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From UC Federation to UC Clearinghouse

April 2, 2012

As the concept of unified communications (UC) federation started to emerge as a compelling communications modality with UC deployers, NextPlane led the way in providing federation and inter-vendor intermediation services.  However, the usage of federation has grown beyond the ‘Innovators’ stage (of the technology adoption lifecycle) and is arguably well into ‘Early Adopters’ stage.  A recent study shows that federation is enabled by more than 10% of large, publicly listed companies in major markets across the world.  The early users of federation have found it to be an invaluable technology; however, there remain significant gaps in the federation user experience.  To make federation as intuitively usable and as easy to deploy as telephony is (or was), what is needed is a service provider that will provide many of the functions that are provided today by the telephony service providers.  Specifically:

  • A single point of contact with the wider network
  • A user directory
  • Billing or logging of usage

Additionally, a UC ‘service provider’ would provide IP communications features such as social networking and policy driven access that would enable an extension of the UC user experience enjoyed inside the company across a network of companies.  This bundle of services could be termed a ‘UC Clearinghouse’.

Increasing the Federation ROI with a Clearinghouse

In many (if not most) of the earlier blogs, we have discussed the compelling value of UC when extended across company boundaries.  However, direct (peer-to-peer) federation has drawbacks, specifically:

  1. Network administration overhead.
  2. Lack of interoperability between vendor solutions.
  3. Restricted visibility of the corporate directories of federation partners.
  4. Lack of policy control over federation access.

The first two value propositions of a federation intermediary like NextPlane have been covered in the other blogs, but the latter two are new capabilities being introduced in a new service to be offered by NextPlane.

Seclusion vs. Reachability

We all want to be able to work without interruption from non-productive communications, e.g. ‘cold calls’ from pushy sales people.  However we all value the ability to get through to the people with whom we need to communicate to get our jobs done.  This apparent paradox between seclusion and reachability is reconciled in the telephony world by hiding corporate extension numbers from the world at large and thereby being directly reachable only by those with whom you have a prior relationship.  Relationship based communications are facilitated via various social consent and referral protocols, e.g. the exchange of business cards and 3rd party introductions.

We have become accustomed to the idea that Internet usage involves a certain the loss of privacy with recorded searches and the placement of cookies on our computers, SPAM and various Internet advertising gambits (e.g. pop-ups).  Preventing additional privacy loss via the use of UC on the public Internet is partly the function of technologies such as authentication and encryption.  UC technology also offers a series of features that provide better ‘screening’ than telephony.  Presence, authentication, user defined contact lists, and various ‘consent protocols’ provide UC users with greater confidence in responding to communications overtures than, say, ‘caller-id’.  Furthermore, the federation of individual status messages will reduce communications friction, e.g.:

  • “Job interviews today – do not disturb”
  • “2 weeks’ vacation after CoB Friday”
  • “Customer visits today – intermittent availability”

Directory Access and Policy Management

As a trusted 3rd party intermediary, a UC Clearinghouse could provide an extra layer of ‘secure discoverability’ by providing policy driven access to a corporate directory for selected business partners.  The management of the federated directory and the policies applied would be within the exclusive control of each company; however, the implementation, hosting and sharing of the directory sharing function would be provided by the Clearinghouse.

The policies that could be applied to a corporate directory would be within several different dimensions, i.e.:

  • Corporate white lists or black lists (e.g. ‘all of my partners’, or ‘none of my competitors’)
  • Selective access or denial by department or role (e.g. ‘only sales and support’, or ‘not executives’)
  • Individual access according to task (e.g. an inter-company project team)

Enriched Directory Information

Other than straightforward directory access, social networking features can be built into the directory to provide more context on the role of each individual other than standard ‘contact card’ data; for example:

  • Organization charts
  • Virtual team lists
  • Description of current responsibilities or projects underway
  • The sharing of relevant documents and other content

These features would greatly facilitate the process of discovery of a person with a specific role or interest within another organization.

Ease of Administration and Centralized Reporting

In previous blogs, we have outlined the challenges of the administration of peer-to-peer federation in a ‘many-to-many’ partnering environment: a central hub service allows the ‘full mesh’ network to be facilitated via a single link to the central hub.  Some of the other feature benefits of the existence of a central hub have been covered above.  However, there are also opportunities for a Clearinghouse to provide a powerful reporting function that would accompany the directory function.  Detailed reports could be provided on:

  • Directory searches, both to improve search success and to understand which individuals within the organization are gaining the most benefits from the Clearinghouse.
  • Federation usage, including individual sessions, the communications modality employed, etc.
  • Clearinghouse membership – this would allow new companies to be added to the white or black lists.

General Cost Reduction and ROI Benefits

The introduction of virtualization and the cloud computing model has reminded us that shared resources are far cheaper than their dedicated or self-hosted equivalents.  The existing benefits of a cloud federation service are carried over into the Clearinghouse model, in that it facilitates:

  • Intra-domain coexistence of multiple UC platforms without creating sub-domains.
  • Inter-domain, inter-vendor, multi-modal interoperability without deploying cumbersome X:Y gateways or managing Session Border Controller (SBC) interoperability scripts
  • An enhanced ROI for the UC deployment by enabling inter-company collaboration and not just between colleagues within the same company.

Summary

A UC Federation service is designed to enable inter-company communications.  However a UC Clearinghouse is designed to enhance inter-company communications.  The addition of directory, policy management, reporting, administration and enhanced presence-sharing moves federation from a communications facilitator to a communications value-added service.  These powerful new features will exponentially increase the value of UC for NextPlane customers.

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