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Unified communications deals require cross-certification, partnerships

Interop was full of unified communications news, but partners and IT buyers still struggle with getting the technology into the enterprise.

Unified communications (UC) news and discussions of how to get UC technology into the enterprise abounded at Interop this week.

For partners, the technology -- which melds telephony with email, instant messaging and presence on IP infrastructure -- holds lots of potential, but setting up deals to sell it can be a complex maze.

That's because many of the strongest UC plays -- including those announced this week -- are multi-vendor offerings, so partners either have to become cross-certified or hook up with vendor alliances that have a distribution agreement. Otherwise, solution providers with varying certifications will find themselves seeking alliances with each other.

"How is the channel going to deliver a solution from multiple vendors? Who's going to support it? There is no simple answer to that," said David Yedwab, an analyst with Market Strategy and Analytics Partners, after a conference session on how to justify unified communications investments in the enterprise. "There is not going to be a single-vendor solution for UC."

In fact, vendors are being pushed to interoperate and new partnerships pop up all the time.

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The most interesting development coming out of Interop on the unified communications front was a UC/desktop virtualization joint offering from Foundry Networks, Mitel, Microsoft and its longtime rival Sun Microsystems. The deal heats up the competition between Microsoft and Cisco Systems in unified communications even further by enabling Microsoft to offer end-to-end UC applications with network infrastructure and phones the way Cisco does.

Inside the office, the solution allows users to plug an identity-specific smart card into any thin client, accessing virtual applications -- including Windows and UC capabilities. Among those UC applications will be the ability to click on a name in any application -- including Microsoft Word -- to receive the person's identity if it's in the database, find their location and place a call directly from the application. That call will then appear on the soft phone next to the client. The smart card carries the user's phone extension as well as PC identity, enabling users to access computing applications as well as IP PBX functions like voicemail and "find me, follow me." There is also click-to-conference capability.

Behind the scenes, there is a Foundry BigIron backbone core switch, working with Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 and Microsoft Network Access Protection Windows Server 2008 for security. There's also Microsoft virtual desktop infrastructure on a Windows 2007 server with terminal services; a Mitel Communications Suite enabling Voice over IP (VoIP), PBX and messaging; and a Sun Ray Server with Mitel interface.

The deal was patched together since Microsoft already had relationships with Mitel and Foundry. Bringing in Sun wasn't as hard as expected, said Amy Mollat-Medeiros, director of enterprise partner alliances at Foundry. Sun realized its software sales were not ultimately competing with Microsoft and that it could "work nicely" with its longtime competitor, she said.

As promising as the technology is, partners could face a complex scenario in selling it.

Mitel partners can sell Sun equipment because of a joint agreement, said Scott Horner, a Mitel sales engineer, but they will need to partner with value-added resellers (VARs) associated with Foundry and Microsoft for deployment. Partners will be urged to become cross-certified, which won't be difficult for the larger VARs that already hold numerous certifications, Horner added.

In the meantime, partners will also have to compete with direct sales people from the vendors themselves, although Mollat-Medeiros said direct sales teams will only focus on the larger Fortune 500 accounts, which shouldn't conflict with VARs. The total solution will be available June 15.

Cisco and Nokia offer mobile unified communications

Also at Interop, Cisco tried hard to get its voice heard above the din by posting an update of its partnership with Nokia to offer combined mobile unified communications. That partnership was announced last year. This week, the companies said they have signed 100 customers and have another 600 in trial. Major accounts include the city of Biel, Switzerland; Maastrich, The Netherlands; and major U.S. universities such as the University of Arizona.

Arranging partnering relationships with the alliance has not been impossible. More than 95 resellers have received dual certification from Cisco and Nokia, according to the companies. Cisco and Nokia's Mobile Business Solution extends Cisco's IP phone capabilities to Nokia's smart phones using Cisco's Unified Wireless Networks. Cisco and Nokia have a strong market lead in mobile unified communications.

Riordan Maynard, CEO of Touchbase, an Atlanta-based partner of Cisco and Nokia, said the offering suits clients that are "increasingly becoming distributed," and it enables the mobile device to be a "cohesive part of the corporate network."

But partners have more problems than figuring out vendor deals. There is still a long way to go in terms of convincing CIOs that unified communications is a necessary investment.

In the final session of the Interop UC conference track, Don Van Doren, principal of UniComm Consulting, gave tips on how to convince IT buyers to drink the UC Kool-Aid.

Most importantly, partners should approach the market from the perspective of showing the return on investment for improving business processes rather than increased employee productivity, he said.

The goal is to show IT buyers their communications bottlenecks and how the resolution could improve overall business processes, saving money. He pointed to delays in getting approval for decisions, waiting for resources to be delivered and collaboration among employees -- all of which can be solved with applications like presence awareness, instant conferencing and chat.

"In many cases with customer satisfaction or in a sales environment, it can make all the difference in the world," he said.

Van Doren also stressed that UC is in its infancy and will evolve in the coming years as an ecosystem of developers produce applications that will change business.

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