Cisco vs Microsoft: A Reasonable Mid-Term Coexistence Approach
One way to realize the relative benefits of both Cisco and Microsoft infrastructure is to run them in a hybrid or coexistence model.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with the IT team at a very large multinational corporation about developing a cohesive mid-term strategy for communications and collaboration. I deliberately use the word "mid-term" as opposed to "long-term" strategy because there are so many elements in the communications market that are in flux, that developing a long term (7 – 10 year strategy) is beyond the horizon for many organizations.
This company faced the same dilemma many other large companies have encountered: They have Cisco networking infrastructure and Microsoft desktop software. To complicate the situation, the large locations for this company had deployed Cisco telephony solutions while Microsoft Lync was deployed company-wide for instant messaging and presence. Branch locations had a variety of PBXs from various manufacturers deployed. Conferencing was outsourced to a third-party conferencing service provider (CSP).
Clearly, very few of the communications capabilities in this organization were unified. Furthermore, articulate and passionate proponents for Cisco and for Microsoft advised adopting more of the Cisco UC stack or more of the Microsoft UC stack respectively. Given the intense political and emotional capital expended in this argument, it seemed that making any headway to find a mid-term solution would be difficult.
Because of how the respective communications and collaboration tools had been rolled out, the average user in the organization had adopted some distinct behaviors. For example, when using audio and Web conferencing, the usage model was to send a message via email that had the dial-in number to an audio bridge and a browser link to the Web conference. For instant messaging, the usage pattern was to click on someone's name and then send an IM. Because these behaviors had been internalized and were now "cultural," management did not want to disrupt how people collaborated.
Finding A Way Forward
The company ultimately wanted to find a solution that would meet the following objectives:
1. Keep the conferencing and collaboration model consistent for those who preferred the separate dial-in and Web interfaces.
2. Allow those who preferred the Lync collaboration model to escalate an IM session into a collaboration session.
3. Enable the large locations to maintain the investment made in Cisco communications infrastructure.
4. Find a financially attractive way to refresh aging PBX equipment at the branch locations in a natural lifecycle fashion.
5. Save money while doing all of the above.
To meet these objectives, the company first needed to find a place where it could save money. Immediate places to look for savings included examining service provider conferencing costs and PBX upgrades to the branch offices. If it could find a way to spend less on conferencing and less on branch office PBX upgrades, then these savings could be invested toward a mid-term solution that would keep the usage paradigms consistent while at the same time allowing movement to a more unified communications environment.
The company ultimately opted for a strategy targeted toward cutting its conferencing costs in half, an amount that would represent a savings of over $3 million annually.
The Coexistence Solution
Given that most of the workers were already familiar with Lync, the company opted to upgrade its global Lync deployment to include conferencing (this entails buying the Lync Enterprise CAL). It simultaneously deployed Lync pools in strategic geographies so as to provide good performance. At each pool location, AudioCodes SBCs/gateways were deployed to provide PSTN connectivity into the conferences. The AudioCodes gateways were connected to existing Cisco gateways at these locations, which provided PRI or SIP trunking capabilities for Lync.
At the same time, the company decided to make PBX replacement at small sites a normal IT lifecycle process so that it did not require special projects and special funding requests. At locations with 25 or fewer people, the PBX would be removed when it became obsolete, replaced by an AudioCodes Lync Survivable Branch appliance. Users at the branch would be provided with Lync Enterprise Voice capabilities (this entails buying the Lync Plus CAL for those users) and with Polycom Lync-compliant phones. Calls between people at the branch office are carried over the LAN; all external calls go through the PSTN (SIP trunking or least cost routing over the corporate IP network was not deployed at the branch locations).
The larger locations kept their Cisco Unified Communication Manager deployments and their Cisco phones.
The target goal was to move 50% of the company's conferencing minutes from the conferencing service provider to Lync conferencing within the first year. These savings would be used to pay for the Lync licenses and the Lync pools.
Within seven months, the goal of moving 50% of the organization's conferencing to Lync was achieved. At the branch locations, moving to Lync Enterprise Voice saved the company at least 50% when compared to the cost of upgrading or replacing the PBXs.
For the majority of users who still have Cisco phones along with Lync IM, presence, and conferencing, the usage model for conferencing is still the same: A meeting email is sent through Outlook/Exchange, and participants dial into the Lync conferencing servers using their Cisco phones via the PSTN, and connect to the Web portion of the meeting by clicking the accompanying link (which launches the Lync client rather than a Web browser). For the majority of users, this solution has worked very well, keeping the meeting model consistent.
There have been a few minor glitches in the solution. One manager reported that moving conferencing "on-net," adversely affected applications running over the network, and this manager chose to continue using the CSP solution. Everyone else has been quite satisfied with the new system.
A second issue is that of higher long distance costs. When moving away from a CSP, an organization loses the local access numbers the CSP usually provides. Thus, for this organization, dialing directly into the Lync pools required national and international long distance calls. Nevertheless, due to the size of its contracts with global communications providers, these costs are mitigated through low long distance rates. Notwithstanding, the company will be looking at "on-net" calls in the future to save on these charges.
Finally, this solution is not really a unified communications experience in the way many of us think of UC, where we can escalate an IM to a phone call or a collaboration session easily through the same interface. Nor can the system display Cisco phone status indicators (on-hook/off-hook) in the Lync IM/presence window.
One way to realize the relative benefits of both Cisco and Microsoft infrastructure is to run them in a hybrid or coexistence model. In one such model, Lync can be used for IM, presence, and conferencing, while Cisco can remain the primary voice platform. Operational efficiencies can possibly be obtained by examining the needs of smaller locations and determining whether they need a full PBX system or whether they can run adequately with the voice capabilities available within Lync.
This example represents only one way a company may approach and solve (at least for now) the Cisco versus Microsoft dilemma. Other approaches also exist. In such a coexistence solution, cost savings can be realized. At the same time, impassioned and articulate employees do not need to feel disenfranchised because their "favored" solution is rejected.
[Author's Note: KelCor was not paid by any third parties to investigate and write this Cisco/Microsoft coexistence story. We heard the organization speak at a conference, and we did the investigation ourselves.]
See Brent Kelly speak on this subject at Interop New York in his Thursday, October 2 session titled "Cisco vs. Microsoft: Which Should Be Your Communications Vendor?"