Integration & Interoperability: Stretching UC's Reach
Unified communications, including video collaboration, will never become ubiquitous if vendors don't commit to these key principles.
Interoperability and integration are hot topics in this industry, as UC will never become a ubiquitous resource until anyone can use any solution from any vendor to contact any other person easily. Imagine if you could only browse websites that are on the same ISP as you! But as much as these two terms get lumped together and used interchangeably, their roles are slightly different.
Interoperability, as defined on Wikipedia, is the "ability of making systems work together" and "the task of building coherent services for users when the individual components are technically different and managed by different organizations." On the other hand, integration is "the ability to allow data from one device or software to be read or manipulated by another, resulting in ease of use." The difference is subtle.
System to System
Networking today provides a good example of interoperability. Years ago -- and I'm certainly dating myself by talking about this stuff -- networking was characterized by a number of competing protocols. This included but was not limited to Banyan Vines, CDDI, FDDI, IBM SNA, and token ring. Eventually the industry coalesced around IP and Ethernet, and the Internet exploded. If I create a product, I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that it will interoperate with other network devices if I comply with these industry standards.
I recently had a chance to discuss the importance of interoperability and integration to UC in general and to video collaboration in particular with Ashan Willy, Polycom's senior vice president of worldwide systems engineering and product management. While Polycom is a pure-play collaboration vendor, it is well aware that it is not a standalone vendor in any company of any size, Ashan said.
In fact, fostering interoperability is the primary reason why Polycom was among founding members of the Open Visual Communications Consortium (OVCC), he said. The consortium is in place to get service providers and equipment vendors on the same page in regards to making video communications as ubiquitous as cell phones.
In my opinion, video industry leaders have been resistant to interoperability, as it would lead to a leveling of the playing field. They perceive interoperability as a threat. But this thinking is flawed. Interoperability drives usage, which creates a rising tide from which all contenders, leaders included, would benefit.
While the OVCC has a long way to go in fulfilling this vision, I'll give kudos to Polycom and other consortium members for at least attempting to solve the interoperability problem.
Interoperability enables two totally separate systems to talk to one other using industry or de facto standards to tie them together. You use your system; I use mine -- different vendors, different networks -- but they work together because of interoperability.
One Within Another
On the other hand, integration is when one system or application subsumes another one. Instead of two disparate solutions communicating with one another, the two solutions become one. Microsoft's integration of Internet Explorer in Windows is a good example of this. Within Windows programs, when you launch a Web-based application or even click on a Web page, IE launches.
Ashan and I discussed this and the native integration that Polycom has with Microsoft Lync, now Skype for Business. With Polycom RealConnect for Microsoft Lync, introduced late last year, users can launch a video session without ever leaving Lync -- the native integration allows a seamless workflow between the Polycom and Microsoft experiences.
At this level, integration is more work for the vendors but users win since the coming together of the two systems is invisible. And, because the solutions providers typically work on the native integration prior to general availability, users benefit in that everything works at launch time.
As with everything in life, degrees of integration vary. Frankly, I think vendors use the term too loosely. Integration isn't having one application launch another. That's just a band-aid. Examples of this include the old Cisco Unified Communications Integrated with Microsoft Office Communicator, which in practicality only really enabled customers to launch a MOC session from the Cisco client rather than provide true integration, and CUCI for Microsoft Lync, a slight improvement but still incomplete. Band-aids provide a different application and user experience than a full integration. At best, they're partial integration.
Know that if a solution requires any kind of custom coding or gateway, that's not true integration either. This means if either vendor makes a change, the gateway or software needs modification. This is one of the reasons why software patches and updates are so common in today's world.
So, which is better? Well, they're both important. Think of interoperability as useful for enabling systems to talk to one another, and integration for allowing seamlessness between applications and workflows. If we are ever going to get to ubiquitous UC, vendors better stop making users the integration point and do the work to make things work effortlessly.
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