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Increasingly Practical Multi-vendor UC Solutions

Multi-vendor Unified Communication and Collaboration (UC) solutions are becoming much more practical, as the industry advances and matures.

A decade ago, most enterprises were just starting to build out their video conferencing room capacity. Five years ago, most enterprises were just starting to adopt UC features such as presence and instant messaging, or smartphone UC features (iPhone was first introduced in 2007), or peer-to-peer voice/video/document sharing between users' devices instead of through a PBX or conferencing server.

But now, with the benefit of 3 or more additional vendor release cycles, the products are becoming much more compatible and interoperable. In addition, the major value added resellers and system integrators such as HP and Dimension Data have proven-in the most common multi-vendor configurations and are starting to publish reference architectures for these types of configurations.

The result is that enterprises have much more flexibility in laying out their UC roadmaps so as to achieve faster time-to-delivery as well as a lower total cost of ownership. We have seen this in the TCO results from the UC RFPs at Enterprise Connect, where the results show that overlaying the new UC solutions without having to replace existing infrastructure can be equally as effective and have a much lower cost and, therefore, a higher ROI.

Here's a short list of the leading types of interoperation, with some commentary on how practical they have become:

* Federated Instant Messaging, Presence, Click-to-Communicate: Many enterprises want their IM platform(s) to work together inside the enterprise and outside with their customers, clients and supply chain. Limited to a few products and a few protocols in 2005, this is now commonly available using any combination of XMPP, SIP/SIMPLE, and other IM protocols. The leading enterprise-class IM vendors (Microsoft, IBM) offer easy federation with other users of their own products and offer gateways to many other platforms. We also see the growth of very economical cloud-based federation services such as NextPlane to make this as easy as (or easier than) entering an e-mail address or dialing a phone number.

* Co-existence of UC Platform(s) with Installed PBXs: It is now possible to split individual users or groups of users between one or more UC platforms and one or more installed PBXs in an enterprise without having to do massive work on the existing dial plan. It is even possible for a new UC platform to utilize the installed PBX handsets (even if they are older TDM handsets, not new IP handsets) when the user wants to talk "on the phone." Three major advancements have made this possible:

(1) directory-enabled gateways can route calls based on data extracted automatically from the enterprise directory, such Active Directory or LDAP services;

(2) a new UC system can act as a peer "voice system" with the existing PBX, routing calls for users who are not using "enterprise telephony" on the UC system over to the installed PBX, which then acts as a gateway to the phones or the PSTN; or

(3) an up-to-date IP PBX with session manager capabilities can provide the directory-based gateway functionality on a user-by-user basis.

All three of these options can be automatically "self-maintaining," making these configurations quite practical.

* User-Device Video to Conference Room Video Meetings: Obviously, users are increasingly able to have video calls on their devices--whether company-provided or the user's favorite BYOD device. Since the users are quite happy with their peer-to-peer video sessions and with their UC platform conferencing functions, it just seems natural that they can connect to meeting participants that may be gathered in a video conference room.

In the past, this required that the user have a separate client on their device for each type of conference room with which they wanted to connect (e.g. a Tandberg client, a Polycom client, a LifeSize client, etc.). But now vendors and system integrators are able to connect the user's day-to-day UC client such as Microsoft Lync, IBM Sametime/Connections, Cisco Jabber, Avaya Scopia, and others, directly to those video conference room meetings. In some cases, this is done through standard protocols (e.g. H.264 or H.265) between the UC conferencing server and the video room MCU; sometimes this is done using the latest in video bridging devices such as the new Cisco Video Communication Server (VCS); and sometimes this is done using a cloud-based video conferencing service to which each device or conferencing server can connect, such as services by Vidyo, BlueJeans Network, or Vidtel.

Bottom line, this is all good news for the enterprise IT and Telecommunications teams. They can now deliver services faster, more economically, and with standards-based interfaces that give the enterprise confidence that the UC solutions will be robust and manageable.

It's great to see this progress. The winning vendors will be paying attention to this. We look forward to seeing more progress in the annual update at Enterprise Connect 2014.