This article originally appeared in the Aug. 2011 issue of Unified Communications Magazine
You’ve decided to add the benefits of a unified communications solution to your organization. You’re probably feeling a bit trepidatious, somewhat like Dorothy as she enters the dark and creepy forest in the 1939 musical fantasy film The Wizard of Oz. But rather than lions, and tigers, and bears, the real stalking predator that you should be wary of is interoperability. Oh my!
By its very nature, a UC solution incorporates products from multiple vendors, and these products have to interoperate as seamlessly as possible. Multi-vendor integration is associated with many features commonly found in UC systems. For instance, the most common UC feature, unified messaging, requires that the switching control system (usually a PBX (News - Alert) or soft PBX) integrate with your e-mail server and its client for both voice and fax message delivery, and for features like message waiting lamp synchronization and click to dial. This often uses a combination of open standards and proprietary application programming interfaces for product integration.
Another high-value set of features associated with communications-enabled business processes and integrated voice response capabilities requires that the UC services environment integrate with line of business application data to automate business processes. The LOB integration is likely to use vendor-proprietary APIs for user interface integrations like click to dial, and a proprietary API for data access (rather than via a database connector like ODBC since LOB application vendors prefer not to provide direct access to internal application databases). Other common UC features that involve multi-vendor integration are fixed mobile convergence, call centers, videoconferencing/telepresence, SIP trunking, presence, IM, and integration with social networking. Fortunately, most vendors now publically publish their proprietary APIs and protocols, making integration possible. But beware, some APIs and protocols remain accessible only by vendor agreement.
Not unsurprisingly, multi-vendor interoperability problems are the most likely ones that you may encounter when deploying a UC solution.
Multi-vendor interoperability problems typically fall into two categories: configuration issues and technical shortcomings. The first type of problem occurs when products that are known to be interoperable can’t be configured to work together. This is caused by a lack of information and experience on the part of the deployment team rather than a product problem. This type of problem can usually be resolved fairly quickly with assistance from the product vendors.
When a technical shortcoming in the interoperability of the products is uncovered during a system deployment it can result in a major issue. This type of problem can’t be fixed by configuring the products and requires the vendors to make corrective product changes, usually by updating product software. This can take time as the vendors sort out which of the products needs corrective action, then perform development and testing before updates to eliminate the problem can be provided. If the vendors aren’t cooperating to find a resolution, you may never get a resolution, which will likely lead to deployment failure.
Fortunately, the industry is getting better at interoperability. Vendors are performing interoperability testing, publishing useful integration guides and configuration instructions, and forming interoperability partner programs and alliances such as the recently announced Open Visual Communications Consortium sponsored by Polycom (News - Alert). A litany of open standards like SIP, XMPP, SOAP, IMAP, LDAP, and ODBC, and publically published proprietary APIs and protocols are making a wide variety of product integration more reliable and more likely to be deployed successfully. For example, SIP interoperability with endpoints has progressed to the point where one can expect all but the most complex operations to work well. However, SIP can be quite complex in multi-server environments such as call center integration, so pay particular attention to the call scenarios that are required and verify they are supported before buying a solution. Typical SIP problems arise when media must transition between endpoints through multiple intermediary signaling points for operations like multiple sequential assisted call transfer operations.
So, how can you minimize your interoperability risk?
Look at the multi-vendor interoperability points in a proposed system and check to see if at least one of the vendors involved in each integration point provides documented supportfor the integration, including a detailed deployment and configuration guide. This will help reduce configuration problems.
Use vendors that have corporate commitment and culture to support open-standard solutions, and that have formal alliances with partners to maintain interoperability between their products.
Ensure that you have a deployment team that has some vendor training on the integration, preferably with some experience in that type of deployment. This will help you with both types of interoperability problems. Finding trained and experienced professionals for your deployment will likely to be your biggest problem as the industry is still struggling to train personnel to acquire the multi-disciplinary skills that are required for multi-vendor UC deployments. Since experience is key for trouble free multi-vendor UC deployments, using vendors, resellers and integrators with experience in deployments similar to yours will enable you to minimize interoperability deployment problems.
Finally, if you have a beneficial UC integration that hasn’t been attempted before, don’t shy away from it, but be prepared for a bit of pain. Give yourself time for the integration, look for commitment from the vendors involved to support it, find a deployment team with experience in the products involved, and plan on a phased introduction that begins with a field trial before a full deployment. With a bit of luck, you’ll only run into the lions, and tigers and bears.
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Edited by Stefania Viscusi