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Interoperability Conundrum

In the nearly three decades I've spent covering communications and IT, there've been very few constants. Cycles of change, whether driven by technological innovation or by the lifts and swoons of global and national economies, make our industry as close to a perpetual-motion machine as anything we humans have thus far devised.

But while new technologies have their time in the limelight, they often achieve longevity as a blade in a server parked inside a datacenter. One issue, however, never fades into obscurity: Interoperability...actually, the lack thereof. Each new advance in networking and communications, no matter how appealing, eventually runs headlong into this obstacle and, for most if not all, it seriously blunts the impact the new tool can provide.

Of course, we're always striving for more interoperability. We set up industry groups and standards-bodies to develop ways and means of interconnecting sets of systems with as many others as possible, and at Enterprise Connect 2012, a number of sessions will provide updates on how far interoperability has come and how far it still has to go. It will be a major focus in sessions devoted to the Cloud, SIP Trunking, video, UC and SIP, and it is likely to be an important topic in the case-study sessions as well.

But interoperability remains intractable, in large part, because we're so schizophrenic about it. It's like the old saying: Everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. Vendors pay lip service to interoperability, because, well, they’re expected to. But their deepest commitments remain maximizing their revenues and preserving account control, and interoperability is often antithetical to achieving those objectives.

Similarly, customers genuflect before the interoperability alter, but when it comes time to plunk their money down, limited interoperability rarely kills a deal. The concept of best-of-breed certainly has appeal, and Gartner Group has recently put out data supporting the best-of-breed approach. But, for now, the benefits that accompany buying in bulk and limiting the number of products that require staff training and equipment inventories usually weigh more heavily in purchase and architectural decisions.

And, truth be told, customers that are large enough actually can get a reasonably high level of interoperability, or at least the ability for systems to effectively interwork. In the multivendor environment that is today's reality, enterprises with sufficient heft are shoving the problem into their vendors' laps, directing them to create solutions that can interwork as a prerequisite to a contract.

That trend, along with the justifiable cynicism about the output of the standards-setting bodies, accounts for the growing interest in and work on federation. Most of the focus on federation involves inter-domain communication; thus far, it's been less about finding ways for the systems within an organization to interwork than it is about enabling a number of enterprises to work together. IBM and Microsoft have had federation initiatives, and others working on this problem include Cisco, Avaya and many of the service providers. One of the sessions at Enterprise Connect will update attendees on the progress these federation efforts have made and the hurdles that have yet to be overcome.

Our thinking about standards and interoperability is likely to change in the coming years. For one thing, the consumerization of IT is creating new, higher levels of expectations. Smartphones and tablets, for example, deliver a highly integrated set of services that would seem to make concern for interoperability least until you try to make them work with your office IM or messaging system. I've been skeptical about whether the millennials will ultimately have much long-term impact on how the workplace operates, but if their expectations about "anywhere, anytime, any way" communications result in more pressure for practical and affordable interoperability, I'll be more than happy to tip my cap to them.

And we're also likely to see some redefinition of what standards really are all about. Much of the early enthusiasm for SIP was based on the hope that we’d all be able to mix and match whatever devices we wanted--or could afford--and that proprietary end points would disappear. That never happened, and I found it interesting that in a recent interview with my colleague Eric Krapf, Avaya CEO Kevin Kennedy chose to describe SIP's key benefit as being a mechanism for call control rather than more flexible end points.

Interoperability will remain a conundrum for a long time to come. Vendors with large market share will pay lip service to the concept while doing everything they can to protect their installed base. Challengers will use interoperability as a weapon, proof of their innovativeness and devotion to customer needs. Meanwhile, the buyers will continue to focus on delivering the level of service their end users require; if they can get interoperability that'll be great, but nobody's holding their breath.