Yesterday morning, Enterprise Connect kicked off and I’m lucky enough to have made the trip. While my schedule at these events often makes it difficult for me to attend many sessions, I do try to squeeze them in whenever I can on the odd chance that I’ll hear something unexpected or unusual. Although these sessions can rarely go to the depth or detail I can get interacting directly with vendors, every once in a while it happens. And yesterday was one of those days.
The session focused on the question “Are we in a post-PBX era:” with the breadth of UC platforms today, is it time to bid our the PBX a final farewell and move to UC solutions exclusively? But rather than drawing my attention with a particularly well-formulated argument to support or refute that suggestion, the panelists (which included representatives from many of the largest UC vendors in the world) all settled on a relatively common statement – the most critical part of interoperability that enterprises will be leveraging in the near future is their value-added reseller. Rather than strong standards for signaling and media, the VAR will become more of a systems integrator that ties these systems together. There were somewhat obligatory noises about SIP, the UCIF, or similar standards, but the message I took away from the session was “interoperability will continue to be hard and enterprises shouldn’t expect the vendors to address this directly.”
This answer is a failure. The trends in the market are towards greater and greater use of virtualized, software-based, cloud-enabled platforms for communications. Enterprises need the flexibility of these platforms to meet the growing demand for “bring your own device” approaches to mobility, leveraging cloud-based services effectively, and connecting directly to business partners, clients, suppliers or other third parties. But what the “Interoperability comes through your VAR” answer means is that we shouldn’t expect significant developments that make such environments truly possible. Since each vendor’s focus will be on their products, their clients, their services, and their communications channels, how can an enterprise reasonably expect to connect to a carrier service, cloud provider, or external entity that uses solutions from a different vendor?
This is ludicrous. SIP was approved in 2000 with the goal of providing a standard for signaling in an IMS infrastructure. 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’re still here discussing how hard interoperability is, particularly among some of the largest vendors in the industry. Worse, interoperability would appear to be either relatively unimportant in comparison with other development efforts or type of sop that the vendors can throw to their channel as an additional revenue stream. OK – that last sentence is a bit hyperbolic, but it illustrates a simple point: Rather than offering interoperability that provides enterprises the flexibility and connectivity they need by committing to fixing the problem, the vendors are referring enterprises back to their VAR.
This type of approach also hurts UC overall by limiting its applications. 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. Want to establish a strong collaborative platform with your critical suppliers? Better either have the strength to force your platform upon them or the good fortune to all have selected the same platform. Want to supplement a specific channel or type of connection with a “best-of-breed” solution that brings you features and functions that your standard platform can’t supply? Here’s hoping that this solution “plays nicely” with your chosen enterprise platform.
For UC to deliver on its promise and move us to a post-PBX era it has to do more than “just” replace the PBX. Indeed, that’s arguably the least important thing it has to do because the PBX is really just a method of delivering voice services provided by a hardware-intensive platform that can be exchanged for a well-deployed mix of IP-enabled hardware with the right software. UC needs to provide enterprises the ability to connect to their customers, partners, suppliers, and even the public in ways that help advance their business goals. It needs to be able to consume cloud services, connect to a wide array of devices and systems, and offer its services to applications that allow communications to become embedded in those applications that support business processes and workflows.
Will VARs play an important role in many enterprises? Certainly – the deployment and integration of UC as a part of a services-based IT environment alone will call for expertise that enterprises are unlikely to have as they take their first steps. But the basic “blocking and tackling” involved with connecting UC systems together shouldn’t be so reliant upon these entities. It should be based upon real standards with real support and strong capabilities rather than the relatively weak “well, we support SIP” that we hear today. Sadly, it appears that the vendors don’t see this as critical to their plans.
This leaves the initiative in the hands of enterprises. And if enterprises are serious about receiving solutions that provide them the flexibility, extensibility, and connectivity that they desire then they’ll need to demonstrate it with their purchasing decisions. Unless purchasing decisions are driven by the interoperability and integration requirements as much as other demands, we shouldn’t expect change. Vendors do have very different approaches to integration, and a shift in the market towards platforms that offer richer and deeper support for interconnectivity will be a far more eloquent statement of the necessity for these capabilities than this blog post or any report that I can write could ever be. The question is – are the vendors saying what they’re saying because enterprises haven’t convinced the market that they’re serious? If so, then it may be wise to increase your budget projects for services from your VAR as you look towards the cloud or direct connections to other enterprises.
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