Find The Right Path To SOA, UC Convergence

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

March 15, 2008

8 Min Read
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By embedding communications within SOAs, vendors including Avaya, BlueNote Networks, Cisco Systems, Microsoft, NEC/Sphere, Nortel Networks, and Siemens say companies can dramatically improve personal productivity by enriching user interactions while increasing efficiency. Admins could be automatically notified in the event of an outage or slowdown, for example.

It's not a new vision, but in a tight economic climate these are the types of initiatives that help IT improve business processes--and the bottom line.

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When we first reported on this blending of service-oriented architectures and telephony, back in August 2006, we dubbed the phenomenon "service-oriented telephony architecture," or SOTA. More recently the term CEBP, coined by Avaya for "communications-enabled business process," has become popular. Cisco prefers "service-oriented network architecture," or SONA. Whatever you call it, this next wave in unified communications (UC) focuses on melding communications with business processes.

But our analysis suggests the biggest challenge will be overcoming IT skepticism. Our recent InformationWeek survey shows that in the coming 24 months, only 20% of organizations will embed communications within their business processes. In response, vendors are increasingly bundling UC capabilities with their voice products, just to get the technology in the door. But will that be enough?"We think it's great, and we haven't deployed it," says Erik Brokaw, enterprise architect at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City. It's simply a matter of resources. "We're in the middle of a significant reengineering effort, and it's going to get lumped into that," Brokaw says. He expects to deploy later this year or early 2009.

Organizational productivity and personal productivity define the collaboration continuum today. Where communication vendors fall into this range depends on their technology offerings, partnerships, and supporting channel structure. We're seeing some competitors pair up to meet demand, while others are looking to offer everything by themselves.

Until recently, for example, Microsoft has provided SOA and UC separately. That's going to change, according to Eric Swift, senior director of unified communications, with Microsoft's forthcoming offering geared toward the desktop, in contrast to Avaya's contact center focus. Among partners, IBM is teaming with Nortel.

One key fact highlighted when we first noted this trend still holds true: To be successful, IT must identify process latencies within their organizations before jumping into automated communications. Yes, this is business process analysis voodoo, but our survey shows areas where embedding telephony services could really accelerate business change.

By far the most popular is helping resolve customer complaints by automatically notifying principal parties. Readers also cite preventing infrastructure problems by monitoring machine-to-machine communications, then initiating an emergency conference call in the event of a failure and organizing an emergency summit to address a significant change in a business metric, such as a falling stock price.

Impact Assessment: SOA/Unified Communications

(click image for larger view)TELECOM'S NEW BAG
To assist, IT has a wide choice of small, specialized vendors such as BlueNote and big telecom players. Of course, enterprises will consider size and longevity when investigating partnerships, but large vendors aren't all having an easy time. Given SOA's complexity, a sophisticated channel is needed to think through deployment. Providing that channel through IBM's professional services organization was one of the most significant yet understated aspects of Nortel's SOA introduction last November. Avaya, too, has a well-developed channel, and Sphere will leverage NEC's support organizations. BlueNote relies on partners and integrators such as The SOA Monitor.

In contrast, Siemens, which has in the United States usually sold directly to enterprises, lacks professional services on a sufficient level to support wide-scale enterprise adoption. So it's making its Web services infrastructure available only to developers and very large organizations, says Graham Howard, Siemens' director of global marketing, large systems.

There are also big variations in platform capabilities. All the vendors providing SOA interfaces allow for abstracted APIs to provide basic call control. Avaya, which has always focused on the contact center as its core business, was the first to orchestrate underlying services to address more sophisticated process requirements, such as the ability to assign tasks to users, then track their progress, what Avaya calls Notify with Task List. To offer a similar capability, other providers must blend several services, increasing complexity.

chart: When does your organization plan to embed communications into its buisenss processes

In December, BlueNote added presence and an outbound notification framework to its SOA capabilities, enabling companies to send messages via e-mail, SMS, and phone and bring back user or customer responses. That's helpful in the event of a stock alert or for confirming mobile payments, or for maintaining employee schedules, for example.

The other major difference among vendors is around the underlying components needed to take advantage of SOA capabilities--here, the watchword for most is "proprietary." All require IT to use their underlying telephony servers and messaging servers, but Avaya goes so far as to build its own ESB to communicate with other messaging services. Cisco SONA is the most extreme example, with its bundling of SOA acceleration, security, and management into Cisco networking hardware.Nortel, a notable exception, says its Nortel Agile Communication Environment, or NACE, will work with third-party hardware from the get-go, using a set of connectors to provide translation. When the product ships in May, it will support Cisco Call Manager via a SIP interface, for example, as well as Nortel gear.

Typically, supporting third-party hardware through standard interfaces such as SIP comes with a reduction in functionality. Though capabilities within the normal range of SIP services shouldn't present a problem, niceties such as parking a call have been vexing. Enterprises interested in running NACE on non-Nortel switches should ensure that the setup supports the capabilities important to them.WE WANT IT ALLPresence, 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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