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WebRTC: Addressing Lync's Multi-Vendor UC Environment Challenge

By Darrin Whitney, CIO, Genband


Darrin Whitney, CIO, Genband

In some regards the way GENBAND uses Microsoft solutions hardly deserves special mention amongst a group of my peers. Like many of you we use a fairly traditional set of Microsoft desktop applications and file sharing tools. However, I believe what I’m seeing happen with WebReal Time Communications or WebRTC and Lync is worth writing and reading about.

To offer some context, GENBAND develops communications software. We have more than 1,500 employees with development centers across the globe. Like many of you, our people are often interacting at odd hours from odd places; trying to manage diverse time zones and travel. We make solutions for large service providers like Verizon, Comcast and Telus as well as large enterprises, so our customers have high expectations and our people need to stay connected to support them.

Microsoft has a strong position within our IT ecosystem with Windows 7/8.1, Office and Outlook (client/server not cloud), and SharePoint. We also use OneDrive for file sharing. GENBAND has its own Cloud service for Unified Communications called Nuvia and a Platform-as-a-Service solution called Kandy. I’m a customer of both.

I appreciate that there are a few readers out there that have a visceral response to Microsoft, but I’m not one of them. They have strengths and weaknesses, like any vendor. My challenge with Microsoft is more about their interest in owning my Unified Communications (UC) environment. Living in a multi-vendor UC environment with Lync (now called Skype for Business) can be a challenge. Microsoft has elegantly integrated user presence into Office, Outlook and SharePoint, but if you don’t access it via Lync it can be quite a challenge to integrate through standard XMPP protocols. In essence, if you don’t use Lync you lose some of that elegance and user value. The same challenge exists for integrating voice and video into Lync. Cisco, Avaya and others have developed Lync plug-ins for the Lync client, but Microsoft limits the integration to the point where it gets pretty clunky—users get annoyed and IT staff hate all the desktop support issues. Worse, changes or upgrades to the Lync client can easily break the plugin. GENBAND uses Microsoft’s Real-time Call Control (RCC), which is server-based, but we also face limitations as RCC integration changes some of the video calling behavior. In either case, integrating is not cheap or simple.

Honestly, I admit that I don’t always care about these nuances, but I do care about the cost and the value. If you break it down, the multi-vendor UC environment may be lower cost and offer other benefits, but Microsoft put a few barriers in the road to make you feel the pain (staff time and user acceptance/productivity) of getting it to work and keeping it working.

Having dealt with this issue firsthand, I’m excited by the opportunity to add WebRTC to the mix. Lync has some good REST APIs so now it is actually possible to build WebRTC-based mash-ups that pull IM, presence and directory out of Lync and mash it up with a SIP-based PBX or Cloud UC service. Your users don’t know that one button in the UI points to system X and another to system Y—just like you don’t know which elements on a web page are served by the host or are redirects. We are already using this model with our Nuvia Cloud UC service. We are using the technology to enable users to have a Lync account for IM, Presence and Directory and a Nuvia account for voice and video. You could do the same thing with Lync and Call Manager or Avaya Aura or Mitel, ShoreTel, etc. As long as your PBX supports SIP phones it will work.

If you are not familiar with WebRTC, basically it is a standard way of adding real time media into the browser—using HTML5 and REST for voice and video. Google Chrome was the early driver, but now most of the world’s browsers (except Safari) have or say they will adopt it. As a CIO I’m most excited about the ability to deploy services without a client install/upgrade and without a different client for every device type.

"Living in a multi-vendor UC environment with Lync (now called Skype for Business) can be a challenge"

If you’re a WebRTC aficionado you might be concerned that a browser interface is not going to cut it for your users. Good point— that used to be a real concern. No one wants to close their browser and hang up their phone or video call. The good news is that the technology is moving fast and vendors are basically building their apps in a private or perhaps a better term is isolated browsers. When the app launches it feels like a native application that sits in the system tray and even offers multiple windows in the client. Users don’t see web addresses or any cues that it’s a browser. However, it really is an all-HTML5 app so deployment is seamless and updates are instant. Make a change on the central web server and every client changes instantly. Use the same client across multiple platforms.

At the end of the day, Lync is just the first example. This technology paradigm can be applied to any multimedia apps that support REST and HTML5. It’s simple for a web developer to mix several applications together, a practical example would be to offer a user Lync IM and presence on a Salesforce page along with click-to-call and click-to-video conference. I think adoption will happen because it drives down the cost of client roll-out and support. At the same time it has the potential to improve the overall experience for the end user. And those are the results we have to deliver.

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