products, but its communications and collaboration tools often sit outside the applications that employees use the most. That alone can be a sticking point for some UC pros.

"We took this approach of the total cost of ownership, but we also brought the user benefit into [our vendor evaluation]. What [applications] were the users using most, and what was going to be the best experience for a user? And when we did all that analysis, we chose Lync because of its deep integration [with] Microsoft Office," said one IT pro who was in the audience at the panel discussion. "If the users have to be trained to do something else or if they are not going to use the product, you are not going to get the full benefit out of it."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Jessica Scarpati, features writer, and follow @jscarpati on Twitter.

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