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Hybrid UC as Path to Vendor Lock-In

It's hard to discuss UC these days without the topic of hybrid configurations popping up. So over the past few months I've been trying to uncover some details around the various UC vendors' hybrid options. I wrote about hybrid configurations supported by Avaya, Mitel, and ShoreTel, as well as some, more, and still more about what Microsoft offers. Cisco is notably absent from the list, but only because others (most notably Bernhard Albler, with Frink Advanced Services) beat me to be punch.

Almost without exception the hybrid scenarios I described feature a very specific hybrid scenario -- one in which a single vendor's premises-based system and/or app works seamlessly with its own hosted services. Of course they work so well together -- in most cases the same code base is powering the telephony, messaging, and other features of both premises- and cloud-based solutions.

Latest in Lock-in
Start asking how you can connect an Avaya system on-prem to a Mitel cloud service, and the conversation changes. Ditto for connecting an Avaya Communication Manager system on-prem to a hosted IP Office service, or connecting a Mitel system with an Aastra heritage to a Mitel service without. It's not impossible, of course. But it's a custom engagement, not a standardized service. And it's integrating two systems via SIP or H.323 or something else. I suppose that can also be classified as hybrid. But it's nothing new, and is rather different from what all the hybrid buzz tends to be about.

Vendors jumping on the hybrid bandwagon only to the extent that their own UC systems easily interwork with their own UC services speaks to the still tightly closed nature of business comms technology.

It's really no wonder that hybrid has become the latest lock-in strategy. Some vendors are fighting to remain relevant in the face of newer comms technologies, which they have little expertise developing or experience selling. Others are fighting for their very survivals as the industry contracts and consolidates. And those whose stars are on the rise want to ensure they rise as high and fast as possible. What they all have in common is the need for a customer base that churns as little as possible. And churn is less likely if customers are presented with systems, services, and -- in this case -- hybrid solutions that make leaving difficult, staying convenient, or both.

Yet lock-in is lock-in, and it's rarely to customers' benefit. That's to say, really only one kind of customer will ever benefit: a business firmly committed to a particular provider for years to come. This includes any company planning to set up and maintain a hybrid UC solution for the foreseeable future, and any undergoing a gradual transition from a chosen vendor's premises-based system to its cloud-based service.

But it won't benefit businesses that currently rely on multiple vendors' or providers' communications solutions and services, and expect to do so going forward. For these it will be a mystery why -- despite industry standards and open APIs, session managers, and communications platform as a service -- it's such a chore to provide more than just the bare-bone basics of interoperability between different vendors' business communications systems and services.

Many Faces of Hybrid UC
Of course, the single-vendor scenarios I described are only one way of implementing hybrid UC, or of defining and describing what hybrid actually is. Hybrid UC can just as easily describe:

I've also seen the term hybrid in describing two vendors' PBXes connected via a SIP trunk or a session manager. And there are instances where TDM and IP PBXes working together have been described as hybrid. I start to draw the line around here, since it leads to a point where UC marketers have once again stretched a buzzword so far that it loses any distinct meaning.

(Incidentally, other analysts draw the line at a different point. Parker, in the same blog referenced above, derides using the term hybrid as "a fancy excuse for the vendor's inability to have seamless operation between its products." He proposes "distributed deployment" or "componentized architecture" as a better way of describing what I've been calling hybrid UC.)

But the UC market is full of fuzzy definitions. This shouldn't distract IT buyers from their main task: purchasing the collaboration and communications tools they need to optimize end user productivity. As always, some situations will warrant a single-vendor approach, while other situations will call for interoperability between multiple vendors' technologies. Hybrid UC solutions -- however vendors choose to define them -- should help in either case.

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