Vendors Should Focus on UC Simplification by Leveraging Third Parties
I think it's time the industry finally called a spade a spade. UC is complex and getting more complex every time we add a new feature or enhance the product somehow. Much of the complexity comes from the fact that these "systems" aren't self-contained units anymore. Today's solutions can operate in the cloud, on virtual appliances, as physical servers or on multifunction devices such as Cisco's ISR or an Avaya IP Office. Additionally, clients can be dedicated IP phones, soft phones, operating on wired networks, WiFi or cellular. Also, most customers want to run multi-vendor systems, and no matter how closely a solution provider follows the standards, there are a number of vendor-specific issues when it comes to implementation of the standard or signal methods, etc.
Now don't get me wrong, the solutions today have much higher levels of flexibility and agility, and we can do so many more things today than we could ever have done in the past, but there's no doubt complexity is at an all time high. At Cisco's Collaboration Summit, it was refreshing to hear Rowan Trollope, the company's GM of Collaboration, actually talk about how hard implementing UC is for their customers--that's something I rarely hear the vendors talk about. However, complexity isn't just a Cisco problem; it's really all the vendors today, as the solutions have gotten broader and more flexible.
To combat this, some of the vendors have rolled out pre-integrated, validated solutions such as Cisco's HCS and Avaya's Collaboration Pod, and this has definitely helped; but some pockets of complexity still remain, as no vendor can solve all problems.
There are some problems, though, that vendors can't fix with a pre-integrated solution, and these are issues caused by multi-vendor environments. I know almost every vendor would like to be the sole UC vendor for its customers, but multi-vendor has become the norm, and it's a headache for most organizations. Now don't get me wrong, I think multi-vendor interoperability has come a long way over the past five years as standards have matured, but many of the back-end issues around user configuration and provisioning remain a challenge.
To deliver solutions that are simpler to deploy and manage and work in multi-vendor environments, I believe the vendor community needs to make a concerted effort to work with the third-party specialty vendors that can help solve specific pain points.
For example, last week, Oracle (former Acme Packet group) released its Communications Broker that simplifies multi-vendor UC deployments. Communications Broker eliminates the session protocol incompatibilities and controls session routing between the different voice, video and UC systems. In a sense, the product acts as a "Rosetta Stone" for IP sessions. It's a good product, but Oracle would up doing much of the "heavy lifting" to solve multi-vendor session management issues. Wouldn't it have been easier if the UC vendors proactively worked with Oracle to solve these issues?
Another example is VOSS's integration into Cisco's HCS. The VOSS management suite is actually OEMed by Cisco and is primarily used to solve provisioning challenges with HCS such as dial plan migration, user provisioning, usage tracking, etc. VOSS also provides support for these management tasks across multi-vendor environments, including legacy platforms for migration purposes. Similar to Oracle's Communications Broker, VOSS accomplished much of this internally rather than having proactive support from the vendor community.
One of the important points that the UC vendor community should understand is that solving these complexity challenges, particularly with multi-vendor deployments, doesn't create a threat--rather, it generates opportunities. On the surface it may seem threatening, as no one wants to make it easy for a customer to bring a second supplier in, but in practicality, if UC were easier to deploy, provision and manage, a "rising tide" would be created, as more organizations could deploy and use more UC without having to overburden internal IT staffs. This would allow all vendors to grow without having to beat each other up on price or get aggressive with buy-back programs.
Nothing creates excitement like a growing market, and the UC industry has been focused on growing the market by continually expanding the number of features and functions. Perhaps it's time for the industry to take a step back and ensure customers can actually deploy and use what's out there instead of talking about the next great feature. If customers can't use what's available today, then it's unlikely they'll care about what's next. Instead of trying to solve all these problems in isolation, work with some of the third-party management vendors, as this will provide the best, fastest results.