UC platform: Use Microsoft or go the open route?

Unified communications requires integrating multiple tools, and there are many ways to skin a cat. But is it better to come at the opportunity using integrated tools from Microsoft or try to stitch something together using open tools?

The Experts
Alex Lewis
Alex Lewis

Principal Consultant and UC Practice Lead at Convergent Computing, says Microsoft's UC tools are simply the best in every measurable aspect, say nothing of the fact that they are the cheapest and easiest to manage. View debate

Paul McMillan
Paul McMillan

Director UC Technical Vision and Strategy at Siemens Enterprise Communications, says the best way to approach UC is by building an open platform that can interoperate with a variety of vendor technologies. View debate

Alex Lewis

Microsoft tools are best, hands down

Microsoft has the most complete unified communications vision and execution of that vision in the market today and the gap between Microsoft and second place is only widening.

The Gartner report released in July 2010 shows Microsoft as the clear leader in unified communications based on the Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 R2 platform, a platform that was nearly 2 years old at the time. And later this month Microsoft will release Lync Server 2010, a huge improvement over Office Communications Server. In short, the best just got a lot better.

In addition, Microsoft won the VoiceCon "voice" RFP shootout. Microsoft was the dark horse going up against more experienced Cisco, Avaya and others, but still came out on top. If you read the full RFP response you'll notice that not only does Microsoft offer the richest set of features, it is one of the most economical solutions, roughly half the price of Cisco's solution. The funny thing is Microsoft's Jeff Raikes predicted in 2007 that by 2010 software-based solutions would be roughly half the cost of hardware solutions. 

To be the best the solution needs to be flexible enough to work for businesses large and small. Sprint, obviously in the large category, saves $9.3 million per year using Microsoft UC. And I've worked with companies with less than 50 employees that save $30,000 per month on conferencing costs by leveraging the same Microsoft UC stack. Those are pure "hard" ROI numbers. The emerging Communications Enabled Business Processes (CEBP) market promises savings an order of magnitude higher.

But let's see how Microsoft's back-end infrastructure and the end user perspective compare to the competition. Cisco's solution, for example, leverages Microsoft Active Directory and other Microsoft tools, but still needs a multitude of loosely integrated products to form a "solution". From both an administrative standpoint, that's overly complex and confusing.

The Microsoft story is both simpler and more powerful. At the core of Microsoft's UC solution is Active Directory. Exchange 2010 adds e-mail, calendaring, mobility and unified messaging. Lync Server 2010 adds IM, Web and audio conferencing, VoIP and real time collaboration.

Flipping to the user side of the coin, Microsoft achieves all this without a VPN. While some competitors take a network-focused approach, Microsoft couldn't care less what your network looks like. No extra software, no VPN required. Users can work wherever, whenever, empowering the next generation remote and mobile workforce. That's simply not possible with any other solution on the market.

Microsoft's UC stack also leverages tight integration and a familiar look and feel with the Office suite. With over 80% of enterprise users using Microsoft Office, the Microsoft UC solution doesn't require extensive end user training or a steep learning curve. With Microsoft Lync Communicator and Office, the only clients required, all users can leverage the power of unified communications.

Moving to a technical discussion, some competitors have thrown their eggs in the network basket claiming network QoS to be sufficient for real-time communications. That's great inside an enterprise, however with the growing mobile workforce it's insufficient. Microsoft introduced the RT-Audio and RT-Video variable codecs in Office Communications Server 2007 and improved them greatly for Lync Server 2010.

The key differentiator is that Microsoft's solution adjusts to provide the optimal user experience over all networks, including the Internet. I don't know about you, but I'd much rather be able to make a great call from the beach over my tethered 4G connection than have to go into the office. I know that because I spent last month working from Hawaii, using my PC, Lync and a headset as a mobile office to keep in touch with clients and friends. The Microsoft solution worked perfectly and I was just as productive as I would have been in a traditional office… but much happier.

While it's an oversimplification, essentially Microsoft means work anywhere, while competitors keep you confined to your cubicle.

Earlier this year, Microsoft rolled out the "Why Microsoft" campaign and the social networking world went crazy with #whymsft tags. That slogan is especially appropriate for unified communications. Why Microsoft? Because they are simply the best solution in every qualitative and quantitative metric available. Not to mention the least expensive and, in my opinion, the easiest to manage.

Convergent Computing is a technology consulting firm in the San Francisco Bay Area that specializes in Microsoft technologies and boasts some of the top experts in their field. The company principals have written several books on Microsoft server technologies, including Exchange 2010 Unleashed and the upcoming Lync Server 2010 Unleashed. Contact Lewis at alex@cco.com.

Paul McMillan

An open platform delivers optimal value

From individual worker productivity to accelerating complex business processes that are vital to the success of an enterprise, a UC platform must address all facets of the enterprise in an open approach to deliver real measurable value.

Voice is foundational to all communications. Simply put, most business is conducted via real time communications between two or more entities. Given how far our market has evolved it is unacceptable to deliver anything less than full voice feature functionality as a baseline to any UC platform.

Beyond the standard voice services, this same architecture must be supported in all areas of the enterprise, including the contact center, and in all vertical markets, such as government, healthcare and finance. Each of these sectors has specific regulatory and compliance mandates that can't be ignored or glossed over.

What's more, the UC architecture must be able to meet stringent availability, scalability and flexibility requirements, terms that are often used without adequate definition or context. That's unfortunate because these terms are fundamental to an open communications platform. You can deliver the most intuitive user experience in the market, but if the architecture its built on costs too much to maintain, has security vulnerabilities, crashes or requires patches every other day to maintain, then its value is greatly reduced and the user experience matters little.

As customer demands grow, a UC platform must scale in an elegant, controlled, and managed fashion to address these demands at the same time it allows the IT department to manage this scale effectively. This brings us to how much flexibility a UC platform can provide. An open approach is by definition network, application and management agnostic. It can be deployed in a stand alone fashion or as middleware. It can be virtualized or deployed natively. It can deliver service to a single customer domain or to multiple customers via inherent multi-tenant functions.

And of course an open communications platform can integrate and interoperate with a variety of other vendor's technology in a way that leverages standards and best practices to the fullest extent possible. SIP is a critical element of this openness, but beyond SIP it's increasingly important to leverage the service orientation of different software architectures to achieve this integration.

It is critical, for example, for the open communications architecture to extend a rich set of APIs that can allow for integration of off the shelf components as well as deeper, more customized integration without locking a customer in.

Security is critical not only for the foundational elements of a UC platform but also for the more complex implementations where software from the UC platform is embedded into a line of business applications. How is identity protected? Once again, if your underlying platform is constantly exposed to viruses, malware, botnets, and so on, it's unrealistic to assume you can deliver much value to the end user.

Your platform needs to be able to deliver on all of the above and deliver to the user an interface that is suitable for their role and responsibility. From mobile workers to deskbound employees to highly collaborative work teams to people that live inside an ERP workflow. For each individual, the ability to have the user experience customized for their specific role is paramount.

The point is the enterprise exists beyond individual software suites and e-mail, IM or contact center tools. It's inclusive of all of these elements plus ERP systems, line of business applications for sales, marketing and business administration. It even includes niche applications in vertical markets where specific software platforms are the lifeblood of, say, a healthcare group or a financial trading company.

With all of these examples it's imperative that the user interface can be embedded across the entire application eco-system to deliver a familiar and consistent user experience.

As UC evolves to include integration into social software and is extended into areas like business process management and human interaction management, only an open communications platform can evolve along with these emerging  requirements to deliver additional value and a consistent user experience.

In the enterprise today it's an absolute necessity to provide all of the critical voice services on a highly scalable and resilient platform while also delivering an open approach to embed rich presence and collaboration functions across the entire enterprise application spectrum.

Siemens Enterprise Communications is a premier provider of end-to-end enterprise communications, including voice, network infrastructure and security solutions that use open, standards-based architectures to unify communications and business applications for a seamless collaboration experience. For more information visit www.siemens-enterprise.com.

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