The release of Microsoft's Office Communications Server 2007 last week is expected to bring the firm into direct competition with Cisco and IBM to supply businesses with unified communications systems.
IT managers deploying unified communications within the next year will have greater choice than in the past. They will be able to evaluate software from Cisco, a traditional network supplier, and networking products from Microsoft, a traditional software provider.
Unified communications is a blanket term covering instant messaging, voice, video and call-centre applications that can be integrated with desktop software. It also includes one-number communication, where a single number is used to access messages and accept and receive phone calls.
Desktop integration challenge
Mike Gotta, principal analyst at research firm Burton Group, said businesses that wanted unified communications to integrate with desktop software might turn to Microsoft. "Cisco does not have the desktop footprint that Microsoft does, and Microsoft has always been adept at leveraging its client dominance when competing with other suppliers," he said.
This is certainly the case at Cambridgeshire County Council. The council has installed a converged network with IP telephony, and its technical architect, Alan Shields, said that one reason it would be considering Microsoft was because of the integration with Office products.
"We are very much a Microsoft establishment, and the majority of products that we run are Microsoft. Ultimately, we will be looking to converge on this platform with the addition of presence technology," Shields said.
But Cisco also has a tremendous amount of experience when it comes to traditional networking, including voice over IP (VoIP), unified messaging and video technologies, Gotta said. Having stronger networking roots and a global presence was the reason Norton Rose, one of the UK's largest law firms, deployed a Cisco unified communications system.
The system connects its offices in Europe, Russia, the Middle East and Asia. Jeff Roberts, director of IT at Norton Rose, said he expected the system to help expand and increase collaborative work practices and improve communications between international offices.
Cisco's acquisition strategy is supporting its move into the enterprise collaboration space. In February, it acquired XML gateway provider Reactivity for £66m. It also bought Five Across, which builds social networks to help companies connect with customers. One month later, the company acquired WebEx for £1.4bn, which provides a hosted platform for video conferencing.
Cisco and Microsoft have recognised that users will run technology from both suppliers simultaneously as they build their unified communications infrastructures. So interoperability will be a priority for both firms.
It is the focus of the products that will differ. Cisco chief executive John Chambers said, "Unified communications is an emerging technology where we are engaged in high-stakes competition and where the two companies have very different approaches. Cisco believes that the best way to address customer needs is at the network level, whereas Microsoft believes software is the best approach."
Microsoft also recognises the importance of a strong network product. Its partnership with Nortel combines the company's network expertise with its unified communications software. More than 430,000 licences for joint products have been issued to businesses so far.
Microsoft believes all forms of enterprise communications, including VoIP, are moving from hardware-based systems to software. However, analyst firm Gartner said such technology often takes several years to mature to the desired level of reliability, quality of voice service and scalability.
In the meantime, users considering deploying live communications technologies, such as telephony and video, will need system integrators with different skills to those traditionally offered by Microsoft partners. Users should ensure that their providers have demonstrated relevant experience in these areas, said Gartner.
Gartner's guide to deploying unified communications
● Identify groups where improvements in communications and collaboration have the potential to provide significant value to the enterprise.
● Senior executives should sponsor cross-departmental workgroups to review business processes and workflows that have communication and collaboration dependencies.
● A barrier to the adoption of personal unified communication systems is that enterprises often find it difficult to define a tangible business case from individual productivity improvements. This must be addressed.
● Trials and evaluations by key personnel will provide the feedback and business case needed to justify further deployment. It is critical that the evaluation includes influential business users whose views carry weight.
● Think about introducing unified communications alongside major application upgrades.