Cisco's approach to unified communications is a network-based, hardware-intensive implementation designed to provide support for more environments - like point-of-sale systems, non-PC workgroups and mobile device platforms - than desktop- or server-based strategies.
Read how Microsoft approaches unified communications Watch our head-to-head comparison of Cisco vs. Microsoft UC solutions
But like Microsoft and its Windows desktop/server-based unified communications vision, Cisco's plan is founded on protecting its business and selling as much Cisco equipment into the enterprise as possible.
"Both of them want pretty much a single vendor solution with the exception that I don't see any indication, nor should there be, that Cisco would go into the e-mail, messaging or calendaring area," says Elizabeth Herrell, an analyst at Forrester Research. "But other than that they all want to say we're one vendor, buy it all from us."
Indeed, a description of Cisco's all-encompassing unified communications portfolio begins with a listing of virtually every enterprise router in the Cisco inventory, from the 800 series to the 7500 series. It also includes five models from the company's Catalyst switch line as well as various gateways and access devices.
In all, 29 infrastructure products are included in Cisco's unified communications portfolio. And that doesn't include the 92 other customer contact, IP telephony, unified communications applications, collaboration - including WebEx - and voice network management tools that fill out Cisco's unified communications roster.
Analysts say Cisco's all-in-one, largely proprietary approach provides reliability, greater control, and consistent security and QoS from the endpoint through the network. But therein lies its downside as well - an environment requiring lots of devices and limited inclusion of non-Cisco gear.
"What's thrown back at Cisco is just the fact that they do require a lot of different servers for specific capabilities," says Matthias Machowinski, directing analyst for enterprise voice and data at Infonetics Research. "That seems to be their main knock whereas some other vendors are more integrated, especially once you scale down. If you're a company with 100 people and now you have to deploy 10 servers for [unified communications], that's going to be a problem."
"I describe our strategy as an 'and' strategy, not an 'or' strategy," says Christopher Thompson, senior director of UC solutions marketing at Cisco. "Many of our customers have Microsoft desktops and they will be using OCS, and we will make sure that we interoperate with OCS. It's an inclusive strategy."
Thompson also says it's not true that Cisco unified communications requires many servers - that some of Cisco's customers can deploy UCM Business Edition, for up to 500 users, on a single server.
At the heart of Cisco's unified communications portfolio is Unified Communications Manager, the call processing component of the environment. UCM is designed to deliver voice, video, mobility and presence services to IP phones, media processing devices, VoIP gateways, mobile devices, and multimedia applications, combining these resources into a "workspace" for up to 60,000 users.