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Now Open: The New Unified Communications Interoperability Forum

The biggest complaint I hear from customers considering making the move to Unified Communications is that many of the UC systems on the market are not interoperable, making it difficult, if not impossible, to leverage existing systems and products. Whether for IM and presence, video conferencing, or IP PBXs, the lack of interoperability between vendors has been a huge hindrance to the evolving UC market. Yes, everyone and their brother supports SIP, but with so many "flavors" of SIP, this isn't nearly enough.Help is finally on the way--a new, open forum has been created, dedicated to UC interoperability. Dubbed the Unified Communications Interoperability Forum (UCIF), its mission is to:

1) Engage like‐minded fellow travelers--UCIF will work collaboratively to develop solutions‐specifications, reference implementations, best practices, implementation guidelines, test tools and compliance programs, in relation to industry needs.

2) Deliver a consistent and high value user experience with UC--UCIF will drive interoperability of UC Hardware and Software, including Federation, Video & Audio Conferencing, Telepresence, Presence & IM, Desktop Sharing, White Boarding, Data Conferencing, and Conferencing Scheduling.

3) Build on existing initiatives and standards--Standards, Protocols, Specifications, Best Practices, Testing Methodologies and Programs.

4) Drive developers, vendors and service providers to deliver and use conforming implementations--UCIF will encourage Mindshare, ROI‐based Adoption, and Business Process Leverage.

5) Fund technical, market, and compliance programs--UCIF will foster the growth of an open ecosystem with business model benefits for all players in the value chain.

6) Enable development of a worldwide UC community with billions of users--The interoperability of public UC clouds with enterprise UC products is a key UCIF objective.

I included the mission statement because I feel that it provides good insight into the thought process of the founding members. I especially love the first point in the mission statement--engaging like-minded fellow travelers. I often refer to UC as a philosophy or journey--it's not something that companies can just buy off the shelf, plug in, and make it work. Rather, UC is an evolving solution that takes time. I also particularly like the second point of the mission statement, which focuses on the end-user experience. UC is all about the end-user experience, and I was particularly glad to see the UCIF members acknowledge this.

Building on existing standards is another key point. According to the founding members, the UCIF "is not a standards body--it's about making things work together. We're not here to create new standards, but to streamline and make sense out of what already exists and to simplify." The members claim that they won't create new standards unless there are areas where standards don't currently exist. Instead, the forum's role is to interpret and more fully clarify existing standards and how things should be integrated based on existing standards.

In terms of the structure and organization, there are five founding partners, Microsoft, HP, Juniper, Lifesize/Logitech, and Polycom, with many other vendors participating, including Acme Packet, Aspect, Audiocodes, Broadcom, Brocade, ClearOne, Jabra, Plantronics, Radvision, Siemens Enterprise Communications, and Teliris. During a discussion with some of the founding members of the forum, they emphasized the fact that the forum is designed to be open, and its success will depend on gaining a critical mass from the UC vendor perspective. Anyone in the industry is encouraged to sign up and take part in the forum, and no one will be turned away if they want to participate. All of the telephony switch vendors have been approached and invited to participate. The assumption is that most of these companies are currently reviewing the strategic and legal implications and working through logistics, and will join shortly.

The worker bees of the UCIF are the working groups, established by the UCIF's Board of Directors, which defines the charter of each, including the Certification Working Group, Marketing Working Group, and Technical Working Group. For example, the Certification Working Group is responsible for facilitating the testing and certification and will have testing tools to validate interoperability. This group will enforce the standard profile that was created by the Technical Working group to verify that the interoperability works, thus taking the onus off of customers who would otherwise need to do onsite interoperability testing.

The UCStrategies team, particularly Jim Burton, is thrilled to be part of the UCIF launch, with Jim presiding as the UCIF spokesperson during the kickoff dinner. As Jim noted during his presentation, "Even though vendors work hard to follow standards, standards are open to interpretation and it creates interoperability problems. The UCIF will help solve those problems by providing a venue for testing and working with other companies to ensure that products are interoperable before they're delivered to a customer."

"By working together, the UCIF will help make the UC market grow sooner than it would otherwise, with each vendor now able to get their share of a larger pie."

Assuming the UCIF meets its goals, customers will no longer have to worry about interoperability, and they will be able to implement the products and services they prefer, knowing that they will easily work with each other. This will certainly help the UC market to grow, ensuring its future viability. Kudos to the UCIF founding members that have come together and taken action to provide a future path for organizations to reap the many benefits of unified communications. While this is just a first step, it's an extremely important step, and one that should be applauded.