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Unified Communications Magazine September 2007
Volume 1 / Number 2
Unified Communications Magazine
Richard Grigonis

Interoperability Among UC Suites and Devices

By Richard "Zippy" Grigonis


Back in 1990, an X.400-like standard called AMIS (Audio Messaging Interchange Specification) appeared; these protocols enabled analog and digital voice messaging systems from different vendors to exchange messages. AMIS was more reminiscent of an email system than an interoperability protocol, and indeed its 1996 successor, VPIM (Voice Profile for Internet Messaging, also known as Voice Profile for Internet Mail), is based on SMTP/ MIME (Simple Message Transfer Protocol / Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions). Unlike AMIS technology, VPIM can route fax messages along with voice messages between voicemail systems, and over the Internet to boot. At the time of its appearance, Yours Truly wrote that "VPIM is felt to be better suited for more sophisticated applications such as Unified Messaging (UM)". Well, UM has evolved into UC, and the idea of interoperability among communications systems has many more aspects to it than simply exchanging voicemails and faxes, as it did 10 years ago.


The very term "unified communications" suggests interoperability, and the idea is somewhat plausible, given that many UC systems are based on the same wellknown, underlying components - The Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), Microsoft Exchange, Office Communications Server, Linux, Java, Flash, and so forth. Even so, one would suspect any given vendor desires customers to buy all their equipment from one vendor (themselves). Is there any real interest in interoperability of suites and devices?


Christopher Thompson, Senior Director, Solutions Marketing, Unified Communications Solutions, Cisco Systems, says, "Well of course vendors would like customers to purchase all of their IT solutions from a single vendor, but this is an unrealistic expectation. No vendor, anywhere, offers a complete IT solution for customers. For Cisco it's about choosing where we can add value and where we intend to compete. We recognize the increasing plurality of our customers' workspaces and IT infrastructure and are committed to unifying these environments through the use of open standards - including Web 2.0 capabilities - and interoperability. Where we compete, we will offer best of breed products to our customers, while also offering interoperability when customers choose competitive alternatives. However, we would be remiss if we didn't acknowledge our go-to-market partners, our distribution, systems integration, and value-added reseller partners that enable customers to work with a single 'seller' to secure and integrate products from multiple vendors. Arguably, this is more important to customers than a single technology supplier."


How is Cisco tackling the problem of interoperability among UC suites and devices? "Cisco Unified Communications Solutions are architected to be open to ensure interoperability from the physical infrastructure to the application layer and secure to protect users and organizations," replies Thompson.


"Cisco's network-based approach towards UC is also inclusive, resulting in a media-rich collaboration experience that may be realized by all users in an organization using any device or operating system: Mac, Blackberry, and Nokia dual-mode handset users are also entitled to the workspace communications experience, in addition to Windows PC users."


Thompson goes on, "Additionally, we provide integration with Oracle [Siebel/Peoplesoft], Salesforce.com, Microsoft CRM, and Remedy through CRM connectors as part of Cisco Unified Contact Center. Cisco Unity [unified messaging] extends functionality to third party IP PBX products including Avaya and Nortel. Cisco is also planning to make Cisco Unified Presence interoperable with Avaya and Nortel IP PBX products in the future. Both the architecture and the available levels of integration with third party products and applications demonstrate that a network-centric architecture and approach to unified communications is a significant benefit to customers."


"The various components of a Cisco UC Solution, ranging from Cisco Unified Communications Manager, Cisco Unity, Cisco Unified MeetingPlace, Cisco Unified Presence, Cisco Unified Contact Center to the unified clients, all use SIP as the communications protocol," says Thompson. "Further, we have industry leading interoperability with IBM and Microsoft products using SIP/SIMPLE and CSTA/SIP. Specific to Microsoft, our solutions deliver complete solutions to customers who may be using Office Communications Server/Live Communications Server, Office Communicator, or Exchange/Outlook."


"With Cisco Unified Application Environment [CUAE], an open services-oriented software development platform that came to Cisco through the Metreos acquisition, developers and customers have the ability to design and deliver unified communications applications from an easy to use and flexible application environment," says Thompson.


"As a market leader in enterprise network routing and switching, security, storage and wireless," says Thompson, "Cisco is committed to ensuring that Unified Communications applications leverage customers' existing investments in these areas while pursuing and open and interoperable design philosophy. This is in the best interests of our installed base customers for a broad range of solutions, including Unified Communications."


Thompson then made an interesting side comment: "Generally Microsoft's entry into the Unified Communications marketplace is good for the market in that it will raise the interest and viability of unified communications across a greater variety of customers and workspaces."


Time for Everybody to Play Nice


"We're seeing companies finally beginning to understand the need to pull back the reigns and gain more control over the communications devices their workers are using," says Theron Dodson, Director of Sales and Marketing, Ascendent Systems (www.ascendentsystems.com). "But, when I speak with telecom managers, they are hesitant - and rightly so - in administering a full 'rip and replace' of the existing IT infrastructure. It can not only be expensive, but also time-intensive. As the old saying goes, 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'. Most of us are so used to the inconveniences associated with traditional communications systems, such as multiple phone numbers, limited conferencing capabilities and separate work applications that we see no need to change the status quo."


"However, enterprises are finally giving unified communications the attention it deserves," says Dodson. "An office synched to mobile collaboration tools such as voice messaging, conferencing, email, data applications, instant messaging, and presence is where the future is taking us. We're seeing enterprises asking more and more for standards-based solutions that not only support existing investments in traditional technology, but can also interoperate and 'play nice' with others."


Dodson elaborates: "Enterprises looking to jump into the UC foray may want to start by choosing one or two 'must have' technologies that will offer the most immediate improvements to company communications. For most companies, enterprise voice mobility solutions are at the top of the list because an increasing mobile workforce has made it challenging to stay connected and thus has started to affect the bottom line. Using cell phones disconnected from the corporate telecom infrastructure makes it more difficult to be reached or collaborate immediately in order to do things like solve customer problems or close deals immediately. And there are solutions that are easy to implement and can be integrated into existing systems - legacy TDM or IP - without a forklift upgrade. Because UC is still going through its growth spurts, staying open and not locking to one vendor will help an organization be more flexible to choose and deploy solutions that make the most sense for the organization without having to compromise later due to proprietary systems."


One key to interoperability is to make sure that a popular interface is taken into account. Since the Apple iPhone is destined to be a force to be reckoned with among users, it's not surprising that various vendors are scrambling to incorporate it into their communications plans. I recently spoke with Tony Terranova, Vice President of Product Marketing at Genesys Conferencing, who told me that, "We're the first company to bring full virtual meeting capabilities to participants with the Apple iPhone. Our Genesys Meeting Center, launched in 2002, now at version 4.0, runs on standards-based AJAX technology and we can leverage that to effortlessly join a voice and web meeting through the Safari browser on the iPhone. The iPhone will now have access to the industry's only integrated voice, web and desktop video conferencing solution that has global support."


"Another major aspect of all this is the fact that the iPhone is a mobile communications device," says Denise Persson, EVP Global Marketing of Genesys. "Businesses are becoming increasingly decentralized and dispersed. In fact, about 20 percent of all participants now attend meetings from a cell phone. Coupling the iPhone hardware with our software technology allows mobile professionals to collaborate wherever they happen to be; they can attend virtual meetings without having to carry a laptop."


Richard "Zippy" Grigonis is Executive Editor of TMC's IP Communications Group.



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