Microsoft and Cisco divided over unified comms

At IP'07, PBX and software vendors have been engaged in a fundamental debate over the best way to deliver unified communications

The world's largest IT and communications vendors are divided in the way they intend to offer unified communications.

Unified communications is an evolution of voice/data convergence that aims to bring together voice, data, video and presence features into one system to make an organisation's technology infrastructure simpler and its workers more productive. All of the major vendors offer some form of unified communications, but they are starting to differ noticeably in how they plan to deliver it.

Microsoft, which is to launch its Office Communications Server 2007 offering late on Tuesday, believes that the intelligence behind unified communications should be contained in the endpoints, whether that is a desk phone, mobile phone or a PC.

PBX vendors, including Cisco most notably, disagree. They say the network is fundamental to the success of unified communications.

"If you roll out [unified communications] across a network, and you can't manage that network [then you have a problem]," said Warren Barkley, Microsoft's group programme manager for unified communications. "If you put intelligence in the endpoints and servers, then you get around a lot of that," he said. "If endpoints have the ability to adapt [to changing network conditions], then you have flexibility."

Cisco's senior marketing manager for unified communications in Europe, Tim Stone, disagreed. "The key is network functionality that can support real-time voice and video with quality of service that you can build out from," he said. "We try to simplify [unified communications] by adding features to the network," Stone added, mentioning quality of service, network management tools and multiple codecs as three examples.

Cisco's unified communications offering revolves around its CallManager PBX software.

Rob Bamforth, an analyst with Quocirca, argued that it was imperative that unified communications are developed using open standards. The largest vendors, including Cisco and Microsoft, have often developed proprietary software.

"Interoperability is still a challenge," said Bamforth, although he added that the vendors were getting more open in their approach, particularly because of the prevalence of IP. "In terms of their particular implementations, they will want to keep their cards close to their chests," he said. "They need to innovate around the standards. With open standards, they don't need to be secretive."

Bamforth added that, because of the convergence of IT and telecommunications, telephony vendors need to offer more than just PBXs to survive.