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Federation is The "Game Changer" for Unified Communications

Federation allows you to connect with people outside your organization as easily as you can with people inside your organization.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, a "game changer" is a person, an idea or an event that completely changes the way a situation develops. And this is what I have found federation does for communication and collaboration.

Many systems we know and use daily are "federated". Email is federated and that is what makes it powerful; you can email any individual simply by knowing their email address. This works for people both inside and outside your company. The public phone network (the PSTN) is federated. You can call anyone and anyone can call you by simply dialing a phone number. This works across companies, across countries and between wired and mobile phones.

I have argued in a series of No Jitter articles (see "Over A Billion Voice Customers Served") that a very large community of users is forming that can share presence, instant messaging, voice and video through federation over the Internet. This is a "game changer" for unified communications.

Note that I specifically mentioned federation of "unified communications" and not simply federation of instant messaging and presence. This is an important distinction.

Many instant messaging platforms support federation; however, in my opinion Microsoft is the current leader when it comes to unified communications federation. When federated, Lync users from one organization can reach those in another organization via IM, click to call, video, web conferencing or desktop sharing, simply and easily. This also includes the ability to federate and share all modes of communication with organizations running the hosted version of Lync included in Office 365 or the older Office Communication Server (OCS), which dates back to 2007 (a very long time in the technology business!) IM, presence, voice and video federation also work between Lync and any of the 400 million Windows Messenger users. While Microsoft has not made public its Lync and Skype integration plans, I believe it is safe to guess that Lync to Skype federation will be supported within the next 9 months.

In contrast, Cisco Unified Presence Server (CUPS), the server component that provides instant messaging and presence in the Cisco world, does not allow federation between version 7.x and 8.x versions and while the latest version of CUPS 8.5(2) supports federation with Lync (earlier versions do not) this federation is via an XMPP (Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol) bridge and only supports the sharing of instant messaging and presence.

Given the ways the different platforms support federation, my observation is that organizations that deploy Lync (and OCS) have a far greater propensity to support and allow federation. In this case, the UC system becomes a tool to communicate both within the organization and externally with other key business partners. On the other hand, organizations that deploy other UC solutions tend to use UC features primarily internally.

With respect to federation and Lync, I would like to answer a few common questions:

Q: Does it take long to set up federation in Lync?
A: No. Between no time and 15 minutes. There are three types of federation supported by Lync. With "open federation", more accurately entitled "Dynamic Federation", users can add contacts from other companies quickly and without administrative intervention. Just like how you can send someone an email simply by knowing their email address or call them on the phone simply by knowing their phone number. You can communicate with a federated Lync user simply by knowing their SIP address, most often the same as their email.

The other two types of federation supported by Lync, "Enhanced Federation" and "Direct Federation", require an administrator to add the SIP domain of the organization you want to federate with. This should take less than 15 minutes of actual time; it may however, in some organizations, take days or weeks to sort through the bureaucracy.

The more the technical and security people at an organization understand how Lync federation works, and the safeguards Microsoft has built in, the more organizations support "open" federation. You can find a directory of organizations that support Lync federation here. (At last count almost 8,000 organizations were listed.)

Any form of federation requires your Lync server to be connected to the Internet via a Lync Edge Server. Most organizations deploy Lync Edge Servers since they are required to support people in your organization who work from home (unless they always connect over a VPN connection).

Q: If we allow federation, are users still able to control who contacts them?
A: Absolutely. Lync provides individuals with the ability to "Change Privacy Relationship" for any contacts. Right-clicking on any contact displays the following menu which indicates what information each privacy level shares and lets you select the desired privacy relationship for that contact:

Q: Is it easy to communicate with a federated user?
A: As simple as communicating with a user inside your organization.

Lync lets you connect, communicate and collaborate with federated users (outside your organization) as easily as you would with someone inside your organization. You can see their presence, send instant messages, make voice or video calls, web conference and share your desktop.

A powerful feature I often use is "dragging" a collection of people, often from many different organizations, into an ad hoc audio or web conference.

Note that for various reasons (mostly related to firewall rules) I find file transfers often do not work between federated users. Also, the Lync Online version generally does not support file transfers between federated users.

Q: What "game changer" feature have you found using Lync? A: Without a doubt Lync's ability to "Tag for Status Change Alerts" has improved the way I work. When I want to talk with a key contact, whether they are internal or external, I right-click their name in the Lync contact list and choose "Tag for Status Change Alerts". Now, when they come online or finish a call and become "available" Lync notifies me. I can then send them a quick IM, such as "Do you have 5 minutes to chat?" If they respond with "Yes", I click to call and wham, bam I am connected, talking and getting things done.

A close second "game changer" is the ability to share my desktop (or just one application window) with any of my contacts. This lets me very quickly show them exactly what I am talking about. I know they are seeing what I am seeing so we can quickly get down to the business of collaborating on a solution.

UC federation is powerful and I have witnessed how it can be a "game changer" breaking down barriers and hierarchies between organizations and generally allowing successful business to transpire more quickly.

In an ideal world, every UC system would be able to federate all communication modalities with every other system. We, however, don't live in a perfect world and I am skeptical that even new protocol standards such as WebRTC will get us to "utopia" anytime soon. I still see the leading vendors trying for what I called "Market Dominance as the Path to Interoperability".

While waiting for the ideal world to appear, back in the real world, I would urge you to consider if true UC federation could be a game changer for your organization. Depending on your answer I would suggest you then consider your UC platform choice accordingly.

If you are using Microsoft Lync you can reach me at [email protected] (we support open federation!). Otherwise you can reach me on Twitter @kkieller or provide your feedback in comment to this article.