Cisco: It's all about the hardware

Network-based approach offers single-vendor solution for all types of devices

Additional services, such as unified messaging, multimedia conferencing, collaborative contact centers, and interactive multimedia response systems are made possible through UCM APIs.

UCM runs on the Cisco 7800 Series Media Convergence Servers and selected HP and IBM platforms under Windows server or appliance model operating systems. It has a suite of integrated voice applications and utilities, including attendant console, impromptu conferencing, bulk administration, call detail record analysis and reporting, and real-time monitoring.

Multiple UCM servers can be clustered and managed as a single entity on an IP network, a capability that yields scalability of tens of thousands of IP phones per cluster, Cisco says. The cluster also provides load balancing and call-processing service redundancy, and interlinking multiple clusters allows system capacity to reach 1 million users in a system of more than 100 sites, Cisco says.

But even this is presenting scalability issues for huge enterprises such as Boeing, which had to establish two UCM clusters in the Puget Sound, Wash., area to serve 85,000 employees - 25,000 more than the UCM cluster limit, says Michael Kok, senior network designer at Boeing and president of the Cisco IP Telecommunications User Group (CIPTUG).

"The scalability, at least for one cluster, will not be able to take care of the population we have," Kok says. "So we are in the process of deploying a second cluster, which means twice the maintenance, twice the operations, twice the support."

Kok says Boeing, given its proximity to Microsoft in Washington and its immersion in the software giant's products, is implementing a hybrid unified communications environment of Microsoft on the "front-end," with desktop and client applications, and Cisco in the "back-end," performing call control and transport. He says Boeing has not experienced any interoperability issues as yet with this environment.

Another key component of Cisco's unified communications platform is WebEx. Cisco acquired the Web-based conferencing and collaboration company in 2007 for US$3.2 billion to obtain a platform for subscription-based services that allow companies to engage in data conferences over the Internet as well as share Web-based documents and workspaces.

If there's a knock on Cisco's strategy it's because of its proprietary nature. Cisco is heavily reliant on hardware - specifically, Cisco networking infrastructure hardware that runs the company's proprietary IOS operating system.

"Cisco talks about being open but they're either pre-standard or non-standard," says Zeus Kerravala of the Yankee Group. "Even the way they did Power over Ethernet: they did it their own way and then when the standard was ratified they happened to conform to the standard. The way they do things in a proprietary way add to the quality in an all-Cisco environment; but then you're kind of stuck with the all-Cisco environment. It's hard to bring in other parts."

Nonetheless, Cisco does support the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), a standard for call establishment in a VoIP and unified communications environment. SIP support is available in UCM with support of line-side devices, including IETF RFC 3261-compliant IP phones and other devices from Cisco and other manufacturers.

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