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What is UC Federation and Why Should I Care?

by Russell Bennett, UC Insights

February, 2012

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(I have recently been racking my brains for a better word than ‘federation’ to describe the connection of two unified communications (UC) systems to enable inter-company, multi-modal communications and collaboration.  On the one hand, ‘federation’ is a single word that describes a complex concept; on the other, there are too many syllables and it doesn’t sound as hip as 'Googling', 'Tweeting' or 'Skyping'.  So I am happy to take input on that one.)

In the last year, I have posted a number of papers on and around the subject of UC Federation (UCF), both under my own byline and for my clients.  In essence, UCF is the mechanism that allows you to have the same UC user experience with business associates in different companies that you are able to have within your own company; including HD voice and video; instant messaging and presence (IM&P); multi-party conferencing; data collaboration and app sharing.  It runs in an ad-hoc or pre-configured connection between 2 or more companies over the public Internet.  In my opinion, UCF offers a significantly enhanced collaboration experience over currently in-vogue mechanisms such as ‘SIP Trunking’ (which, after all, is just another way of making a POTS call).

Sounds Complicated; Does Anyone Use it?

A recent article on MSNBC, ‘ Hundreds of suppliers, one Boeing 737 airplane’ talked about the challenge of assembling a product made up of 367,000 parts from thousands of different suppliers, and shipping them at a rate of more than one per day.  With a 6 year order backlog, Boeing sees nothing but upside in increasing the shipment rate: especially since each aircraft costs $70-$100m.  A Microsoft case study on that same operation quoted a Boeing IT product manager as saying:

“We will often federate with a supplier so they can easily interact with our engineering teams. Our teams can see their presence information and out of office notifications just as if they were part of our deployment.  This has helped to speed development of parts and reduce costs.”

But if UCF is so great, why don’t more people use it? Well, it requires you to have access to a UC system, which not everyone has.  Also, only certain UC systems support it: currently Microsoft OCS/Lync and Cisco CUCM, although Avaya is rumored to be working on it for Aura.   Furthermore, in order for UCF to connect disparate enterprises via federation, the enterprises involved must be on the same vendor’s system (the old standards/interop gotcha).  However, there is a configuration guide that shows how to federate Cisco CUCM 7.X with Microsoft OCS/Lync: I haven’t tried it and it seems to only incorporate IM&P, but even that would be a great step forward.  Note also that NextPlane offers a federation/intermediation service ‘in the cloud’ that will integrate multi-vendor federation.

However, I have some pretty solid data that shows that, for example, ~26% of the Fortune 500 is using UCF: so it isn’t just Boeing, and it isn’t just restricted to the US.  (I will say more about that data another time).  UCF deployment is happening: it’s just not as newsworthy as the number of ‘Tweets’ sent during the Super Bowl.

How Much More Does UCF Cost?

At the volumes and prices that Boeing and the other Fortune 500 enterprises deal in, these companies do have the wherewithal to get the best and (if necessary) most expensive communications system available if it helps the bottom line.  Furthermore, they exert a great deal of influence over their ecosystem partners in making UCF deployment a condition of doing business.  Yet, because UCF runs ‘peer-to-peer’ across the public Internet, the cost of adding UCF to an existing UC system is (maybe) just a matter of configuring a few more servers and adding a few tasks to the network administrators’ workload.   Pretty much the same as SIP Trunking, but without the ‘line rental’ charge.

Then what is the cost of NOT deploying UCF?  Enterprises spend fortunes every year on ‘speeding time to market’, ‘corporate agility’, ‘just-in-time delivery’ (choose your favorite consultant buzzword).  These notions all boil down to one simple thing: creating and communicating complex ideas efficiently, and that is the essence of the UC ROI.

All companies are part of a value chain – a network of suppliers and customers that have to interwork at a faster pace every month just to keep up with the competition.  However, smaller companies have an additional challenge: they tend to outsource most essential ‘big company’ functions, including accounting, legal, HR/recruiting, delivery, maintenance, etc.  So, for small companies, being better able to communicate with their outsourced function partners is an even bigger challenge than it is for large companies.  As we all know by now, ‘big company UC’ functions are currently available to smaller companies from ‘the cloud’.  I use Microsoft Office 365 and it currently costs me less than 13% of my cable VoIP bill (note to self: call cable vendor and cancel VoIP).

Can Small Companies Federate with Big Companies and Consumers?

If you are a small company that works in an ecosystem of bigger companies, how can you join their federation network?  The easiest and cheapest thing is just to get a set of remote user UC accounts set up by the larger company: it isn’t strictly federation, but it works.  Also, it is a no-brainer that Microsoft Lync will federate with Office 365, and that Cisco UCM will federate with their Hosted Collaboration Solution deployments (check with your local service provider for details).  Furthermore, various Jabber clients can connect to Cisco UCM 8.0+ and, unsurprisingly, Windows Live Messenger can federate with Microsoft Lync and with Office 365.  So now we have:

  • B2B federation

  • B2b federation (i.e. large business to small business)

  • b2b federation

  • B2C federation

  • b2C federation

Admittedly, there are some coverage and interoperability gaps, but these will close with time.


In the era of that annoying catchphrase: “Follow us on Facebook and Twitter”, it seems that companies are growing increasingly desperate to build a richer dialogue with their customers.  To this end, they are willing to deploy whole new systems and organizational functions in an attempt to winnow key customer feedback from celebrity gossip and mindless banter.  Did they ever think of just ‘calling’ them?

So back to the question: what is the cost of NOT deploying UCF?  Nothing, you may reply, because my competitors aren’t using it either.   Are you sure?  And if you are sure, isn’t that an opportunity for you?

At Enterprise Connect 2012 in Orlando, I will be presenting a session on ‘UC Federation: When Will We Get There?’ (Tuesday, 3/27 at 8am) supported by a great panel of UC Federation implementers, including Cisco, Microsoft, NextPlane and Avaya.   If you are in Orlando, grab a coffee and a muffin and come and join us for what promises to be a great discussion.

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