Unified Communications - are we on the path to licensing nirvana?

Unified Communications - Remote WorkingUnified Communications has been around now for a number of years under many names - VoIP, IP Telephony, Unified Communications. No matter what the name, the goal has remained the same: simplifying and making communications within a business easier and more effective with the desired result being improved efficiency and productivity.

Games such as telephone tennis and voice mail tag are becoming a thing of the past with the rapid uptake of Instant Messaging, Presence, Find-Me-Follow-Me call handling and Single Number Reach.

But what about behind the scenes; has life been made any easier for the resellers, channel partners and indeed the organisation's own IT team by the advance of Unified Communications? Getting to grips with user/application licensing has always been one of the necessary evils, whether considering PC and servers, routers and LAN switches or Unified Communications applications.

Has the licensing of Unified Communications applications mirrored the 'making it easy' promise for user experience? Today the majority of vendors out there are following the same general path to licensing nirvana - that based on a per-user licensing model. So let's take a look at the progress of one of the higher profile vendors, Cisco Systems.

Cisco entered the Unified Communications world back in the late '90s with the release of VoIP support on their IOS routers and shortly thereafter included IP Telephony with their acquisition of Selsius Systems which, via a subsequent name change to CallManager, became the artist known as Unified Communications Manager.

In its original form Unified Communications Manager employed a per device (handset) licensing model for each IP phone purchased, and there was a corresponding and matching IP phone licence. This was fairly straightforward at the time, as the list of associated Unified Communications applications and IP handsets was limited. However one weakness of the licensing model was that it was honorary, in that the IP phones would work without the corresponding phone licence. Human nature soon kicked into action and, as was to be expected, it didn't go un-noticed by Cisco. Unified Communications Manager was later launched on a new Linux appliance-based model with (you guessed it) an enforced Device Licence (DL) model for licensing the IP phones. Each type of IP phone required a certain number of DL licenses and if sufficient spare DLs were not available on your Communications Manager system then some of those phones wouldn't work; simple really.

It was around this time that the industry saw a significant increase in the number and uptake of other Unified Communications applications such as IP Contact Centre, Presence and Collaboration. Along with these new applications came yet more licensing for the beleaguered channel partners and IT teams to understand. We now had user, feature, application and server licences and the list seemed to be getting longer by the day. It soon became apparent that this proliferation in licensing wasn't 'enabling' the resellers and channel partners or indeed the customer's own IT team and the vendors soon reacted.

Cisco launched the CUWL (Cisco Unified Workspace Licensing) for their Unified Communications portfolio as a second option for licensing users and their associated applications. CUWL came in a number of different flavours to match the perceived blend of user application requirements that can be loosely referred to as Basic, Standard and Enhanced. CUWL removed a lot of the complexity previously mentioned by providing licensing on a simple per-user type basis. The use of the CUWL licensing came with a number of prerequisites and this, along with the fact that not every organisation's user requirements fitted the CUWL model, meant that licensing nirvana had yet to arrive.

Time rolls on and Cisco has recently released a more granular approach to user based licensing known as UCL (User Connect Licensing). This model attempts to combine the best of the 'a la carte' and CUWL worlds by licensing Unified Communications on a per-user, per application basis.

So have we reached licensing nirvana where channel partners and customer IT teams have more time to spend on far-flung, sunny beaches drinking Pina Coladas? Only time will tell but vendor solutions such as Cisco's UCL gets us one step closer to the departure lounge.