UC: To Integrate or Consolidate?
As they look to simplify the user experience while reducing costs, many enterprises ultimately will seek single-vendor solutions.
Among the majority of our clients and research participants, the primary challenge in developing a go-forward UC strategy is determining how to integrate incumbent UC applications to present a seamless user experience. Users repeatedly tell us they want a single application for voice, video, and conferencing, with the ability to start meetings with one click or ease in scaling instant messaging chats to voice and/or video calls, 1:1 or among groups.
These user requirements run into the reality that most companies maintain separate platforms for various UC applications. There's the voice platform, the IM platform, the Web conferencing platform (or service), and the video platform. Rarely are these integrated. And as companies plot a go-forward strategy, turf wars may arise. Indeed most often our consulting engagements involve refereeing disagreements between the telecom shop with its installed base of Avaya (and often Nortel) and/or Cisco and the applications team responsible for Microsoft (or IBM) desktop apps.
Plugging Away at UC
Deciding on a go-forward strategy involves evaluating pros and cons of each approach, including costs, supportability, risk, and investment in the current installed base of hardware and software. Often, the discussions start with a desire not only to maintain both telecom and application bases but also to find a way to integrate them into a seamless user experience (e.g., if people are using the Lync/Skype for Business client with an Avaya or Cisco phone, then enable them to click to call from within the client or use the client as a softphone.)
This desire leads IT shops to investigate plug-in approaches such as Cisco Unified Communications Integration for Microsoft Lync (CUCI-Lync) or Avaya Client Applications (ACA). These approaches enable the Lync/Skype for Business client to function as a softphone using a third-party platform for call control, but often at the expense of a more complex user environment, support challenges, and a need to keep up with client updates to ensure that they don't break existing plug-ins.
The plug-in approach doesn't extend to mobile devices, meaning that even a company that deploys CUCI-Lync would find that employees need to use the Lync/Skype for Business client on their smartphones for IM, while using Cisco Jabber as a softphone for voice calls. Since both Lync and Jabber (and other softphone apps from vendors like Mitel, NEC, ShoreTel, and Unify) have overlapping features, the natural question to ask is if a single vendor can meet all UC needs?
Thus, more than half of companies that participated in the most recent Nemertes UC benchmark are planning to move to a primary single vendor for their UC needs. This sets up the next phase of the discussion -- which vendor to pick, and how to transition?
Often this is where discussions among network, telecom, and app teams get intense, with political issues coming into play as much as technical concerns. However, the desire to simplify the user experience while reducing licensing costs means that a single-vendor solution is going to be the primary goal for a great many companies going forward.
Those companies that decide to maintain separate voice and UC infrastructures are likely to find some overlap, and some user confusion as to which application to use in which scenario -- the corporate audio conferencing bridge, or the voice chat app resident in the desktop UC platform? The video conferencing platform and software client, or the desktop video conferencing app? Here vendors like Acano and Pexip, as well as hosted services like Blue Jeans, can ease end-user pain by enabling integration of video and Web conferencing across multiple vendors. However, these solutions add another vendor into the mix, and therefore potentially additional cost.
Another alternative to short-term integration with long-term migration is to use session management to create an abstraction layer above existing voice and UC applications. Session management as offered by vendors like AudioCodes, Avaya, Cisco, Oracle and Sonus, can allow unified dial-plan management, policy-based call routing, and voice and video quality management in a multivendor environment during transition, and between different domains even after consolidation is complete.
Another area to address during consolidation is management. Some performance management vendors like Nectar and IR can enable unified quality management across multiple vendors, while some other vendors are only able to manage single vendor solutions.
The important point to remember is that either approach -- best of breed or single vendor -- has its pros and cons and must be evaluated on its own merits. Some companies will find their best approach is to maintain separate vendors, while others will find a single-vendor solution is best for them. Let user requirements, present environment, cost, and risk be your guide.