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Business Opportunities in the UC Channel – Part 7

by Russell Bennett, UC Insights

April, 2012

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This is the seventh of an 8 part weekly series of articles that leads up to the UC Summit 2012 which will take place May 6-9 in La Jolla, CA.  See the UC Summit website for more details.

Last week we covered the opportunity to assist customers who are deploying unified communications (UC) by defining their disaster and failover plan.  Since UC is a centralized technology, careful consideration must be given to this to ensure business continuity in the event of an equipment or network failure either at the data center or the branch office.  In many ways this week’s topic, ‘Network Edge Security, SIP Trunking & Federation’ is the other side of that coin, because it relates to the establishment and maintenance of connectivity with the outside world.

Earlier generations of UC technology were largely focused on internal communication.  To the extent that the UC system could communicate with the outside world, it was usually a voice connection facilitated by connecting with the PSTN via a SIP-PSTN gateway.  This was adequate initially because, in the ‘Innovator’ phase of the technology adoption lifecycle, UC was not in wide deployment so the opportunities for end-to-end UC communications were rare.  However, 3 developments in UC occurred at roughly the same time:

  • Roaming usage – i.e. the ability for UC users to communicate from outside of the corporate network as if they were within it without establishing a VPN connection (which, quite apart from being inconvenient, also impacts the quality of voice and video communications)

  • SIP Trunking – i.e. the ability to connect UC systems natively to the PSTN (one of several papers I have written on this topic can be found here)

  • UC Federation – i.e. the ability for 2 UC systems to connect to each other natively over the public internet (a description of which can be found here)

UC customers saw SIP Trunking as a cost saving mechanism and Federation as a way to better connect with business partners.  While PSTN connectivity via gateways did not expose the enterprise IP network to the outside world, the implementation of native UC communications across the enterprise network edge creates a potential security loophole that could be exploited by well-known types of internet-resident nuisances.  Since UC technologies employ sophisticated signaling, encryption and real-time protocols that standard firewalls cannot understand, they are blocked by default.   Therefore, UC sessions that traverse the network boundary require a supplementary network edge element that is capable of handling UC sessions while excluding intrusion and exploitation.  The generic name for these elements is an ‘SBC’ (session border controller) and these are available from 3rd party vendors and the leading UC vendors.  The 3rd party products often bundle other features such as legacy PBX connectivity and non-vendor specific routing.  The leading UC vendors ship their own ‘border element’ with their solution; particularly those that offer ‘roaming user’ and inter-domain Federation features, since those technologies are often proprietary.

Federation, in my opinion, is the ‘killer app’ for UC and provides an ROI for the customer that cannot be matched by any other communications technology.  However, it does require expertise in design, deployment and the creation of procedures to establish secure network connectivity with business partners.  The two leading vendors that currently offer this feature are Cisco and Microsoft and each takes a slightly different approach to this.  Additionally, several 3rd party vendors offer federation intermediation services that, in essence, provide a hosted federation network ‘in the cloud’.

What should also be considered (and an option that we haven’t mentioned so far in this series) is the hybrid CPE/cloud model.  This is particularly suitable for companies whose organizational and geographic topology is a mixture of centralized and highly distributed.  An example of this is a company with facilities in the home country that create a product but maintains a global sales network that requires only 1 or 2 offices in each country.  In this scenario, the company may opt for premises-based UC in the home country, but choose to use a cloud UC provider for the international staff.  The justification for this decision is a paper in itself; but in some situations, the per-capita cost of supporting UC for a significant number of small offices in every time zone can be lower if it is outsourced to cloud vendors.  Of course, this option needs to be considered at the vendor selection phase, since the ability to federate a CPE system with a cloud service should be considered up front, not after deployment has commenced.

SIP Trunking is certainly the fastest growing form of communication from a UC system to the outside world.  At one time, I thought that SIP Trunking was a ‘gateway drug’ that would attract the telephony service providers into offering multi-modal communications to UC customers; however that has yet to transpire.  In fact, the provision of PSTN voice access via SIP Trunking is still maturing and requires planning and effort to deploy.  As has been widely documented elsewhere, there is an ongoing issue with SIP Trunking interoperability and a debate about the optimal deployment topology.

Interoperability can be addressed either by:

  1. Careful vendor and service provider choice – the UC vendor and the SIP Trunk service provider should offer mutually certified interoperability

  2. Intermediation at the network edge – either a UC vendor or 3rd party element (SBC) is deployed in the DMZ to intermediate signaling and media incompatibilities.  Intermediation often requires some fairly technically involved configuration and scripting.

Care should be employed with option 1: since SIP Trunking is basically a toll arbitrage option, service providers are strongly incented to lock customers into a contract or to raise switching costs.  The latter is facilitated by mandating the deployment of a service provider-managed network edge element and thereby reducing customer negotiating power.

The deployment topology debate is basically about the optimal mix of centralized vs. distributed SIP Trunking connection points.  This is entirely a cost/benefit decision which also needs to be modeled against the cost of sticking with PRI trunks in certain locations.   This is relatively easy exercise in the US, where all traffic can be backhauled to the data center, but becomes more complex in other parts of the world where the service provider coverage is more fragmented.

Once again, we are just scratching the surface of this topic: suffice to say that the planning and deployment of the UC network edge is a wonderful business opportunity for channel vendors to add real value to their customers.  Next week is the final installment of this series, and covers user training.

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