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Thought Leaders in Cloud Computing: Chris Lauwers, CTO of Avistar (Part 2)

Posted on Tuesday, Dec 20th 2011

Sramana Mitra: Absolutely. The cloud-based collaboration, or in any kind of cloud strategy, collaboration is featuring as one of the top items right now. Now, given your experience with the industry, would you talk a little bit with some historical perspective about where we have come from in the cloud collaboration technology and where we are today?

Chris Lauwers: Well, let me take that in a couple different phases. Let’s talk first about collaboration and communication. Collaboration, historically, has been somewhat of a segmented market. You’ve had Web conferencing technologies that have become widely adopted, primarily for giving presentations to customers and remote meetings. You, obviously, have had your telecom infrastructure and your telephony infrastructure that, over the years, has evolved to VoIP. You’ve had video conferencing that has been somewhat of a niche market, but with very well-defined applications and value propositions. Historically, those have been discreet segments that, at least in the enterprise, have been managed by discreet groups that didn’t collaborate all that much.

Over the past five years or so, those different technologies have started to converge around the concept of unified communications. What unified communications, at least initially, tried to do was a couple of things. First of all, it tried to provide a unified interface to all these different telecommunications technologies underneath. But even more important, it tried to put the focus of communication on the user as opposed to on the device. That was done through concepts like Presence where the central entity that you communicate with is the user, and then the system figures out whether that user is online, available to communicate and, if so, where he was and what device he would use for that communication.

So, unified communication has been the software layer that sits on top of these underlying communications infrastructures and that has significantly enhanced the user experience. Now, the next step – or the step that I think is in progress right now – is if you have that software layer on top that provides the communication experience, why do you still need all the underlying hardware infrastructure to then deliver the communication itself. Perhaps that communication itself, with its video conferencing or telephony or Web conferencing, that all just becomes part of that software layer that manages the communication.

SM: And basically becomes a desktop environment as opposed to lots of hardware and lots of complex environments, yes?

CL: Correct. It becomes a software component that can run on your desktop, but it can also run on your mobile device, on your tablet. The key is that it becomes a software technology as opposed to something that, historically, very much has been a hardware-based set of technologies. In my opinion, the biggest impact that unified communications has is that it’s trying to take one of the remaining IT capabilities that has, still, a hardware focus. It’s taken that into a software paradigm. That’s one of the biggest impacts, in my opinion, of what unified communications delivers. It’s taking communications and turning it into a software application, running on general purpose IT infrastructure as opposed to separate appliances, separate hardware, separate devices.

SM: Would you talk about this point with some context about the different vendors? Like, Cisco has a unified communications strategy. Polycom has one. Microsoft has one, and whoever else has one. If you would, give us an overview of where you see different vendors and different philosophies going. They’re all coming at it from different angles.

CL: Exactly. And they’re coming at it from the angle where their legacy businesses have been. So, Cisco and Avaya, to a large extent, come at it [as] telephony vendors that have moved over to VoIP and now are taking the next step towards making all of communication their software application. But their focus is really on taking their legacy telephony infrastructure and turning that into software infrastructure around voice-over IP and then adding video, adding Web conferencing as an integrated set of capabilities.

Cisco, I think, of all the companies that we’ve talked about is probably still the organization that’s most married to a hardware paradigm, because they’ve also aggressively invested in the high end of video communications, at least the segment that we would call tele-presence. That is still very much tied to hardware infrastructure, primarily to be able to deliver the appearance of being in the same room at the same time by matching furniture, worrying about eye contact, worrying about the size of the displays and what have you. Cisco and Avaya are probably the two that are coming at it from a VoIP legacy and moving it into unified communication from that angle.

Then you have companies like Microsoft and IBM, with their Sametime product, that are coming at it from the instant messaging and presence paradigm. Their early entries into the unified communication market have been around instant messaging or you can communicate using text messages based on a presence list that displays whether people are online. And over time, they’ve added voice capabilities and, more recently, video capabilities so that all of that communication is originated from your presence-based contact list and using text or instant messaging or voice or video as a communication medium of choice.

Microsoft, probably more than IBM, is beefing up their underlying infrastructure so that you can start using those kinds of systems as a PVX replacement and taking over some of that legacy VoIP market. With their Lync product, that’s what they’re currently trying to do.

And then you have a number of companies that are coming at it from the Web conferencing side. Now, there’s been some cost elevation in the industry. Cisco picked up WebEx several years ago. Citrix is probably the remaining large Web conferencing vendor. But all the Web conferencing vendors have added voice and video capabilities, Citrix most recently with their HD Faces product.

So, everybody is converging on that software paradigm where you have a unified interface around presence and have voice, video, and data as the media streams that you can manage within the context of that experience.

This segment is part 2 in the series : Thought Leaders in Cloud Computing: Chris Lauwers, CTO of Avistar
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