An influential Gartner analyst recently slammed the big unified communications (UC) vendors for failing to get their act together on interoperability, claiming it is stunting the market's potential.
Despite several false dawns, UC - in its truest form - has failed to take off as the pundits predicted. Although this may be partly due to a lack of acceptance among end users, the absence of rigorous common standards and failure of the manufacturers to make their systems work together has also hampered growth.
But could this lack of interoperability be a blessing in disguise for the channel? Gartner research director Ken Agress, who penned the blog in question - entitled The Sorry State of UC Interoperability - following last month's Enterprise Connect show, certainly thinks this could be the case.
Agress issued his stinging assessment following a panel debate at
the show featuring representatives from Avaya, Microsoft, Cisco, HP, NEC and Siemens.
"SIP [session initiation protocol] was approved in 2000 with the goal of providing a standard for signalling in an IMS infrastructure," he wrote. "Standard codecs for voice and video are available for use. SIMPLE and XMPP offer the means needed to support presence and instant messaging. Yet in 2012 we are still here discussing how hard interoperability is, particularly among some of the largest vendors
in the industry."
Roberto Casula, chief technology officer at Avaya and ShoreTel partner Proximity Communications, argued that the issue lies not with the vendors but with the lack of a general interoperability standard governing UC.
"The problem with SIP is it is just a framework, rather than a rigidly defined standard," he said. "Different vendors use their own flavours and when you need to interconnect them, you come up against two different flavours.
"The industry needs more consistency and the dialects need to be standardised."
Accepting the blame
However, even some of the vendors admit that the manufacturer community must accept some of the blame. Although the market is growing at 15 per cent annually - according to the most recent estimates from analysts such as Infonetics - UC has failed to mature in line with expectations.
Chris Barrow, advanced technologies marketing manager at Avaya - which recently bought videoconferencing outfit Radvision - said: "Every day we see manufacturers that are really only delivering a true UC experience if the customer is using all its desktop clients and operating systems. And we see other manufacturers that are only delivering a true UC experience if you run everything across their network. Neither of these things is good for the industry."
However, Barrow was quick to distance his company from the field, arguing that Avaya had conscientiously embraced open standards through its SIP-based Aura architecture.
Avaya's Agile Communications Environment (ACE) middleware can be used to connect applications from different UC vendors and comms environments in hours, Barrow explained. He said ACE is particularly useful for customers who want to connect Microsoft Lync to their existing comms infrastructure.
"At Avaya, we can genuinely deliver the true UC experience by bringing together Avaya voice, video inside nothing more than a web browser, Microsoft Lync for presence and instant messaging (IM) and have that riding across Cisco's data network and deployed to a tablet. How much more interoperable do you need us to be?"
Laurent Dinard, senior product manager at Shortel, was not surprised by Agress' comments, but disagreed with Barrow's assessment.
"There are efforts by different vendors to reach a level of interoperability but the trend overall for the past year or so is that each one is trying to create their own ecosystem.
"Cisco has acquired Jabber and Tandberg and its ideal world is to have an end-to-end solution that is closed. Avaya has just acquired Radvision and is also trying to create its own ecosystem."
Dinard revealed that ShoreTel has just joined the Unified Communications Interoperability Forum (UCIF), an organisation Cisco and Avaya have yet to embrace. "We are committed to interoperability and hope to bring momentum into the group," he said.
Agress agreed that most UC vendors are intent on going it alone, making it impossible for enterprises to connect their UC solutions to a carrier service, cloud provider or third party that uses solutions from a different vendor.
"This type of approach hurts UC overall by limiting its applications," Agress wrote. "Want to be able to adopt a hybrid deployment model that mixes on-premise and cloud services to address different user communities? There won't be standards to support that, so pick your platforms carefully."
SIs to the rescue?
But although this is bad news for the end user, could it spell a bonanza for the VARs and SIs whose job it is to tie together the systems and applications?
Avaya's Barrow stressed that Avaya's efforts to interoperate with its rivals would not leave partners out in the cold.
"The channel is our lifeblood but we think we can make life a lot easier by bringing things together," he said. "We can provide a blueprint for about 80 per cent of the [UC] integrations people request. For instance, Avaya voice, with Microsoft Lync on a Cisco network, and delivered on an iPad, is a common request. If we can blueprint that, we can take a standard configuration to the VAR's customer. For the remaining 20 per cent, there is a place for the VAR or SI to do the custom integration."
Casula agreed that Avaya's approach to interoperability was "great on paper" but pointed out that the session manager at the heart of Aura supports only specific integrations that Avaya has tested.
Far from meaning extra revenue for the SI, this could cause the end user to shelve the entire project, leading them to lose the sale, he said.
"It is extremely rare that a customer requirement exactly matches one of the templates," said Casula. "So we have a choice: either we do the SI piece ourselves or we get the customer to one of those
"If we go for the first option, nobody will support the overall configuration if the customer has a bug. The customer is then left in limbo as we as the SI cannot fix it as we don't write the software."
Dinard agreed: "If the reseller is required to solve interoperability issues between basic elements of the system, the solution will not be widely deployed."
A lack of interoperability is by no means the only factor holding back UC, Casula argued, with end users still sceptical about the value and return on investment that end-to-end UC projects offer.
Customers may see the benefits of IM and presence, but tend to deploy these as standalone applications rather than as part of a wider UC solution, he said.
"True UC is not being adopted that quickly in the UK," he added. "A lot of customers look at the complexity of the business benefits and the sums do not add up. We are generally doing partial solutions, providing voice with the ability to do more as and when the customer sees the business case to do so."
The US has seen faster adoption than the UK, Casula added, because the geographical spread between regional offices has increased the appeal of videoconferencing. "There are also cultural barriers - things UK companies just don't like about UC," he said.
Paul Blundell, managing director of VAR iQual, said: "There is a standard already for UC, which is SIP. The bigger issue is convincing clients they actually need it. When we discuss video with clients, there is a need in the boardroom to save long journeys and share ideas, but when you mention the desktop, quite often the client says ‘I don't want them seeing me when I'm talking !'
"Products such as Skype and Facetime are fantastic but cause a problem as they are free, so selling a more enhanced solution can be hard as many people are happy with the performance of the free products."
Barrow said the extent to which UC has taken off depends on definition: "The UC industry has made great strides in bringing people together regardless of where they are sitting and the devices they have in front of them. The missing piece to complete the jigsaw is context and history."
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