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The Geometry of Enterprise Communications

I want to take off from Fred's post about webification, because I think he touches on some things that go to the deeper issues we face as enterprise communications moves forward. Thinking about the points Fred makes, and the points from the Phil Edholm piece that he jumps off from, the big picture looks to have a lot in common with the past, even as we're seeing a historic shift. Let me get specific.

Phil Edholm's description of webification gets at something important: In a pure WebRTC model, the end user gets her set of communications functionality from someone else's server. It's the much-touted "triangle" of WebRTC: Client to server to client. In WebRTC World, triangles are good. Quadrilaterals, on the other hand, are bad, because they add a fourth point to the transaction--an additional server, generally one "belonging" to the end user (or one to which the end user belongs).

The triangle/quadrilateral distinction is really a description of the difference between public and private networking. In the triangle model, the user goes to a public resource to derive communications. Nowadays it's a website or an app that front-ends a website. In the old telephony days, it was a Class 5 switch on the public switched telephone network (PSTN) in your town's telco Central Office. As a telco customer, you had the features that your local Class 5 switch offered, and no others. That's public networking.

In the telco era, public networking wasn't good enough for enterprises. It didn't ubiquitously offer all the functionality that organizations needed to do their jobs. So enterprises inserted another "server" into the geometry--a PBX--that did provide those required functions. So private telecommunications became a quadrilateral.

So the question today, in the Internet era, is: Does the enterprise still need the fourth point in that figure, the one that makes a public network a private network?

At first blush, the answer seems an obvious yes. Every enterprise is different, every large enterprise has built massive systems around its unique processes, and it seems unlikely that a publicly-offered and -scaled service can match the precise requirements that those processes impose upon an enterprise.

What's different now is the Internet, which turned scale from a disadvantage to an advantage and individual demands from something to be harnessed into something to be liberated. Here's what I mean.

It used to be, the larger the scale, the fewer the features--providers had to play to the lowest common denominator. Even when the telcos got into private networking, with Centrex offerings, these services may have been more feature-rich than consumer telephony, but they were still inflexible compared with the PBX market.

In the current era, the whole thing about the Internet is that there are so many choices out there that you stand a fair chance of finding just what you're looking for. Per Phil Edholm's model, you point your WebRTC browser to a website, and that website provides you with a set of communications features. The down side is that you can't get features that the site's providers don't offer. The up side is, if that's a big enough problem for you--if a website tosses up insurmountable communications barriers to its would-be users--there's a wealth of other choices out there. That's what's new here, relative to the old world--Internet-scale ranges of choice.

This "triangle" Web model suggests you don't need enterprise control of this communications, and the spread of consumerization of IT is proving the attraction of such an approach. And indeed, all evidence is that the PBX is a technology paradigm with a very limited future, at best.

That fourth point on the quadrilateral, if it exists at all in the future, is likely to be not a discrete element, but rather a set of services--a control point where policy and security are enforced, QoS levels are set and managed, and application integrations are realized. It's a much more complex set of tasks and technologies, but as Fred suggests at the end of his piece, communications professionals who take the initiative in grappling with this evolution may be seizing the high ground in their enterprises' technology path--and in their own careers.

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