Unified communications vs. end user: enterprise IP battle lines are drawn

When it comes to IP-based communications in the enterprise, how much control should be vested in the unified communications server administered by IT- vs. the end user who should feel free to use and configure his or her own voice options?

When it comes to IP-based communications in the enterprise, how much control should be vested in the unified communications server administered by IT- vs. the end user who should feel free to use and configure his or her own voice options?

As was evident in the last Summit panel at VoiceCon in San Francisco yesterday, the issue as almost as philosophical as operational.

On one side were the execs who run solutions that are sold directly to ITs. On the other side were the types who want the enterprise end user to have as much say as feasible as to how they communicate within their workplace.

David Butler, director of emerging technologies at IP communications solutions vendor Avaya, said that communications servers are "high-value applications... that are effective in how they enable the enterprise employee to do their job."

"I don't think thisis about software-based architecture, I think it is network based architecture," added Christopher Thompson, senior director of solutions marketing of unified communications for Cisco. "It's not about client software, but unified networks and unified devices and unified operating systems."

Both Eric Swift, senior director at Microsoft, and Paul McMillan, director of Large Enterprise Call Control & Application Strategy at Siemens Communications, added the perspective that the core value-add of unified communications systems aren't the operating systems and devices they consist of, but, as Swift emphasized, the "communications business processes" they enable.

"The answer is how (is) unified communications going to make the organization more effective," McMillan added.

But when Skype senior director Jonathan Christensen took the podium, that's when some of the real philosophical differences started to emerge.

"Skype doesn't really have a view on the enterprise. We take more of a view (of) the user," he said. "We hope to (be used with) networks by focusing on the end user," he said. "That's why we don't sell to (networks).

Jonathan found an ally of sorts in open-source Asterisk IP communications pioneer Mark Spencer, CTO of Digium. He stressed his vision of a bottom-up type of network in which groups of users are able to build their own network architecture applications- rather than exclusively depending on a closed system where upper level IT administers a communications server with pre-installed features and little wiggle room for user-created plug-ins.

Eric Swift didn't defend top-down control as a control against creativity, but its necessity as one that ensures security, compliance, and surety of provisioning as well as enabling efficient IP communications throughout the enterprise.

That brought out what I could only describe as an almost entirely different worldview from Skype's Christensen. As some of the top-down, sell-to-the-CIO members of the panel visibly squirmed, Jonathan said that Skype has received "letters from CIOs thanking us" for saving them millions of dollars."

Millions of dollars, presumably, by enabling communications right at the desktop rather than through expensive unified communications systems sold by other panel members and at times, configured by pricey consultants and systems integrators. In fact, Jonathan called Skype's contributing, "taking the IT middleman out of the equation."

Such comments did not make Siemens' McMillan happy. He said that he's talked to some IT types who "are annoyed that some people are using Skype on their enterprise network." He further decried the expecations of the benefits of such use as "pretty low."

Fightin' words they were for Skype's Jonathan Christensen.

"The CIO is increasingly being cut out (as the) user is making choices," he said. "This is increasingly a Web-based, Internet-based world."