Solving UCC Federation: How Three Firms Got It Done

Author: David Mario Smith
Date: December 31, 2013
Topic: Mobile
Research Note Number: 2013-54


Issue: What trends are impacting collaboration in the enterprise?
Issue: What collaboration technologies and architectures should enterprises leverage?

Summary: To improve communication across B-to-B real-time collaboration platforms,  planners should investigate a UCC federation clearinghouse service to enable presence federation and cross-platform collaboration.


Within unified communication and collaboration (UCC) circles, cross-platform IM, presence and overall UCC interoperability has been an ongoing problem that has yet to be dealt with by technology providers. It is the proverbial elephant in the room. While open standards such as XMPP and SIP exist, UCC vendors have not embraced them all in the same way. Instead, they have created proprietary extensions to open standards that then cease to be open when implemented. In this report, we look at three firms that solved the interoperability issue with a UCC federation service from NextPlane.

What Is Federation?

We define UCC federation as connecting two or more disparate UCC platforms for multi-modal communication among users. At the heart of this connection is presence federation, which lets users share presence information from different platforms.

UCC federation is one of the best ways to bridge disparate presence-based UCC platforms so that users in separate organizations can interact and communicate with each other. The issue arose because consumer IM and presence platforms like AOL Instant Messenger and Yahoo Messenger were being used rampantly in enterprises, even though they are not interoperable. As enterprises began to invest in enterprise IM and presence systems like IBM Sametime and Microsoft Live Communications Server (now called Lync), the issue became interoperability among a mix of consumer IM services and enterprise IM platforms.

How Federation Can Help Solve B2B Collaboration Issues

Federation is one solution to collaboration interconnectedness across external organizations. Federation allows companies and users on multiple communication and collaboration systems to connect as if they were on the same system. Presence federation lets users see presence information from other people on different UCC or IM systems and interact via chat, voice, video, web conferencing, desktop sharing and text or data collaboration.

Federation also extends collaboration to external parties across disparate communication and collaboration systems. For this, key obstacles need to be addressed, including:

  • Trusting the other party to manage confidential information
  • Security and access control for participants who change and are outside the organization
  • Incompatible technologies, especially real-time, which has more requirements about clients, OSs, protocols, etc.
  • Users switching between internal and external collaboration systems
  • Managing use of consumer tools such as Dropbox and public IM networks
  • Establishing who is really responsible in a multi-party environment (e.g., support, capacity planning, problem resolution, evolution of the platform)

(For recommendations on dealing with these obstacles, see Research Note 2013-28, Why Every Enterprise Should Build Collaborative Ecosystems, and Research Note 2013-31, Why You Need a Technology Toolbox for External Collaboration.)

Enterprises typically depend on efforts from their UCC vendor to enable federation. This may work to some degree with other organizations using the same platform. The major issues arise between disparate platforms. Some enterprises try to federate themselves with open standards such as XMPP that let them share offline/online presence information only.

In contrast to this limited approach, the cloud-based NextPlane UC Exchange federation service acts as an intermediary or broker that lets users exchange presence information and collaborate across disparate platforms from multiple providers (see Note 1).  It aggregates presence information so enterprises can identify external users and set policies to collaborate securely with them.

Shell Uses Federation to Connect with Partners

Royal Dutch Shell, a global energy company, had issues connecting its Microsoft Lync environment to its business partners using non-Microsoft communication tools. Shell has been an aggressive UCC adopter over the past few years. It had already used Microsoft federation services to set up connections with other companies that used Lync. Due to the nature of Shell’s business, it has to interact with internal as well as external teams on disparate UCC systems.

Shell had to set up policies governing the technical and legal aspects of collaborating with external parties. In order to enable communications with external companies, Shell decided to use NextPlane’s UC Exchange federation service because of the unique way it provides UCC federation among disparate systems.

Shell uses communication tools from Cisco, Microsoft and others. This created an interoperability problem that NextPlane helped to solve. Working with either vendor did not provide a suitable solution. Shell needed a third-party federation broker service. UC Exchange provided interoperability with all Microsoft federated clients, IBM, Cisco, Gmail and Skype.

Enabling external communication and collaboration allowed Shell to connect with partners daily. Shell took additional steps to ensure the technical quality of communication sessions, such as voice call quality. This initiative also required Shell to develop a change management process to ensure user adoption.

Norton Rose Uses Federation to Improve Communication During Mergers And Acquisitions

In any merger or acquisition, integration is a major concern. With multiple mergers and acquisitions that issue is multiplied. I spoke with a global beverage company that was going through this very issue. With tremendous consolidation in the beverage industry, M&As are happening more frequently with companies scrambling to deal with integrating UCC platforms to ensure communications and collaboration happens smoothly between new colleagues.

Norton Rose Group, a global law firm based in the UK, faced the UCC integration challenge when it began to merge with acquired law practices in Australia, Canada and South Africa. While an exciting time of growth for the firm, bringing in multiple established law firms meant dealing with disparate UCC platforms. With almost 40 offices in different time zones, collaborating in real time is a major challenge. To communicate and collaborate quickly with the firms it was acquiring, Norton Rose decided to federate with each platform instead of going through a lengthy, costly “rip and replace” process and forcing all its firms to use the same platform.

Norton Rose investigated several options for interoperability between UCC platforms. However, each legacy UCC vendor’s approach was not sufficient for dealing with disparate systems. Norton Rose wanted to consolidate everyone on the same nortonrose.com domain without needing to migrate all to the same platform.

An immediate need arose when Norton Rose merged with Deacons, an Australian law firm. Norton Rose was running Cisco WebEx Connect, while Deacons had a Microsoft OCS UCC infrastructure. This was the perfect storm to establish a strategy.

They decided to use NextPlane’s cloud-based UC Exchange federation service between WebEx Connect and OCS. This allowed them to use existing UCC platforms while communicating through a federated connection. They were able to establish this in a matter of days. Users were able to exchange presence information, send instant messages, and engage in group chats while on disparate platforms. As new law practices come onboard, Norton Rose is now able to establish federation quickly through the NextPlane federation cloud service and exchange UCC capabilities with new colleagues.

Eco Energy Uses Federation to Connect With Customers

Energy traders still use consumer IM services like AIM and Yahoo Messenger, as well as Google Talk and Skype. The difficulty of archiving this data creates compliance concerns. Consumer services do not have native archiving or compliance monitoring capabilities. However, in some energy firms, using consumer IM services has became an informal business process, and getting rid of them is not an option. Whatever UCC platform these enterprises deploy, they need some way to federate with consumer IM services.

Such was the case with Eco Energy, Inc., based in Franklin, Tennessee. Eco was faced with the challenge of federating between Yahoo Messenger, Skype, Google Talk and Microsoft Lync. Lync is the company’s strategic UCC platform, including its phone system. Eco’s energy traders each used their own Yahoo, Skype and Google Talk accounts to communicate with clients. The company did not want to leave the consumer IM services, but it needed to federate communications between these established channels and Lync.

Eco Energy needed to address three issues:

  • Federate and streamline communications between consumer IM services and Microsoft Lync
  • Establish a common naming convention for consumer IM services
  • Address compliance concerns with trader conversations in the cloud on consumer IM networks

Eco Energy decided to use the NextPlane cloud federation service to enable cross-platform federation. The service enabled Eco to combine communications with Lync and also to archive the data and keep track of history, which previously they could not do. The NextPlane service allowed them to hook in consumer IM network identifiers and incorporate them. Now able to manage communications with customers, Eco also joined the NextPlane Federated Directory service to allow external collaboration with partner energy companies.

Aragon Advisory

All three of these use cases illustrate two things: first, that existing tools do not do enough to solve interoperability, and also that the current market for IM/presence and overall UCC is still fractured. To meet these issues, enterprises should:

  • Assess how communications and collaboration with external constituents is currently happening.
  • Develop a strategy to streamline and manage internal and external collaboration together.
  • Use a federation broker service to enable collaboration with users on disparate communications and collaboration platforms and systems.

Archived Research.

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