Vendors are emphasizing two approaches to collaboration. One focuses on the architecture, the other on the desktop. Which is right for you?

David Greenfield, Technology Writer

March 13, 2008

3 Min Read

WE WANT IT ALL
Presence, IM, voice, and video are top drivers for unified communications, yet new SOA-integrated communications systems offer a mixed bag of support.

Providing presence status to know which users can be contacted in a given business process at any time, and the proper modalities, requires an authoritative presence server. For Nortel and Microsoft, that will be Office Communications Server (OCS). Avaya says it will introduce a presence server this week that will federate with other presence engines. This would allow users on OCS, IBM/Lotus Sametime, and Avaya's system to see a common presence status. At the beginning of this month Siemens announced a SIP server, the Unified Communications Server, which will include federated presence, quality-of-service management, and more.

There's a growing consensus that IM capabilities will be from either Microsoft OCS or Sametime. All PBX vendors integrate with both platforms, but there are major distinctions between the two. Microsoft knows the desktop, and that's evident in how it approaches unified communications. Everything gets consolidated down to one presence source, regardless of the user's device. Presence indicators tie neatly into Exchange and other Microsoft applications. The flip side is that OCS remains highly dependent on a Microsoft-centric infrastructure. Exchange 2007 is needed, for example, to gain unified messaging.

IBM Lotus speaks the language of large IT organizations that eschew vendor lock-in. The company's strategy is to partner with PBX suppliers rather than looking to offer the complete unified communications package; in fact, Cisco began reselling Sametime in January. Sametime and Notes are built on the Eclipse open source development environment, which gives IBM Lotus a flexible platform that can be extended by customers or third-party developers and run on Windows, Linux, and Mac OS.

At one time, the biggest distinction between OCS and Sametime was OCS's integration of voice, IM, and presence into a common platform. But now, IBM has built call control and dialing plan capabilities into Sametime. While OCS certainly provides the IM and collaboration capabilities to complement PBX voice capabilities, strategically, Microsoft's master plan is to replace the PBX with a single communications server.

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Initially, Sametime offered IM but partnered for most voice capabilities. With Sametime Unified Telephony, however, IBM has added code from Siemens' Open Scape, giving Sametime basic enterprise calling capabilities. Users can answer, forward, or send to voice mail incoming calls with a click from the desktop. Employees may also configure call-handling rules to direct calls based on their status, and presence now reflects whether someone is online or offline. A click-to-conference capability is a nice addition; however, Sametime Unified Telephony doesn't directly handle registrations for telephony devices other than IBM's softphones. In addition, voice mail and call switching still require the PBX.

Finally, all UC vendors offer some kind of video capabilities; most focus on providing call-control capabilities and partner with Tandberg or Polycom for endpoints. Cisco, of course, is a major proponent of high-definition videoconferencing--its Telepresence suites can run $250,000, and organizations will need at least two. This sticker shock has created a market for less costly room-based high-definition video-conferencing systems. Siemens' OpenScape line will ship in April for $19,499, high-def screens not included. Microsoft's $3,000 Roundtable sits in the center of a conference table and uses 360-degree cameras; the company is expected to announce relationships with other videoconferencing players this week.

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