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This syndicated post originally appeared at Zeus Kerravala's blog.

This week is the annual Enterprise Connect (formerly VoiceCon) conference in Orlando, FL.  One of the many panels I’m on and moderating at the conference is titled “UC? Mobility? FMC? BYOD? SIP Trunking? Video? WebRTC? It’s time to take control.”

The theme of taking control of the UC environment is a good one as it’s my belief that Unified Communications is getting more and more complex as the vendor community expands the definition and functionality of UC. 

At one time, telephony was simple: a PBX, a phone and cable.  Connect them up and you’ve got voice.  Troubleshooting meant checking the phone, cable or PBX.  However, that legacy solution was as inflexible as it was simple. 

In an effort to do more and one up the next guy, vendors have continually brought new features, protocols and applications to UC.  I wrote my first report on UC in 2001 and at that time UC was basically voice, unified messaging, conferencing and presence. 

Since then we’ve added SIP trunking to extend IP to the cloud. We’ve added mobile support.  Video has become mainstream, along with cloud driven services and social media.  And WebRTC is the next “big thing”.

All of these things have a purpose and seem good on paper but the majority of these emerging applications aren’t unified at all, particularly in a multi-vendor world.  In a typical UC deployment,  the bottom layer is the infrastructure layer where you find products such as Avaya Aura, Microsoft Lync and Cisco Call Manager.  Above that you would typically find the layer where many of these emerging applications that often run in parallel or on top of the existing vendor solutions.   Stitching these together can be difficult, if not impossible for customers.

Adding to the complexity, above the emerging application layer exists all the various clients that can attach to the below layers.  Again, because each of the emerging applications has been developed in isolation, as have the devices, creating interoperability between these two layers is also very difficult for most companies.

What’s the answer to these interoperability challenges?  To answer this question, let’s look to the world of applications.  In that world, there are infrastructure platforms such as Oracle, WebSphere and .NET.  These are tied together by a layer of middleware that abstracts the vendor specific functions up and creates a common set of protocols that ISVs can write to.

This analogy hold true in the world of UC as well.  The missing pieces are specialty middleware that can be used to tie the emerging applications to the layers above and below it.  There’s no single middleware vendor today — in fact, we’re years from having a single solution.  Some of the vendors have created their own “middleware”.  Examples of this are Avaya Aura and Alcatel OpenTouch.  There are also a number of third party vendors that provide middleware such as VOSS, who joins me on the panel. 

The use of specialty middleware can greatly simplify the deployment of basic UC and allow companies to enjoy the benefits of many of the emerging applications.  I think the use of middleware is also important as organizations look to tie the UC deployments to cloud services. 

If you’re going to be in Orlando at Enterprise Connect, I hope you drop into my panel as I think this is one of the more important topics for the UC industry over the next few years.

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Zeus Kerravala

Zeus Kerravala is the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research. Kerravala provides a mix of tactical advice to help his clients in the current business climate and long term strategic advice.

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