Ah, the age-old dream of best of breed IT: buy the best in class technologies for each function and magically fit them all together. Actually pulling this off was once a multimillion dollar nightmare. CIOs that succumbed to pressure from the finance department were forced to look to the big software suites in the hopes of saving money and hassle. Fast forward to a few years ago, and the situation changed. An explosion of web-based software and cloud-enabled application niches, combined with a rise in open standards means that integrations are easier and often cheaper. Software as a Service (SaaS) has lowered the price tag of acquiring the latest technologies. Best of breed has become a much more compelling argument in enterprise IT.
This same story is playing out in Unified Communications (UC) today. While a company can obtain all or most of its UC capabilities from a single vendor, that’s not always preferable. The reasons are multifarious: legacy solutions are still valued, the current economic environment has created a resistance to “rip and replace” and enterprise software licensing agreements have created lock-in for productivity applications. There’s also the reality that workers are incredibly vocal today about what they like and don’t like. Companies will need to defend a single vendor solution in which a business staple such as telephony is only "good enough." As a result, going best-of-breed in UC, which encompasses several diverse software, networking and hardware components, makes sound technological and business sense.
“Most companies have at least two vendors for UC infrastructure, and many have several legacy systems for contact center, conferencing, and even hang onto old voicemail platforms,” says Michael Brandenburg, industry analyst for unified communications and collaboration at Frost & Sullivan. "As well, companies are prone to extend their investments for a longer period of time these days."
To determine whether best-of-breed or a single vendor solution is right for your organization, you’ll need to look at all aspects of the solution, not just technical requirements. Companies often begin with needed capabilities and service levels for voice, video and real-time communications. You’ve also got to consider cost and ease of maintenance and support, tolerance for complexity as you add features or new solutions, expand scale or geographic coverage, and of course, the total cost of acquisition.
Playing Together Well
Large enterprises typically segmented vendors based on the quality of the telephony, video conferencing, instant messaging (IM) and presence technologies. Now, companies are looking to reduce complexity by working with fewer vendors, while ensuring that solutions can work together without enormous consulting costs and overhead.
To illustrate this, let’s discuss the Avaya Aura® Platform and the Microsoft Lync application, two popular solutions in the UC world. Avaya, a leader in real-time communications and Microsoft, the longtime leader in desktop productivity including instant messaging, have ample reason to make their applications work together for customers. Avaya continues to win in enterprise telephony; its 22% market share made it the largest player in Q2 2013, according to Dell ‘Oro Group research (Microsoft did not rank in the top nine). Avaya has also focused on quality and cost competitiveness, to win the minds and wallets of the midmarket. Even though most midsize and larger companies do not wish to replace Microsoft productivity applications, they also understand that when it comes to quality, Microsoft just doesn’t excel in voice and video.
Leveraging the strengths of both platforms in an integrated fashion offers excellent flexibility to meet the high-test (always-on, always-awesome) needs for customers when it comes to collaboration and productivity.
For companies that already use Microsoft Outlook and Lync applications, its workers can get a pretty slick integration to Avaya advanced telephony and video features. Avaya can deliver the reliability and performance necessary for real-time communication, while Microsoft provides an experience that is familiar and comfortable for many business users. Workers can perform such tasks as move in one click from a Lync IM session to a call on their cell phone or PC, while taking advantage of Avaya advanced call control and audio conferencing features. During an IM session, users can simply click to start a high-quality video session. Either move will update a worker's presence to other Lync users. Employees can also click to call or click to video from within Microsoft Outlook or Microsoft CRM.
Beyond these time-saving user examples, there are other distinct reasons why a company would not want to depend upon the Lync application for its complete UC solution. The Microsoft Lync application’s multiparty videoconferencing solution only works on desktops. Microsoft doesn’t have a complete line of video products including video gateways, telepresence and executive video appliance desktops, i.e. videophones. To make the Lync application viable in enterprise voice, you’ll need as many as 10 third-party applications added on top, not including Session Border Controllers for security, and new desk and conference phones. That can be a complex and costly integration project. Lync customers spent an average of $1,912 on operational costs in the first year, nearly three times more than the median (and more than six times that of customers using Avaya), according to Nemertes Research. This may explain why Lync voice adoption is low in terms of phone lines deployed, compared with other top vendors.
Finally, the Lync application doesn’t have a contact center solution and its mobile capabilities don’t track with the top smartphone platforms.
These weaknesses for using the Lync application as a single vendor solution for UC make a strong case for best-of-breed, especially when combined with the proven voice and real-time communications products from Avaya that now feature enterprise text. Avaya is also committed to an open, interoperable approach with other vendors and platforms.
Making best-of-breed work for you
The Avaya Client Applications (CA) plug-in lets companies integrate the Avaya Aura Platform and Microsoft Lync application without servers, added complexity and licensing expenses. Technical benefits include protection for your other communication investments, and tight integration with the market-leading Avaya contact center solution.
Here are additional considerations for any best of breed UC environment:
Get help from the vendor. Your UC vendors have an economic interest to help your business make the various pieces fit together. Those that do it well will win your account for the long term. For instance, Brandenburg says that vendors are making the process of integration between UC solution sets easier, through the help of the SIP protocol for interoperability, Session Border Controllers for management and security, and the assistance of qualified systems integrators.
Evaluate the end user experience. Carrie Higbie, Global Director, Data Center Solutions and Services, The Siemon Company says that you should look beyond the user interface and feature set, to consider the speed and reliability of the connection that users will have, the quality of the video player and its typical performance, and the impact of network latency on the UC applications. “You need to remember that vendors try to supply estimates based on the 80/20 rule,” says Higbie. “The calculations will work for 80%, but you should always evaluate to your situation. Go through old press releases and find someone that implemented the solution and find out what they had to change after the initial install. This will help fill in the blanks and be sure you have a realistic expectation of supporting infrastructure.”
Is “good enough” really enough to keep a single vendor? If your company is a fast-paced, highly collaborative organization that needs people to connect with each other and with customers, partners and suppliers quickly, it may not be. If speed is not critical to your business, and you don't need the best of the best in voice, video, unified messaging, IM and presence, one vendor may work just fine.
More than ever, companies are finding that they don’t want vendor lock-in, but the flexibility to choose the technologies that are best for each use case. At the same time, nobody can afford an overly complex infrastructure for communications and collaboration that’s a pain to maintain, update and troubleshoot when something goes wrong. Consider not only today’s needs and limitations but the roadmap, when you’re determining to go best-of-breed or single vendor.
As UC gets adopted within the enterprise, they will change the way business is conducted. Be sure that you have the flexibility to evolve to a yet unknown future, taking advantage of solutions and business models that are just in the discovery stages today.