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In Defense of Unified Communications

April 11, 2012

To paraphrase the famous line from the movie Jerry McGuire, “you had me with your opening line!” Such was the case of a recent blog post by Doug Woodburn for CRN which states, “You know a technology is a damp squib when even the resellers pushing it admit it’s a non-starter.” He was referring to unified communications (UC). His comparison with the British term for a water-logged firecracker seems akin to pronouncing UC in the throes of death. I happen to think the reports of UC’s death are greatly exaggerated. In fact, UC hardly seems like a dud – like good wine it takes time to mature.

What’s the fuss?

Here is what Woodburn had to say:

“Despite the fact that SIP was approved in 2000, we still live in a world where UC systems, as a rule, do not work together…This sorry state of affairs was recently branded as "ludicrous" by Gartner analyst Ken Agress, who wrote a furious blog on the issue in the wake of last month's Enterprise Connect show following a panel debate…The UC vendors' stubbornness in going it alone is stunting adoption, he argued, particularly as enterprises increasingly look to connect to carrier services or cloud providers that are using UC solutions from a different vendor....

 If vendors don't make further headway on open standards, the potential for the channel to lose out longer term is surely far greater,” Woodburn continued. “Even in instances where a vendor has tried to interoperate with its competitors, resellers are left with integration headaches that can jeopardize whole projects...And quite apart from interoperability issues, UC is failing to resonate with end users. Just like DLP, the cost and complexity of rolling out a true UC solution - even when it is from a single vendor – is still viewed as a barrier to adoption by many.”

It is based on his assessment: woe is us. But is this gloom and doom warranted?

Keep hope alive!

I will concede that UC has not lived up to its promise. Yes, interoperability and price issues have been huge obstacles to adoption. Yes, VARs/channels have been stuck in an awkward position. But all major analyst firms that cover the space say that SIP trunking, the critical UC enabler, has been picking up steam in the last 18 months. They also note the impressive growth of the Enterprise – Session Border Controller (E-SBC) market.

For those of you unfamiliar, a session border controller (SBC) is a device used in Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) networks to control signaling and the media streams involved in setting up, conducting and tearing down telephone calls or other interactive media communications such as video conferencing.

SBCs were initially the almost exclusive province of carriers to facilitate interoperability and security between peered service provider (SP) networks. They now are used between SP access and backbone networks to provide VoIP services, not just to enterprises, but to residences. They are increasingly important to enterprises looking to enjoy end-to-end IP multimedia services especially VoIP. 

To the extent that E-SBC  work/don’t work with the “ludicrous” vendor specific implementations of SIP, they actually  are helping channels and their customers crack the interoperability challenge.   Another way of looking at this is to say that as they are the enablers of UC all boats will rise as the tide comes in. The wait is not likely to be long. One fact to keep in mind is that the installed base of PBXs, for example, has never been older. Things like the need for IP as well as the inclusion of mobile devices in enterprise networks are driving a requirement in enterprises to rethink their communication platform and services needs.

While only a small fraction of the enterprise communications market, it must be noted that in the last several months the number of E-SBC developers has mushroomed. It should also be stated that while not a tsunami just yet interoperability certification of E-SBCs with the dominant PBX vendors has led many to believe that the SIP and UC markets are heading for one of those famous hockey stick accelerations.  The market is directionally correct.

Indeed, Avaya’s purchase of Sipera is a case in point as it felt that owning the E-SBC was critical for its migration of its own and the Nortel base to a SIP-centric all IP enterprise network. Plus, explosion of E-SBC providers means two things:

It is a market with real legs

Industry consolidation as PBX vendors see their futures at stake as enterprises demand the functionality and require interoperability will drive what could be a frenzy of acquisitions and certainly so intriguing partnerships

This can be viewed as good news for VARs. Competition means E-SBC prices will come down. The resolution of interoperability issue will allow VARs to present a valued proposition for VoIP, video, SIP and UC that is justifiable.

It must also be stated, in regard to the rants against UC, the aforementioned word “mobility,” did not appear. The so-called socialization/consumerization of IT being driven by the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) phenomena makes the case for SIP, VoIP and UC compelling. Those BYOD devices in the enterprise will use WiFi to obviate reliance on cellular networks as unlimited data usage plans disappear. The end users of those devices are going to make calls via VoIP and demand access to video, presence and all of their office collaboration tools. Did I mention, this is inevitable and not wishful thinking?

Finally, I would be remiss if it is not noted that the use cases for UC by cutting-edge users is already as to the justification of adopting UC are impressive and growing. Don’t think so? You are invited to check out the unified communications webinar library to review two recent webinars: 

Justifying Unified Communications The Proof Cases for Why UC, Where and Why Now!

Five Questions to Ask Before You Make Your Unified Communications Choice

Unified communications a “damp squib”? I think not. The proof is in the numbers.

Edited by Braden Becker

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