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Inter-company Federation – the Bad News

September 30, 2011

In the last posting, we explored the goodness of inter-company federation: how it facilitates rapid decision making and the exchange of information between business partners in a way that telephony and email never could. However, like many other things, there is bad news to go with the good.

First of all, at the time of writing (September 2011) there are only two unified communications (UC) vendors that natively support inter-company federation: Microsoft (which has supported it since 2006) and Cisco (who shipped it in 2010). However, these implementations are not interoperable – a Cisco customer cannot federate with a Microsoft customer, and that isn’t going to change any time soon. Quite apart from anything else, the technologies used for this feature by each vendor are similar at the conceptual level, but really quite different at the detailed level.

Since federation is such a good thing, why have the other UC vendors not implemented it?  You should probably have that conversation with your UC vendor.  However, many UC vendors that emerged from the PBX/telephony space are still quite voice-centric, so they have typically focused on implementing ‘SIP Trunking’ as a mechanism for communicating outside the company.  Using the PSTN as the inter-company communications network:

  1. Eliminates a lot of technical challenges that would have to be dealt with in a federation implementation.
  2. Provides communications access to non-UC users as well as users of other vendors’ UC systems.

However, SIP Trunking is just ‘plain old telephony’ implemented on a different protocol: it doesn’t support presence exchange; it doesn’t support instant messaging or any other UC modality; you are still going to be playing ‘voicemail tag’ with your business partners.

Let’s fast-forward to a day when all UC vendors support federation: would all the implementations be interoperable? Unlikely: various vendors implement their products on non-interoperable technologies (see the SIP/XMPP posting), but even if they did, the imperative for interoperability does not exist.

So does this cloud have a silver lining? Here is your decision tree:

  1. If you have deployed Cisco UC prior to UCM 8.0, then you can upgrade and go to 2. below.
  2. If you have deployed Cisco UCM 8+ or Microsoft OCS/Lync then you can:
    • Federate only with other companies that have deployed the same vendor’s technology
    • Be happy with PRI Trunking or SIP Trunking
    • Go to 4. below.
  3. If you have deployed a UC system that doesn’t support federation, you can:
    • Wait for them to do so and then upgrade to that version
    • Be happy with PRI Trunking or SIP Trunking
    • Go to 4. below.
  4. Investigate NextPlane for inter-vendor, inter-company federation.

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