Cisco’s unified communications counter attack

Anaheim, Calif. — What most people don’t understand about a construction project like El Cajon Dam, according to Raul Orozsco Medina, is that “when you start, there’s nothing … You build a city to build a dam. When the dam is finished, you have to remove the city.”

In this case the city, with a population of about 2,000 construction workers, was built high in the Mexican mountains, about 47 km from the nearest town. Medina is the systems and telecommunications manager for the project, begun for commission Federal de Electricidad in 2003 and wrapping up in the next couple of months.

The project’s infrastructure was modest at first – a few trailers, two satellite links and a traditional PBX, Medina said. It evolved into a full-blown wireless unified communications system connecting 17 offices and even a bore house 70 metres underground, using about 300 Cisco IP telephony handsets.

The conditions are unusual for a telecom infrastructure; some months of the project, it had to withstand the use of 10 tonnes of explosives daily onsite. Offices moved frequently – where some were located originally, they’d now be under several metres of reservoir.

“For this kind of project, there’s lots of savings,” Medina said, beginning with 60 kilometres of optical fibre and 20 km of telephone cable.

Those aren’t typical drivers for a unified communications system, which wraps wireline, wireless, instant messaging, e-mail and other functionality onto a single communications system to be able to reach users wherever and however they’re best reached at any given time.

“Presence is a very big deal in this world of ‘find me, follow,” said Rick Moran, vice-president of solutions marketing for Cisco, during a session at this week’s Cisco Networkers conference.

The oft-ignored “busy lamp,” familiar to instant messaging users, is presence at a very rudimentary level. Presence can be tied to documents – can I reach the person who wrote or changed this, and how? – and mobile devices. “It’s only valid if it’s very, very accurate,” he said. A communications session was once simply a telephone call, he said.

Even switching from analogue to digital did not change that. But session initiation protocol (SIP) changes the game.

“With SIP, we change what the session looks like,” incorporating e-mail, instant messaging and voice communications. Telepresence, for instance, is really only one SIP session, he said. SIP also enables high-definition video and sound. There’s no reason a phone call has to have the same sound quality as a phone call, as any Skype user can attest, he said.

Cisco and Microsoft are taking fundamentally different approaches to unified communications, but it isn’t as clear cut as a hardware versus software orientation, said Jayanth Angl, research analyst with London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group. Unified communications is inherently software-heavy “There’s a huge infrastructure component (in Cisco’s case), but there’s also a significant software component,” Angl said.

Microsoft is more heavily leveraged on the software side, with more effort going into integrating at the desktop. “A huge part of it is they have Microsoft Office,” he said.

There’s a lot of functionality that Microsoft’s communications server platform can add to users of Office and Exchange servers, he says.

Cisco is doing similar things on the desktop, but the company’s strength on the infrastructure side gives them a head start in the voice and video areas, especially given Cisco’s AVVID (Architecture for Voice and Video) architecture.

Cisco’s platform is also more open. The company’s UC2 partnership with IBM works with IBM’s Lotus Sametime collaboration software, but also allows other vendors to certify products against UC2, giving users access to third-party options down the road, Angl said.

Whether to go the Microsoft route or take the Cisco road depends on a users preferences, IT capabilities and understanding of unified communications, said David Lemelin, senior analyst with In-Stat, based in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Regardless, unified communications still isn’t an easy sell to business and rollout is slow, according to research by In-Stat. Potential buyers want a clearer picture of the business value of unified messaging and unified communications before the shell out the dollars, Lemelin said.

One UC stumbling block: Many of the businesses that are likely candidates have already adopted Voice over IP. VoIP systems can control presence with find-me-follow-me functionality, integrate cellular and wireline voice dynamically and allow access to voice- and e-mail through a single inbox.

“They’re pretty satisfied with that,” Lemelin said. “What is unified communications really adding? The additions are probably pretty subtle … How are (vendors and service providers) going to make that resonate with folks who already have these capabilities through Voice over IP?”

Bundling is the key to getting at the market, Lemelin says. Unified communications can be incremental revenue for service providers if offered in a basket with wireline, wireless, fixed mobile and seamless roaming services, he said. And since there’s an integration of applications into the suite, an understanding of the customer’s business processes is also a value-add, he said.

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Dave Webb
Dave Webb
A journalist of 20 years experience in newspapers and magazines. He has followed technology exclusively since 1998 and was the winner of the Andersen Consulting Award for Excellence in Business Journalism in the eEconomy category in 2000. (The category was eliminated in 2001, leaving Webb as the only winner ever.) He has held senior editorial positions with publications including Computing Canada, eBusiness Journal, InfoSystems Executive, Canadian Smart Living and Network World. He is currently the editor of ComputerWorld Canada and the IT World Canada newswire.

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