One of the most common unified communications (UC) questions people ask me is about UC interoperability. They ask when they can expect better UC standards that will enable them to deploy multivendor UC solutions that integrate seamlessly together -- the utopian UC environment of fully interoperable, plug-and-play UC solutions. Not to be the bearer of bad news, but I think this is a pipe dream. Companies considering a UC deployment should stop waiting for UC standards and interoperability, and instead look for specialty middleware to deliver multivendor solutions.
Before I describe what specialty middleware is, I want to point out that a fully standardized UC world would actually be bad for everyone involved. In a fully standardized UC world, the only differentiator would be price. Solution providers would then focus less on innovation and more on how to drive cost out of the solution. The evolution of the UC space would slow to a crawl. It's far too early in the maturity cycle of UC to warrant a wholly, or even predominantly, standardized environment. Proprietary and pre-standard features drive the development of new features and push all the solution providers, so let's accept this and look for a better solution.
To understand what benefits UC middleware could bring, consider the world of software. Enterprise application developers do not standardize on just one application stack, nor do they sit around waiting for the development of standards-based interoperability. Instead, in the software industry, there exists a middleware layer that abstracts software functions up to a common layer that creates the required interoperability.
The UC market will likely evolve this way. Cisco and Microsoft point to things like CUCI-Lync (Cisco Unified Communicator Integrated with Lync) as a proof point of UC interoperability, but truth be told, CUCI-Lync is really a custom solution that solves a pain point -- a custom solution that doesn't scale.
There are a few examples of UC middleware today, including IBM's Sametime unified telephony, which provides interoperability between telephony vendors. Avaya's ACE and Alcatel-Lucent's OpenTouch provide an abstraction layer that allows third-party devices to connect to their call control servers. VOSS is a specialty middleware pure-play that provides a service management layer specifically designed for most advanced UC architectures, across multiple vendors. This can make the task of provisioning and creating dial plans in multivendor networks much simpler.
IT leaders looking to deploy UC should look to UC middleware to help make multivendor solutions a reality. Look for much more innovation in this space over the next two to three years as UC matures.
About the author: Zeus Kerravala is the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research. Kerravala provides a mix of tactical and long-term strategic advice to constituents, including end-user IT and network managers; vendors of IT hardware, software and services; and the IT investment community.
Prior to ZK Research, Zeus Kerravala was a senior vice president and distinguished research fellow with Yankee Group. Before Yankee Group, Kerravala had a number of technical roles, including a senior technical position at Greenwich Technology Partners (GTP). He has held numerous internal IT positions, including vice president of IT and deputy CIO of Ferris, Baker Watts and senior project manager at Alex. Brown and Sons Inc. Kerravala is heavily quoted in the business and technology press, and is a regular speaker at events including Interop and Enterprise Connect.