Microsoft, Polycom, HP Create UC Interoperability Group

A number of vendors, including Microsoft, Polycom and HP, are creating the UCIF to leverage currently available standards to improve interoperability among unified communications products. Juniper and Logitech also are founders of the UCIF, which has about a dozen members. However, absent from the membership rolls are Cisco and Avaya.

Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Polycom are among the founding members of an alliance created to push interoperability between unified communications offerings using currently established standards.

Other founding members of the UCIF (Unified Communications Interoperability Forum) include Juniper Networks and Logitech, which late last year bought video conferencing vendor LifeSize Communications.

Jeff Rodman, co-founder and CTO at Polycom, said that demand for UC products will continue to grow as businesses look to increase productivity while driving down costs. The technologies have "a lot of potential to help businesses do their business a lot more efficiently," Rodman said in an interview.

That trend is reflected in analyst predictions for the space. Forrester Research is predicting that the market for UC inside enterprises in North America, Europe and Asia Pacific will hit $14.5 billion in 2015.

However, a key challenge in ramping up adoption is the wide array of products from different vendors, and of specifications that can be implemented different from one set of products to the next.

"The mix of vendors and the mix of specifications are a continuing challenge to organizations," Rodman said.

There's also the issue of mismatched refresh cycles, which can cause hardware and software to be misaligned and unable to work together.

There are a number of specs for different parts of the UC landscape-for voice and video alone there is XMPP, SIMPLE for IM/P and H.323, SIP (Session Initiation Protocol), and XMPP/Jingle. There are myriad disparate protocols for data conferencing as well.

"There are a lot of standards for a lot of [areas] for UC," Rodman said. "It's the end of the road. It's not what you can accommodate in a mature market."

That's where UCIF is stepping in, Rodman said. The group wants to leverage existing standards to create more interoperability, which will help businesses expand their UC efforts and protect investments they've already made in communications products.

It also will be a benefit to the vendors, who currently spend a lot of money with ad hoc interoperability testing. With interoperability standards in place, testing will become less complex and less costly.

The foundation is platform-agnostic, and it is designing a certification mark that will be used by member vendors to let customers know when a product meets UCIF interoperability requirements.

The group is open to anyone and already counts about a dozen members, including Brocade Communications Systems, Broadcom, Siemens Enterprise Communications, Acme Packet and Radvision.

However, conspicuous by their absence are two key UC players, Cisco Systems and Avaya, both of which have been invited to join, according to Rodman.

Bernard Aboba, a principal architect for the Microsoft Office Communications Server team, said the UCIF is open to anyone and that the group would like to have those two companies involved, but that such involvement won't make or break the group's efforts.

Aboba also said that as the UCIF hits its milestones, more vendors will want to join. And as the UC market grows, the importance of interoperability will increase.

"UC will be as ubiquitous as the Internet in 10, 20 years," he said.

Cisco and Polycom have disagreed on the issue of protocols in recent months. In January, Cisco officials introduced TIP (Telepresence Interoperability Protocol), a proposed interoperability standard for video collaboration and telepresence offerings.

Cisco is hoping that other vendors sign on to the TIP push, and that eventually a standards body will take it over.

While some vendors, including LifeSize and Radvision, are joining the effort, Polycom officials said they would not, saying they are wary of protocol effort being directed by such a large vendor as Cisco. They also said that there are enough standards already in place to increase interoperability. They questioned whether the TIP effort was needed.

The UCIF is in the process of creating working groups and prioritizing interoperability scenarios that are most troublesome for customers. The organization also is developing a list of goals for the next 12 months and a longer-term interoperability road-map for the next three to five years.

More information about the group can be found here.