Should UC communities be erected with walls around them? Why have a collaborative community that presumably has the ability to seamlessly interact but only among like platforms? Frankly – the concept of a walled-garden UC community is akin to going down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland and entering a fantasy world; only in this case, after the organization has gone down the rabbit hole, its end-users emerge in a world where UC vendors have blurred the distinction between fantasy and reality. The reality is that all UC vendors have restricted connectivity options with other platforms, and there are a couple of reasons for these restrictions.
It is become abundantly clear that interoperability never was and never will become a priority to UC vendors. Why should it? The economics for each vendor doesn’t make sense, because by enabling interoperability, they each have to absorb the cost of providing it across their competitors’ platforms, and risk their customers switching into a competitors’ offering.
Connectivity itself though is not the only challenge either. Even within their walled-garden communities, the bigger hurdle is to be able to find and connect to federation ready partners.
While there are many organizations out there who, like Alice, feel as though they are faced with a curious hall of locked doors of varying proportions, they need to look beyond UC vendors to provide them with seamless, secure, scalable, any-to-any federation capabilities.
NextPlane’s UC Exchange allows organizations to breakdown the artificial walls and extend their UC platform to realize the Unified Communications promise of doing real-time collaboration with strategic business partners, increasing efficiency, productivity, and competitive advantages.
Instead of feeling bewildered at which different sized door to open and walk through, consider NextPlane the Looking Glass – where organizations escape their UC’s walled-garden communities.
By now, many have heard or read that Microsoft is folding its Windows Live Messenger, and will begin to merge its existing 100 million Messenger users over to Skype, leveraging its multi-billion dollar acquisition.
As we inch closer to this planned migration, Microsoft LCS, OCS, and Lync users are going to feel like Captain John Yossarian in the movie Catch-22.
Today, Microsoft supports federation from LCS, OCS 2007 (R1 & R2) and Lync 2010 to its Windows Live Messenger (MSN) network via an optional license they call PIC (Public IM Connectivity). As Microsoft winds down Live Messenger and migrates its large flock of users over to Skype, users on Microsoft LCS, OCS, and Lync 2010 won’t be able to use PIC to chat with users on Windows Live Messenger unless they can federate their platforms with Skype.
And here’s the catch: Microsoft is not planning to support Skype federation with LCS, OCS 2007 (R1 & R2) and Lync 2010. Microsoft has stated that federation with Skype “will come as part of an update to Lync 2013.” In a roadmap Microsoft shared in February at its first Lync Conference in San Diego, they shared that presence, IM, and voice federations won’t be available to Lync users until at least June 2013. Video federation between Lync and Skype will not arrive until at least summer 2014.
This means organizations with LCS, OCS and Lync 2010 will a) lose their PIC federation with Windows Live Messenger, and b) their end-users will not be able to connect with Skype, unless they go through the cost and hassle of first upgrading to Lync 2013. Given an average UC migration is about six to nine months for a typical enterprise, if one hurries up now, one’s end-users may be able to participate in a video call to Skype users in the summer of 2014. Yes, 2014!
Thankfully, unlike Captain Yossarian, Microsoft customers do not have to paddle a raft to Sweden in search of sanity. NextPlane’s UC Exchange provides presence, IM and voice federation between Skype and Microsoft LCS, OCS 2007 (R1 &R2), Lync 2010, and Lync 2013. Equally important is that UC Exchange also provides Skype federation to companies using other UC platforms (Cisco, IBM, Google, etc.).
NextPlane is the only solution today that can provide continuity of service by providing non-Microsoft UC users the ability to readily federate with Skype — a move not widely expected by Microsoft in the near term.
Since I spend so much of my time thinking about federation, I have to say that I am sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for the impending announcement from Microsoft on the integration of Skype with their product set and, in particular, Lync. In a recent post I highlighted Lync as one of the two leading UC products and the news last year that Microsoft was purchasing Skype was probably the biggest announcement related to UC federation since Cisco (the other UC leader) announced their Intercompany Media Engine federation solution in 2010.
The Office 2013 announcements to date have highlighted the integration of Skype features with the Office suite, particularly Outlook. While that is a useful feature and would greatly facilitate communications between individuals, IMHO it doesn’t do enough to integrate with enterprise communications.
The great thing about UC is that there is a single address for all modalities for a given business contact. By adding firstname.lastname@example.org to your contact list, you can see if I am busy, away, on the phone, in a meeting, etc. and, if both you and I deem it appropriate, you can invite me to a call or IM chat and I will be able to accept that invitation on the device of my choosing. If we are in the same company, this feature is a native part of the UC feature set. If we are in different companies but both use the same UC system (currently only supported for multi-media by Cisco and Microsoft), this feature is enabled by the UC vendor’s federation feature. If we are in different companies and use different UC systems, your only hope is NextPlane…!
The problem with a simple Skype integration with Office is that this would be a b2b, b2c or c2c solution (where b=small business and c=consumer) but not a B2b or B2c solution (where B=large business/enterprise). For enterprises that have already deployed a UC system, this introduces yet another UC technology and namespace (i.e. a list of unique user aliases) into the business communications mix. If someone who is also a Lync user hasn’t launched their Skype client, then they will be unreachable from the Skype namespace. So what is required, and what I have yet to hear details about, is how a Lync user can integrate Skype users into their Lync contact list and vice versa (aka Skype-Lync federation). Clearly this would drive a lot of businesses to choose Lync over competing products that have no access to free ‘public cloud multimedia communications’.
So, I fully expect to hear in the next few weeks or so more details about the Skype-Lync federation feature. However, there are some potential pit-falls there for Microsoft, which is maybe why they are being so reticent. The main issue will be the extent to which they close or open access to the Skype network to other UC systems (including NextPlane). Last February, Cisco petitioned the EU court to overturn their approval of the Microsoft acquisition of Skype. I can’t imagine why it took Cisco nearly a year to understand the value of Skype integration for the Microsoft product set. However, if Microsoft can restrict access to Skype from only within its own applications, then that will be a set-back for the cause of global UC.
Any experience of or publicity for UC Federation among the general population is going to be a good thing because I believe that a rising tide will lift all boats. Clearly there is a lot at stake here – which is why I am sitting on the edge of my seat.
As CEO of NextPlane, it is my job to figure out what UC systems are being deployed and/or used by the market and therefore, what groups of UC users are in need of federation services. Like everyone else, I have been watching the emergence of ‘cloud-based’ UC or UC as a Service (UCaaS), In general, UCaaS is being adopted by small and medium sized businesses (SMEs) which are naturally reluctant to deploy and manage on-premises UC systems, especially if there is a viable alternative.
In the US, an ‘SME’ is considered to be a company with 500 or fewer employees (the definitions vary elsewhere) and it turns out that around 60% of the workforce is employed by these companies. However, I have seen reports of companies of up to 15,000 employees starting trials of cloud-based UC, so this would increase the proportion of potential UCaaS ‘seats’ to around 80% of the workforce. Even taking a guess at the proportion of workers who don’t currently have access to a telephone at work, this segment could be anywhere between 75-100m ‘seats’. In other words, UCaaS will be a very attractive market over the next 10 years.
So the question for me is, what is the market adoption rate and to what extent do they need NextPlane’s services. Hard data on this is almost non-existent – the best we have found so far is here, and we subscribed to this service a while back. However differentiating cloud deployments from on-premises deployments is currently problematic. Another challenge is one of definition: it comes as no surprise that the UCaaS ‘bandwagon’ is being jumped upon by every telephony hoster that ever existed and new companies enter the market every day. So, the proportion of these service providers that support federation for inter-company communications (vs. plain old telephony) is pretty small by number. Once again, the two leading UC vendors that support federation are Cisco and Microsoft, so we know that their cloud services are federation enabled (but not from Cisco to Microsoft, just intra-vendor).
Cisco and Microsoft are taking two diametrically opposing strategies for their UCaaS service. Cisco is offering their HCS (Hosted Collaboration Solution) platform to incumbent communications service providers to host, thereby leveraging the existing relationships that those firms have with their business customers. Microsoft, on the other hand, is deploying its Office 365 in its own data centers alongside other cloud-based service offerings (however, a self-hosting pack is available for service providers).
It is still early days in UCaaS, so the ultimate winners will not emerge for quite some time. As always, the expansion phase of any market creates a lot of confusion: only in the subsequent consolidation phase do the trends start to crystallize. However the market potential is huge, even in the US, never mind on a global scale. Using a UC system to communicate via the PSTN is just a stop-gap, since we know that the PSTN is due to be shut down in the US by 2018. Absent any alternative communications technology emerging in the meantime, the usage of federation is only going to accelerate. Unless the various UC clouds spontaneously interoperate via federation (and I am not seeing that in premises-based UC….), there remains a great opportunity for NextPlane to play a role in the next generation communications network.
I had been eagerly anticipating the Gartner Magic Quadrant for UC 2012 (MQ) and saw that it was released last week, so I thought I would put my thoughts down on paper (so to speak). In general, I think that Gartner’s Magic Quadrant is a great concept and it presents complex information about a particular technology market sector in a very easily digestible format, i.e. the classic ‘MBA’ 2×2 matrix. Of course, you can’t just look at the matrix, you have to read the report to understand how the various vendors places were calculated. However, once you do that, you can get a great overview of that particular market.
I think that Bern Elliot and Steve Blood have done a great job with the UC MQ over the last 4 or 5 years and it is fun to compare the vendors’ movements around the matrix from year to year. I am sure that the marketing departments plot their own product’s trajectory like hawks and take any downward or left-ward movements very personally. However, I am sure that they view upward and right-ward movements with great satisfaction, depending on the degree of movement and the movement relative to their competitors. Overall, I don’t pay much attention to pixel-by-pixel movements, but the movements from one quadrant to another are probably indicative of a shift in market perception, particularly if they have a consistent, year-over-year trend.
This year, the Leader’s Quadrant features only 4 companies: Cisco, Microsoft, Avaya and Siemens Enterprise. Of particular note, Cisco moved slightly ahead of Microsoft for the first time and I could almost hear the slap of the ‘high fives’ echoing around Silicon Valley. Reading between the lines on the report, Cisco’s strength in IP networking and enterprise telephony seemed to triumph over Microsoft’s strong integration at the application layer. Avaya and Siemens have been hovering at (or sometimes over) the edge of the Leader’s Quadrant for as long as I have been paying attention, while Cisco and Microsoft move inexorably upwards and right-wards.
Quadrant moves this year include:
- Alcatel-Lucent from Leader to Challenger
- Huawei from Niche to Challenger
- Teleware have exited the MQ altogether due to a repositioning of their product
I was particularly interested in the progress of Huawei as the only ‘positive’ quadrant movement; so I am going to do more research into their offering and will possibly comment in a later post.
Naturally, I always view UC products through my ‘federation lens’, and so was a little disappointed that federation wasn’t called out in the MQ as a key differentiator and that telephony was. Having said that, the placement of Microsoft and Cisco in the lead position comes as no surprise because they are still the only providers of multi-media federation. I participated in the federation panel at Enterprise Connect this year and shared the stage with both of these vendors, as well as Avaya. Avaya continue to make forecasts about their support of federation, but I still haven’t seen a solid announcement. Siemens has announced federation for instant messaging and presence and we will continue to monitor their progress and customer demand.
Of course, none of these four vendors (except maybe Avaya) have indicated their interest in or support of inter-vendor federation, so I am very happy to note that the NextPlane is continuing to add value to customers of the Gartner UC MQ Leaders.
In my last post, I poked fun at telephony voicemail as a less-helpful feature that will ultimately be replaced by presence. Another feature that was a presence precursor was Caller-ID, which allows you to identify who is calling as an aid to ‘screening’ your calls and thereby letting the telemarketers to go to the ‘black hole’ of voicemail. Of course, if you value your own privacy (or if you are a telemarketer), Caller-ID can not only be spoofed or bypassed, ‘Blocked Caller-ID’ is actually an ‘upsell’ feature provided by the phone company. This is all the more comical when the phone company also offers an ‘anonymous caller rejection’ feature which allows someone to block calls with Blocked Caller-ID!
But I digress. In another post, I briefly alluded to the features that NextPlane implements to protect your privacy and yet ensure that ‘callers’ are who they say they are; and I thought it worthwhile to expand on that a little more and explain how the UC era will be different from the telephony era in this respect.
You might be wondering how you can trust a federated communication that is coming from second party, via a third party service (i.e. NextPlane) and why UC ‘caller id’ is reliable. Various UC systems that we interoperate with, as well as our federation service, are based on SIP and XMPP. Both of these are public protocols that could theoretically be manipulated by miscreants. However, the security of these communication technologies is ensured by powerful encryption technology and the public key infrastructure (PKI). The key to understanding this is in a simple math principle that you probably remember from grade school:
If A = B, and B = C, then A = C
This, you will recall, is the transitive property of equality. UC technologies use a ‘transitive trust model’ where:
If A trusts B, and B trusts C, then A trusts C
This is to say that if company A trusts NextPlane (and vice versa) and Nextplane trusts company C (and vice versa) then company A can trust company C. So far, so good; but how is this trust established? Each UC deployer has to purchase a unique digital certificate from a Certificate Authority. NextPlane transitively trusts its customers because it trusts the Certificate Authority. The NextPlane service tests each certificate with the Certificate Authority every time a message is sent to or from a NextPlane customer and thereby has 100% confidence that domain is in fact that of company A.
A theoretical attack on this scheme is for a spoofer to intercept the message, copy the certificate, and use it to misrepresent its identity. However, a combination of encryption (which itself requires a digital key) and certificate-based authentication prevent interception and spoofing. With XMPP, a further safeguard is that NextPlane never accepts an XMPP message from a customer without first ‘dialing back’ to a known IP address to ensure that the sender is who they say they are.
Despite the fact that telephony networks were closed and proprietary, fraud was commonplace and ridiculously easy: everything from ‘fat finger dialing’ to ‘slamming’. The Internet is more open and scams abound, but that has caused the standards bodies to develop robust security schemes to facilitate things like online banking and UC. A side effect of these security schemes is the concept of non-repudiation: it is impossible to deny that a message emanated from a user in a given domain if the recipient (in this case, NextPlane) has logged the certificate and encryption key. So, while we can’t guarantee that you will never get an unwanted call from a federation partner, we can guarantee the identity of that ‘caller’ and, as discussed in my last post, you always have the option of not accepting it.