IBM/Lotus sharpens weapon for unified communications battle

IBM/Lotus is banking on the integration of its Sametime platform and collaboration software with tools from telephony partners to fuel its climb up the ranks of unified communications contenders.

The company's strategy is to marry collaboration, social networking, conferencing and messaging software, which feature open protocols and interfaces, with telephony wares from partners such as Cisco, Nortel and Avaya to create a unified communications (UC) platform that corporations can integrate with their current infrastructure and Web services projects. Integration and standards support are hallmarks of the platform that features voice, e-mail, instant messaging, presence and videoconferencing.

The model is much different from traditional rival Microsoft, which eventually hopes to supplant telephony vendors by re-inventing the PBX in software. And it is different from Cisco, which partners with IBM/Lotus but is taking a more network approach to UC.

IBM/Lotus, on the other hand, has drawn a line of demarcation and is developing a gateway that invites telephony vendors and other partners into its UC lineup, which is anchored by Sametime and includes the Sametime client, Notes messaging, Connections social software, Quickr document management and Lotus Symphony productivity applications.

To prove its commitment, Steve Mills, the senior vice president of IBM's software group, said in March that the company will spend US$1 billion on its UC strategy over the next three years.

It may take such a war chest to overcome major challenges. IBM/Lotus must fight market dynamics that now favor Microsoft's platform centered on Office Communications Server (OCS), clearly define its feature differences and architectural advantages, and penetrate companies that already have an affinity for rival software.

Playing from behind

That penetration is sort of a "do-over" for IBM/Lotus.

Sametime is 10 years old and at one time was the only option for enterprise instant messaging and presence. But IBM/Lotus took its lead for granted and the platform languished between 2003 and 2005.

When Microsoft began detailing and developing what was to become OCS 2007, IBM finally flinched.

"That was the sound of Jaws [theme music] playing," says Mike Gotta, an analyst with the Burton Group, referring to the music in the 1975 movie that signaled impending doom perpetrated by a great white shark hungry for unsuspecting swimmers.

In January 2007, IBM/Lotus announced its UC2 (pronounced UC squared) strategy around Sametime to signal it was again ready to play.

Before the end of 2008, IBM/Lotus will ship what will become its UC centerpiece.

Sametime Unified Telephony (SUT) server, unveiled in January, will introduce an architecture built around two servers that form a single data-center integration point between the IBM/Lotus environment and the telephony world.

SUT's Telephony Control Server provides connections to PBX systems via SIP, and eventually in Version 2.0, computer-Supported telephony application (CSTA) interfaces. Partners already include Alcatel-Lucent, Avaya, Cisco, Nortel, and Siemens.

The Telephony Application server provides an aggregation point for presence data and APIs for developers building UC-enabled applications.

The platform will allow users to receive calls via softphones, and set up contact and routing rules.

Prior to SUT, partners suffered with many point-to-point integrations, but with SUT the integration point is down to one.

"SUT is the perfect boundary," says Burton's Gotta. "On one side all the vendors connect and on the other side IBM connects [all its software]."

Adding the topping

At the same time, IBM/Lotus is spinning presence, social networking, business workflow and collaboration into a story of increased productivity on the back of UC.

IBM/Lotus is pointing at Sametime's scalable and reliable presence capabilities that will help users find one another based on attributes such as expertise, authority or location.

The next step is tapping the Lotus collaboration pedigree around Notes (e-mail/collaboration) and Sametime (Web conferencing) to facilitate sharing and communication. New to the mix is support for social networking (Lotus Connections), productivity applications (Lotus Symphony) and document sharing (Quickr) on top of current integrations with Microsoft Outlook and Office.

And the final slice is the client side where IBM/Lotus wants to tap Web 2.0 interfaces to expose UC services.

"We are investing a lot of time and money to enhance our capabilities in this area," says Bruce Morse, vice president of unified communications software for IBM/Lotus. "We have the rich client [Sametime] nailed down, we are making more investments in technologies like AJAX and Web services approaches."

Morse says the next version of Sametime, due in 2009, will include capabilities built into the server that support AJAX browser-based client-type access to UC services using lightweight REST Web services in favor of bulkier SOAP-based protocols.

In addition to its own software, IBM is partnering with vendors such as VBrink to deliver streaming video and Forterra Systems to bring UC to virtual worlds.

Pulling it all together

Analysts so far are lauding the efforts.

"They have very good products," says Irwin Lazar, an analyst with Nemertes Research. "Look at what they are doing with Connections. Look at what they are doing with Quickr. It is extremely extensible and gives organizations a lot of opportunity to customize applications, to build new functionality and to build mashup applications. It's far more, I think, than what users get out of Microsoft."

But there is still work to be done as the UC battle heats up on the vendor side and user's wrestle with project goals and budgets.

Lazar says IBM/Lotus has to show enough added capabilities and differences vs. Microsoft to get IT's ear.

"They are struggling with that," he says. "There is still some lack of awareness of IBM's offerings and what they can do."

Burton's Gotta says Morse and his leadership team are the best among the Lotus product groups, but he wants to see examples of Sametime sales into Microsoft shops since the release of OCS 2007.

He says the company needs to clearly differentiate Sametime Unyte hosted conferencing services and Sametime on-premises conferencing and flesh out its hosted business application services code-named Bluehouse.

IBM/Lotus' Morse says one-third of new Sametime customers last year were Microsoft Exchange shops that did not have Notes installed.

"A key part of the strategy is to get into those shops," he said. "Customers that choose Sametime over OCS choose it based on the ability to integrate with what they have invested in as far as telephony, because it has been on the market for 10 years, it scales and they feel more secure," he says.

If Morse can convince IT of that, then IBM/Lotus has a shot at claiming a handsome stake in the UC market.

This story, "IBM/Lotus sharpens weapon for unified communications battle" was originally published by Network World.

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