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Putting an End to the UC Federation Myth

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Last week, Cisco and Google announced a partnership that enables room systems from either company to join a meeting hosted by the other service.
 
That is, Cisco Webex Room systems will have a one-touch join option for Google Meet, and Google Rooms (the Google Room Software in Google Rooms) will have the same for joining Webex meetings. While not all advanced features will be available in the non-native environment, the experience will be much better than it is when joining with a laptop in the room. For example, both companies have shown integration into room calendars for easy joins.
 
After joining a meeting, the room is now part of the “foreign” meeting service for the duration of that meeting. The service is available on recent Google and Webex room systems. For Cisco this is all of the Webex room systems, for Google Rooms, it may require a software upgrade.
 
While this a great feature for Cisco and Google users, it is also a strong commentary on how the industry will approach interoperability in the future.
 
From the beginning of the UC transformation, we’ve seen multiple attempts to “federate” IP-based video/collaboration/team capabilities. The goal is that one cloud service could interact with another cloud service in real-time to complete the communications, such as is possible with the familiar public switched telephone network (PSTN). In the PSTN, phone companies federate to deliver a call that crosses multiple domains. Similarly, Internet transport is a federated environment. For enterprises, the allure of having a UC service be able to join a meeting on another service while retaining the local user experience has been a strong driver of federation.
 
However, as UC solutions have grown more complex, the ability to federate has become even more challenging. In the PSTN, 100 years of federation cooperation has only guaranteed:
 
  • A dedicated phone number — but no way to validate for spam
  • 3.5-KHz audio at low sample rates
  • Caller ID, which seems to be wrong or spoofed the majority of the time.
Clearly, for value in UC, federation needs to deliver much more. Yet, federation for UC is much more complex than it is with the PSTN. For example, mapping elements of one whiteboarding service to another is a huge effort alone, without even accounting for active objects involved in the process.
 
“While it might have been easy to do video or audio federation five years ago, the explosion of innovation and new capabilities from vendors has made federation challenging to maintain.” Tom Richards, director of product management for Cisco Webex Devices, said in a briefing on the Google partnership.
 
As the WebRTC model matured over the last decade, the potential for the new communications world to look like the web became clear. Whereas federation applies to basic Internet services, it doesn’t to web applications — I don’t order my products on eBay using the Amazon user experience. WebRTC and open communications opened the door to having easy-to-access guest experiences across the industry. In fact, all of the UCaaS providers have some form of WebRTC-based guest experiences in their platform.
 
The accelerated adoption of UCaaS during the pandemic, has seen rapid uptake of this guest model. While working from home, users have been able to join a Webex meeting using a Webex client, a Google meeting using Google WebRTC, or a Zoom or Microsoft Teams meeting with those vendors’ meeting clients. Joining meetings on a range of platforms is now the way most of us work.
 
As workers return to the office this fall and beyond, many will be inconvenienced by having to use a dedicated video room systems that doesn’t provide access to non-native, external meeting platforms. While vendors often touted federation as a promise, this partnership between Cisco and Google is the latest example that rooms need to become multisystem-capable. Cisco has been implementing WebRTC-based guest experiences into its rooms, including a Microsoft Teams capability. Logitech has had multi-UC vendor capabilities in its Windows NUC-based systems using the native Windows clients for each UC vendor.
 
Complexity and the rapid pace of change diminish federation’s possibility. Rather, the future of the industry is a web model in which endpoints connect to the service they need to use and are “controlled” by that service for the duration of the meeting. Whether that endpoint is a user’s PC or mobile device or a room system, the ability to join multiple UC platforms will now be a requirement for enterprises whose employees need to join external meetings.
 
For end-user devices this is easy, requiring only that the user download the native client or use the WebRTC version. For room systems going forward, the need to connect to different UC platforms will begin to drive the buying decisions. Before purchasing a new room system, IT should survey users to ascertain which UC platforms they use for external virtual meetings, and then check for interoperability. Buying room systems that are limited to the corporate standard may have a major impact on both utilization and effectiveness of the rooms.
 
With vendors like Microsoft and Zoom working with room system partners to define the interoperation standards for those rooms, it will be much easier to develop room systems that integrate to multiple vendors. If Cisco and Google do the same, UC platform support may become the next big factor in choosing conference room meeting equipment.
 
How guest experiences work, and end devices will be a part of the analysis comparing Cisco, Microsoft, and Zoom that Brent Kelly and I will do at Enterprise Connect 2021. Join us for our session Cisco, Microsoft, or Zoom? Making Sense of Their Enterprise Platforms, Part 1, on Tuesday, September 28th at 3 PM in Orlando.
 

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