AT&T opens doors between UC platforms and gives enterprises the keys

Its UC Federation service makes Lync, Jabber and others work together under tight permission controls

Enterprises want open communication with the people they do business with -- but not too open.

AT&T's UC Federation service, introduced on Thursday, is designed to break down walls between unified communications platforms but let users keep organizational boundaries in place. That should serve two key requirements for large enterprises that find themselves working ever more closely with partners, customers and acquired subsidiaries.

UC Federation is a cloud-based service that can perform translation between popular collaboration systems, letting enterprises keep their own platform but work with others as if everybody used the same one. For now it only covers presence and IM (instant messaging) between Microsoft Lync and Cisco Jabber, but more systems and communication methods are on the way, AT&T says. It's open to subscribers of any carrier.

UC Federation also lets administrators control which forms of communication a company, group or individual can use at what time.

Even as more forms of communication have become available, including video, IM and data sharing, none has achieved the universal reach of a traditional phone call. Until now, UC federation has meant making two deployments of the same UC software talk to each other, according to Wainhouse Research analyst Ira Weinstein. That doesn't do anything for companies that use different systems. That can get in the way of business.

"You can't tell a client, 'If you want to talk to us, use this IM or UC system," Weinstein said. Even after an acquisition, a newly integrated subsidiary may have so much money and experience sunk into its existing UC platform that it's not economical to replace that with the corporate standard, he said.

AT&T's UC Federation is designed to solve the challenge of interoperability while letting each user keep the system and user interface they like. In addition to Lync and Jabber, it will soon include IBM Sametime, Microsoft Office 365, Live and OCS (Office Communications Server), Skype, Avaya One-X, Google Hangouts, Facebook, AOL and Yahoo, according to AT&T. It will incorporate voice, video and calendars later this year, AT&T said.

There's so much built into each of those platforms that it's not likely to be perfect, Lopez Research analyst Maribel Lopez predicted. "There's always some feature on some platform that's not going to work," Lopez said. But all the bells and whistles aren't really necessary to get your message across, she said.

UC Federation's permission control features are just as important as its cross-platform interoperability, according to Weinstein. Enterprises may want to be able to communicate easily with others, but they want to control how and when that communication takes place, he said. A customer or technology partner shouldn't be able to simply jump into a video chat with a vendor's CEO just because there's technology to make their systems work together.

"Done improperly, it becomes obtrusive or offensive that you've given this kind of access," Weinstein said.

UC Federation is available now for $4.99 per month, per user, with potential discounts based on volume and commitment. AT&T is offering a free 90-day trial for as many as 25 users.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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