Cisco: It's all about the hardware

Network-based approach offers single-vendor solution for all types of devices

Cisco's approach to unified communications is a network-based, hardware-intensive implementation designed to provide support for more environments – like point-of-sale systems, non-PC workgroups and mobile device platforms – than desktop- or server-based strategies.

Read how Microsoft approaches unified communications.

Watch our head-to-head comparison of Cisco vs. Microsoft UC solutions.

But like Microsoft and its Windows desktop/server-based unified communications vision, Cisco's plan is founded on protecting its business and selling as much Cisco equipment into the enterprise as possible.

"Both of them want pretty much a single vendor solution with the exception that I don't see any indication, nor should there be, that Cisco would go into the e-mail, messaging or calendaring area," says Elizabeth Herrell, an analyst at Forrester Research. "But other than that they all want to say we're one vendor, buy it all from us."

Indeed, a description of Cisco's all-encompassing unified communications portfolio begins with a listing of virtually every enterprise router in the Cisco inventory, from the 800 series to the 7500 series. It also includes five models from the company's Catalyst switch line as well as various gateways and access devices.

In all, 29 infrastructure products are included in Cisco's unified communications portfolio. And that doesn't include the 92 other customer contact, IP telephony, unified communications applications, collaboration – including WebEx – and voice network management tools that fill out Cisco's unified communications roster.

Analysts say Cisco's all-in-one, largely proprietary approach provides reliability, greater control, and consistent security and QoS from the endpoint through the network. But therein lies its downside as well – an environment requiring lots of devices and limited inclusion of non-Cisco gear.

"What's thrown back at Cisco is just the fact that they do require a lot of different servers for specific capabilities," says Matthias Machowinski, directing analyst for enterprise voice and data at Infonetics Research. "That seems to be their main knock whereas some other vendors are more integrated, especially once you scale down. If you're a company with 100 people and now you have to deploy 10 servers for [unified communications], that's going to be a problem."

The Cisco view

Cisco says that characterization is not entirely accurate.

Chart of 17 unified communications vendors

"I describe our strategy as an 'and' strategy, not an 'or' strategy," says Christopher Thompson, senior director of UC solutions marketing at Cisco. "Many of our customers have Microsoft desktops and they will be using OCS, and we will make sure that we interoperate with OCS. It's an inclusive strategy."

Thompson also says it's not true that Cisco unified communications requires many servers – that some of Cisco's customers can deploy UCM Business Edition, for up to 500 users, on a single server.

At the heart of Cisco's unified communications portfolio is Unified Communications Manager, the call processing component of the environment. UCM is designed to deliver voice, video, mobility and presence services to IP phones, media processing devices, VoIP gateways, mobile devices, and multimedia applications, combining these resources into a "workspace" for up to 60,000 users.

Additional services, such as unified messaging, multimedia conferencing, collaborative contact centers, and interactive multimedia response systems are made possible through UCM APIs.

UCM runs on the Cisco 7800 Series Media Convergence Servers and selected HP and IBM platforms under Windows server or appliance model operating systems. It has a suite of integrated voice applications and utilities, including attendant console, impromptu conferencing, bulk administration, call detail record analysis and reporting, and real-time monitoring.

Multiple UCM servers can be clustered and managed as a single entity on an IP network, a capability that yields scalability of tens of thousands of IP phones per cluster, Cisco says. The cluster also provides load balancing and call-processing service redundancy, and interlinking multiple clusters allows system capacity to reach 1 million users in a system of more than 100 sites, Cisco says.

But even this is presenting scalability issues for huge enterprises such as Boeing, which had to establish two UCM clusters in the Puget Sound, Wash., area to serve 85,000 employees – 25,000 more than the UCM cluster limit, says Michael Kok, senior network designer at Boeing and president of the Cisco IP Telecommunications User Group (CIPTUG). (Read WesBanco's experience with Cisco network gear.)

"The scalability, at least for one cluster, will not be able to take care of the population we have," Kok says. "So we are in the process of deploying a second cluster, which means twice the maintenance, twice the operations, twice the support."

Kok says Boeing, given its proximity to Microsoft in Washington and its immersion in the software giant's products, is implementing a hybrid unified communications environment of Microsoft on the "front-end," with desktop and client applications, and Cisco in the "back-end," performing call control and transport. He says Boeing has not experienced any interoperability issues as yet with this environment.

Another key component of Cisco's unified communications platform is WebEx. Cisco acquired the Web-based conferencing and collaboration company in 2007 for $3.2 billion to obtain a platform for subscription-based services that allow companies to engage in data conferences over the Internet as well as share Web-based documents and workspaces.

If there's a knock on Cisco's strategy it's because of its proprietary nature. Cisco is heavily reliant on hardware – specifically, Cisco networking infrastructure hardware that runs the company's proprietary IOS operating system.

"Cisco talks about being open but they're either pre-standard or non-standard," says Zeus Kerravala of the Yankee Group. "Even the way they did Power over Ethernet: they did it their own way and then when the standard was ratified they happened to conform to the standard. The way they do things in a proprietary way add to the quality in an all-Cisco environment; but then you're kind of stuck with the all-Cisco environment. It's hard to bring in other parts."

Nonetheless, Cisco does support the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), a standard for call establishment in a VoIP and unified communications environment. SIP support is available in UCM with support of line-side devices, including IETF RFC 3261-compliant IP phones and other devices from Cisco and other manufacturers.

On the trunk side, the SIP interface conforms to RFC 3261, allowing support of video calls over the SIP trunk. But like other vendors, Cisco adds non-standard extensions to SIP to expand its functionality.

Cisco's SIP-implementation used to be called SKINNY but is now called "SIP with extensions," Thompson says.

"We will support both a SIP client as well as a SIP client with Cisco extensions, to add more functionality," Thompson says.

Kerravala says that even though SKINNY is proprietary, it represents the most "open" aspect of Cisco's unified communications implementation.

"Cisco's open when it comes to SKINNY," Kerravala says. "If you want to work in Cisco's ecosystem and you want to be able to tap into a lot of the advanced features, then you got to code to SKINNY. From a vendor perspective, their market share is big enough that it makes it worth it."

Among the major vendors Cisco has unified communications interoperability agreements with are IBM, Nokia and Microsoft. Analysts say Cisco, however, does not have the independent software vendors (ISV) development ecosystem that Microsoft has… or does it?

Thompson says Cisco is tapping its roster of channel, system integration and service provider partners to code to the Cisco unified communications blueprint.

"Most of our channel partners are actually ISVs in their own right," Thompson says.

The unified communications implementation decision, Herrell says, will ultimately lie with whomever in the enterprise is making the IT purchasing decisions – the desktops and server systems personnel, or the network engineers.

And Cisco says that's fine. "You can have OCS on your desktops," Thompson says, "but Cisco's going to make sure that all of the mobile clients participate."

Learn more about this topic

Cisco Subnet: The independent voice of Cisco customers

VoIP & Convergence IT Buyer's Guide

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.