Let's Get It Together
Andrew R. Hickey
Over the past year or so, Cisco Systems Inc., San Jose, Calif., and Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash., have been battling it out for UC supremacy, along with others like Avaya Inc., Basking Ridge, N.J., and IBM Corp., Armonk, N.Y., but solution providers say it doesn't always have to be contentious. Instead, they're creating their own solutions that take a little from column A and a little from column B and make them work together.
"It doesn't have to become an either/or or one vs. the other," said Mark Slaga, CTO and CIO for solution provider Dimension Data, Johannesburg, South Africa, adding that he considers the Cisco/Microsoft battle for UC dominance to be not much more than a rumor.
Slaga said Dimension Data is trying to ease the chaos that end customers face when trying to manage disparate communications systems and provide value in tying them together and simplifying them.
"If you begin tying the telephone system with instant messaging and everything else, it makes it easier for end users to know how to interact," he explained.
Slaga said using Active Directory and tying in tools from other vendors can create a single identity, or, as he calls it, "the source of truth."
For end customers, using solutions from various vendors lets them leverage some tools they've already invested in and select what they trust for voice, what they trust for messaging and what they trust for other communications tools.
"It can simplify the management environment," Slaga said. "The unifying piece makes it easier for the organization to adopt this technology. They can absorb it without it becoming a productivity hit."
David Giangano, president of global channels with Nectar, the services division and a wholly-owned subsidiary of Juma Technology Corp., a Farmingdale, N.Y.-based solution provider, agreed that integration between vendors is becoming a key selling point for UC, especially as companies continue to evaluate which solution fits best into their business models.
"Everyone's talking about unified communications, which leaves solution providers with the question of 'How do you deliver a good end-user experience?' " Giangano said.
Nectar has created a middleware application that can help integrate different communications systems. According to Giangano, it's a strategic move from the former rip-and-replace model.
"We're saying, 'You know what, we can have an application that can sit in the middle,' " he said. "It's been incredibly successful with our clients."
Giangano said some vendors are starting to play ball. Avaya has DevConnect, a developer community that offers information on communications solutions that can talk in SIP, H323 and Legacy, enabling the ability to take disparate systems and make them communicate. Doing that can create cost savings.
Steve McDonald, enterprise architect and co-director of the UC practice for Optimus Solutions, a Norcross, Ga.-based solution provider, said he's also been working diligently to get vendors to work together, whether it's Cisco, Microsoft or IBM.
From a CEO's perspective, McDonald said, collaboration among UC vendors creates value for their businesses.
"An open-standards model can create new opportunities," he said. "These solutions are chosen by the customer. The next state in a lot of organizations will be back-end integration, then laying on the collaborative components."
To enable that, he said, vendors need to embrace each other.
"It's important from a vendor perspective they they're embracing open standards," McDonald said. "The ones who are open are already locking arms. We'll see more open standards and open platforms before we see less. I think the writing's on the wall for the channel that collaboration among vendors is necessary."
For Dimension Data, integration helps them solve customer problems and build deeper relationships without spending "a gazillion dollars," Slaga said.
But there is still an element of vendor blow-back, when the vendors want solution providers to sell their solutions--and only their solutions.
"It puts us in a challenging spot, but what it comes down to is solving customer problems," Slaga said. "We're sitting in the middle."
While Slaga won't divulge exactly how Dimension Data ties together once-competing solutions, he said, "The secret sauce is understanding the customer requirement and what makes sense. They bring their needs to us and we have to be that super glue."
Overall, he said, the collaboration between Cisco and Microsoft when it comes to UC is better than it's currently perceived in the market. Dimension Data, Slaga added, prefers to create an environment of integrated communication.
"If you've got different platforms, we can tie them together," he said, and, only half-joking, Slaga added that Dimension Data is out to show that "Cisco plus Microsoft equals love."
Giangano said as integration continues to flourish and solution providers are finding ways to make friends of enemies, clients are going to get more bang for their buck and a solid best-of-breed approach. It also enables solution providers to understand client needs and how to solve their business issues.
"For us, this has been exciting," he said. "It's good stuff. 2008 is going to be an exciting year for this."
UC: STRIVING, THRIVING AND A HIGH PRIORITY
As part of Everything Channel's recent VARBusiness State of Technology: Networking survey, VARs indicated that their unified communications (UC) business is thriving and will continue to grow over the next couple of years as the technologies and the vendors that offer it become more prevalent.
According to early survey results, which will be published in full in June, 27.2 percent of respondents currently offer VoIP and UC. Additionally, 22.4 percent of respondents said they offer VoIP and UC consulting as a service and 22.4 percent also offer VoIP and UC design as a service. On top of that, 25.3 percent offer VoIP and UC implementation services while 19.8 percent offer VoIP and UC maintenance.
And the amount of UC solutions offered by respondents is expected to grow. According to the study, 8.3 percent of VARs polled expect to begin selling VoIP and UC solutions within the next 18 months and between 7.8 percent and 9.7 percent expect to add some new form of VoIP or UC service on top of their current offerings.
VARs also agreed that this year will see a big increase in sales growth when it comes to components of a UC solution. More than 30 percent of respondents said IP videoconferencing solutions will generate the fastest growing sales this year, while 26.7 percent said unified messaging will be a sales catalyst.
Other tools like Web conferencing and IP contact center solutions are also expected to generate sales growth, with 11.6 percent and 5.8 percent of respondents, respectively, indicating those are hot growth areas. A number of VARs also noted that those tools will also be the most profitable this year.