Open Source Comms Not A Threat, Say UC Vendors

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

UC Expo: a panel of proprietary vendors all said that they could match the price of open source options such as Asterisk

Open source technologies are not a cheap way to unified communications, and traditional vendors can easily beat them on cost, according to a panel session at UC Expo, the unified communications show in London. However, UC is still suffering from the fact that no one understands it or can explain its benefits properly.

The open source Asterisk PBX software – and Digium, the company where it was created – had a large presence at the London show, but the panel session “Does UC matter?” was dominated by traditional proprietary vendors arguing that it did not offer a vast improvement over their approaches.

Open source? You still have to pay

“Take a close look at any open source solution and you will pay somewhere along the line,” said Marcus Jewell, enterprise sales director at PBX vendor and unified communications seller Mitel. “There are a lot of advertising companies that happen to be in the software space.”

The panel also included PBX makers Avaya and Siemens, as well as Microsoft, whose OCS server was demonstrated as a PBX alternative at the show. “Anyone in the panel can put together a unified communications solution which competes with open source on price,” said Jewell.

Others in the panel promised to use open source technology where appropriate: “We embrace open source as much as we can,” said Adrian Brookes, a vice president at Siemens Enterprise Communications. But he warned that open source was not free, and not necessarily cheaper, because “you need to have support from somewhere.”

But what is UC anyway?

The panel all wrestled with the two major issues facing unified communications: what exactly is it, and why has it failed to take off very fast despite many years of concerted hype?

Jewell described two distinct aspects of UC. It takes client software that can handle multiple streams of media data, so for instance a user can make Skype calls and texts from the same program. It also requires networks which can handle multiple connection technologies end-to-end, so the communications manager gets one bill. “Those are two different stories,” he said.

The fact that UC has multiple facets is one reason potential users are confused by it, panelists agreed. Another might be that vendors muddy the waters themselves.

“It’s about agile management of talent,” said Peter King, Office Server Group director at Microsoft UK, arguing that companies have to have lots of communications channels including social networking in order to attract the “Facebook generation” which requires them.

Brendan Buckingham, IBM’s unified communication leader for North East Europe took the debate into mystic territory, saying that UC is not about end points, “it’s a journey.”

If it’s so good, why is hardly anyone using it?

But the whole panel struggled with the question of why, after years of promise, UC is not universally adopted, until a comment from the audience suggested a simple answer: “It’s too expensive and the return on investment isn’t clear.” The speaker had looked for help building a case for unified communications, and failed to get it.

Stung by this, panelists argued back UC is now so good that “It’s too expensive not to do it,” said Lee Shorten, UK managing director of Avaya, but that did not explain the very low percentage of people who are bothering with it at the moment, or the lack of clear realistic ROI calculations .

Part of the difficulty is that UC has to be installed as a new feature alongside the existing networks, and doesn’t allow users to immediately switch off old technology, said Mark Summerson, general manager, unified communications at BT Global Services.

As UC has emerged, vendors have failed to find new ways to deliver and licence the technology, panelists admitted, even though it will be used very differently to old tech. Because of its very great reach into the business, UC technology has to be approved by many different people, which can get in its way, said Jewell: “Everyone has an opinion.”

In the end, despite another big show in London, unified communications still looks very much like a solution looking for a big market that really believes it answers a question. And given the strong presence of open source in the market, the big vendors are looking very complacent.