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Choosing Cisco PBX Or Microsoft Lync In The Datacenter

As I discussed in my last blog post, with the overlap between Cisco switches and Microsoft software in the enterprise, companies can have a difficult time choosing one vendor's voice technologies. In this post, I'll look at ways to tackle the issue.

One way to try to solve the Cisco vs. Microsoft dilemma is to focus on elimination and/or coexistence strategies. Either strategy should begin with two fundamental activities.

1. Profile the user base
Regardless of whether or not one vendor is ultimately eliminated or the systems continue to run in parallel, it is vital to create communications profiles for your users. The key idea is to identify the kinds of communications capabilities and devices a particular type of user is going to need. An example of a typical manufacturing organization profile is shown below.

Figure 1:
A typical manufacturing company profile showing the classes or types of users and the communications capabilities and devices they will use.(Source: KelCor Inc. and UniComm Consulting combined project)

A typical manufacturing company profile showing the classes or types of users and the communications capabilities and devices they will use.
(Source: KelCor Inc. and UniComm Consulting combined project)

Building such a profile will allow you to map directly to the different license types Microsoft and Cisco sells with their unified communications products, but it also provides input to a key elimination idea.

2. Compute TCO
Systems are often deployed looking only at one-time costs. For a useful evaluation, the total cost of ownership (TCO) must be computed, and this TCO must include ongoing licensing and maintenance costs, as well as operations costs. Recent data has shown that more than 50% of the cost of either a Cisco or Microsoft unified communications solution comes in the form of personnel costs to operate and maintain the system. Hence, any evaluation is incomplete without a reasonable TCO analysis.

Figure 2:
A comparison of the types of costs that should be modeled in a TCO comparison of Cisco vs. Microsoft.

A comparison of the types of costs that should be modeled in a TCO comparison of Cisco vs. Microsoft.

Elimation strategies
1. Look for unique requirements: If a significant number of users in the organization have unique requirements or functionality that one system can deliver and the other cannot, then it may be straightforward to eliminate the vendor who cannot fulfill those requirements or meet those particular needs.

2. Consider your organization's expertise: As shown in the figure above, personnel costs can be more than 50% of the TCO for either system. If your organization is a Cisco shop, moving in the direction of Cisco may lower the total cost of ownership. Conversely, if your organization is a Microsoft shop and is familiar with running Active Directory, Exchange, and Office applications, moving in the Microsoft direction may lower TCO in the end.

3. Choose using weighted criteria: Some organizations have found success in using a numerical process for evaluating vendors. Such a process usually involves creating a list of criteria, weighting these criteria, comparing each vendor as to how well they meet or match each criterion, and computing a score. By summing the scores for each weighted criterion, a number is calculated that provides an indication of which vendor should be selected. PKE Consulting has a good weighted criteria spreadsheet, which it is willing to provide at no charge.

TCO and the creation of vendor profiles feed into a weighted criteria methodology, so effort spent on these two activities is not wasted.

Coexistence strategies
1. Deploy equally and maintain both: Some organizations may find it beneficial for their business to deploy and maintain both Cisco and Microsoft communications technologies. If connecting to the public switched telephone network is desired for both Cisco and Microsoft products, one way to do this is to set up a session border controller (SBC) at the network edge. When an inbound call arrives at the SBC, the SBC can query the Microsoft Lync Server with an Active Directory Lookup to see if the call is for a Lync user. If so, then the call is routed through the Lync Server and to the end user. All other calls would be routed to the Cisco (or other) PBX.

Such a strategy can allow both systems to work side by side, and it is also a very useful way to migrate users from a PBX solution to Lync.

A SIP trunk could also be deployed between the Cisco and Microsoft deployments, so that users in either deployment could use phones or soft clients between them for voice communications.

The sticky part of this type of dual or hybrid deployment is that the collaboration capabilities, such as presence and IM, and web conferencing and video communications, suffer because they are not seamless across the organization.

2. "Mostly" eliminate one vendor: It may be that one or the other of the vendors can be "mostly" eliminated when only a small group of people absolutely needs the capabilities of one of the systems, while the other system may meet the needs of the majority of the users. This may lower some costs by having the majority of people on a single solution, but costs for the "special" configuration may be quite high on a per user basis.

3. Consider communications-as-a-service: If you are able to move the majority of people to either the Cisco or the Microsoft system, leaving only a few on the alternative system, then it could be economical to run the one with the largest number of users in-house and outsource the one with fewer users to a hosted communications provider.

Over several years, data has shown that costs for an on-premises system are almost universally lower than the costs for a cloud-based communications solution. However, in the sub-500-person deployment, cloud-based offerings can be less expensive than on-premises solutions.

Cisco partners such as AT&T, Verizon, Dimension Data, Sprint, and CSC offer Cisco HCS as a hosted service.

Microsoft partners also offer Microsoft Lync as a hosted service, and some of these can even integrate with Office 365. These partners include CallTower, Arkadin, West IP Communications, and BT.

Deciding between Cisco and Microsoft for an organization's strategic communications and collaboration system is not easy. Here are some useful recommendations:

  • Intelligent, articulate, and passionate people supporting both vendors' solutions will be involved, and care must be taken to ensure that people are not disenfranchised during this process, particularly if one solution is chosen over another. This will require strong, compassionate leadership from the executive team.
  • If passions are at meltdown fervor, figure out some type of coexistence strategy. A few suggestions are outlined above. No one will be completely happy, but no one will come away as a loser, either.
  •  If rational discussion can be held, consider the elimination strategies. I am aware of companies that have gone entirely Cisco, and I am also aware of organizations that are migrating entirely to Microsoft Lync.
  •  No matter what, profile the users so that you can accurately determine what kinds of capabilities they need, but also so that you can identify any particular needs a specific group of people might absolutely rely on. Do not forget that executive admins can wield significant influence in these kinds of functional requirements.
  • Make sure to estimate the total cost of ownership for any solution under consideration, including ongoing operations and maintenance costs, which can make or break either solution over time.
  •  If a small portion of the user base requires one system, then consider outsourcing this to a hosted provider.