October 20, 2014

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Unified Inbox – Unifying Access to Next-Generation Communications

New age communication technologies have helped bring together multiple modes of communication.  Multimodal and multi-device “live” communications have become common, with presence and availability, text chats, social media, IM, collaboration, conferences in text, voice and video, from the comfort of our laptops, tablets and smartphones.  The promise of real time live communication is finally being fulfilled.

However, the communication platforms, frameworks, protocols and apps from different companies are vertical silos of their own, none of which interoperate with another vendor’s offering/product.  This won't do.  Enterprise IT budgets are already stretched, and the freedom to interoperate different products is critical for enterprises to achieve acceptable ROI levels. 

As technology growth in next-gen communication tapers, IT Managers at Enterprises will struggle to interoperate various media types from various providers that they have accumulated.  Their choice: migrate or perish.

When the dust settles, it is likely that multiple vendors of next-gen communications will remain.  Companies would likely choose to deploy the best from each.  Hence, a debate on ubiquity over interoperability in the light of it rapidly progressing is futile, and my vote is in favor of interoperability.

In this blog, I present a possible solution for integrating various messaging types under one roof to enable users communicate freely across disparate technologies. 

Email is truly interoperable -- standardized protocols allow interoperability.  Such standards and compliance is needed by providers of next-gen communications.  The architecture of Messaging Clients needs to evolve.

Based on our experience at HCL, we present a possible solution for interoperability problems, below.

We propose the idea of “Message Exchanges” – a chat exchange, a social media exchange, and so on.  An exchange unifies the communication from various vendors within it – for instance an IM exchange allows participants to seamlessly chat across various vendors (E.g. Microsoft Lync, Cisco Jabber, etc.).  Without worry, a user can send or receive an IM from a recipient on another IM application (see Figure 1).  The IM message will be routed through the Message Exchange to its destination; in many cases, a different provider.

We refer to the overall protocol family as “Communication Exchange Protocol”, or “CXP".  The protocol subtype for IM is called CXP-IM, for video it is CXP-Video, and so on (Figure 1).  The figure shows a small subset of four different types of messages – IM, Voice, Social Media and Video.  Of course, there are many more message types but this list is representative.

For the purpose of discussion, let’s continue with IM.  Figure 1 shows unified integration with three IM providers, say Cisco’s Jabber, Microsoft’s Lync, and IBM. The fourth link is to the Unified Inbox. 

Each provider interacts with the IM-CXP layer through their own native protocols, which IM-CXP translates into a unified API for consumption by Unified Inbox (see Figure 2).  Through this unified interface, Unified Inbox is able to send, receive and translate messages from any number of IM providers. The Unified Inbox only requires compliance to the simple CXP-IM protocol. 

A function call to send an IM would look like:

SendIM (enum IMProviderID, LPVOID *recipient, LPSTR msg)

Similarly, a message would be received as:

GetIM (enum IMProviderID, LPVOID *sender, LPSTR msg)

Similar functions are needed to setup and destroy IM sessions, establish presence, populate address lists, and more. 

Let’s consider another message type, Social Media.  With login parameters for Facebook (FB), Unified Inbox would allow messages between engineer-side IM and SM.  Presence and availability stands enhanced.  An employee on the road may be on FB but not on enterprise IM.  An urgent IM sent by a colleague reaching him on FB, can enhance productivity.

Voice and video integration need additional considerations of protocols and stream formats.  Real-time behavior in mixing feeds may require fast translation from one to the other. 

In conclusion, the number of next-gen communication providers is growing by the day.  Unification of the process of dispatch and receipt of communication and messages irrespective of the provider is important. Progressively, there will be no choice.

HCL works with enterprises to help them maximize the potential of their mobility implementation through their business cycle.