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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Takeaways from VON

I wrapped up my attendance at the VON conference in Boston today and I'm left with a few takeaways that are insights, opinions and still some unanswered questions. While the entire conference seemed more focused on VoIP endpoints and VoIP offerings for service providers, there were still some presentations geared toward the enterprise customers.

In particular, I was interested in Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) and its role in future VoIP deployments as well as possible migration and integration paths to SIP from current VoIP architectures. Currently, I'm in an enterprise that uses mainly Cisco Call Manager (CCM) for voice and H.323 systems for video (with a mix of other technologies) and the messaging platform is non-Microsoft. This presents many hurdles when talking about the future of network collaboration: presence.

While Microsoft had its own booth at VON, every vendor presentation I attended included tie-ins to Live Communication Server (LCS) 2005. This seems to be the de facto standard for presence aware collaboration in the convergence realm. This assumption leaves me wondering about a few things in particular: buddy lists, PBX integration and email.

While I do use a personal address book for contacts that are not in my company, I do not use the company's personal address book for internal contacts. I use Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) because it is dynamically updated as employees join, leave and change contact information and it is centralized. I seem to remember the precursor to the Domain Name System (DNS) – the hosts file – failing miserably when trying to scale to meet the ever growing needs of the Internet. As enterprises grow in size, a centralized database of users and their endpoints is essential. The "buddy lists" that we learned to love from AOL Instant Messenger can play a small role for important quick contacts, but a desktop client showing all users and their presence is not practical. Furthermore, having to add users to my local list just to contact them is unacceptable.

My second thought is a concern spawned by the lack of Cisco demos showing future SIP and presence aware applications integrating with CCM. This is very troubling as an enterprise customer with an investment in CCM and a desire to enable real-time collaboration for my user community. It seems the Cisco/Microsoft alliance for CCM could be reaching an end now that people are realizing that VoIP does not imply a Voice over IP telephone, but simply Voice over IP [read: the endpoint does not need to be hardware on a user's desktop]. While Cisco makes a software phone, it is not nearly as integrated with LCS 2005 as Microsoft's client. Furthermore, Microsoft's dominance on the desktop enables them to develop a software phone that integrates Voice over IP with on-demand video, instant messaging and conferencing. While today, an IP PBX may be required for the backend functionality like conferencing, call-park and transfer, it may not be long before those traditional PBX features are "bundled" into LCS.

Finally, with the latest polls citing Instant Messaging (IM) will surpass email usage by 2008, I'm left wondering what will become of email? It's just a matter of time before I can send an IM to an offline user and the smart IM server stores the request (much like email) until it can be sent to the client. The new IM client is no longer a chat window but a more robust email-like client that sorts messages like a news reader – in threads by author. Unread messages highlight the author's name in my client and allow me to drill down and read messages or respond real-time if the remote party is online. This merging of email and IM seems the next logical step as the lines between the two technologies blur.

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