B2B Communications Need Federation Services

B2B Communications Need Federation Services

By Art Rosenberg March 6, 2015 Leave a Comment
B2B Communications Need Federation Services by Art Rosenberg

Although multimodal unified communications (UC) are slowly but surely dominating business communications, person-to-person voice conversations are still an important part of UC. However, UC must support end users both inside and outside of an organization, especially whenever they are using different UC technology platforms or services (UCaaS). Federation services play an important role in facilitating such contacts between people in different organizations or different locations, but must frequently connect easily for real-time and near-real-time conversations.

We discussed the growing role of federated services with Farzin Shahidi, CEO of NextPlane, a leading provider of such a service.

1. What are the key trends that are changing the nature of business communication?

NextPlane: There’s certainly a lot going on, so I thought I’d focus on five major trends:

  1. Email and internal desk phones are no longer adequate communication tools in today’s fast-paced 24x7 business environments. Instead, knowledge workers are adopting both real-time and near real-time communication tools to get the job done. As a result, instant messaging and presence are replacing email, and IP-based voice and video calls are replacing PSTN desk phone connections.
  2. The success of the modern enterprise is rooted in its ability to provide knowledge workers the tools they need to securely collaborate with their business partners in real time; which is what UC platforms do best today. At the same time, their employees are demanding access to seamless embedded voice and video communications (the promise of WebRTC), as well as project- and file-based collaboration tools.
  3. Expectations have evolved, and today’s increasingly mobile employees expect they’ll have the ability to communicate with their business contacts in real time—regardless of underlying UC platforms. These mobile users want to find, connect and collaborate with anyone, anywhere, at any time. Federation allows that interoperability, and the cloud enables mobility, which is why many businesses are turning toward cloud-based managed UC solutions (UC as-a-Service). In turn, employees stay connected no matter where they happen to be, and productivity remains at the highest possible levels.
  4. Now that virtually all forward-thinking businesses have successfully deployed UC solutions within company walls, their end users want to communicate with their external colleagues using the same tools, streamlining their work processes. To meet these needs, companies have to figure out how to scale the number of federations.
  5. With security breaches popping up in the news at a frenetic rate these days, security is now at the center of all external and internal communications. This pronounced need for security is forcing businesses to move away from unsecured public instant messaging networks, like AIM and Yahoo, and prosumer voice and video services, like Google Hangouts and Skype. To make sure proprietary information is protected, businesses are turning toward secure UC-to-UC communications, choosing solutions that only allow authorized traffic on their networks and prevent phishing attacks on their unsuspecting end users.

2. What is the biggest challenge organizations face when trying to take advantage of UC federation?

NextPlane: After companies have deployed UC platforms or services, they’ll have to figure out how to federate with their partner organizations to enable employees to securely and seamlessly communicate and collaborate with their external colleagues in real time.

Most UC services support two primary security levels that help establish federations with other organizations:

  • Open federation: Anyone running a UC environment can locate and federate with other “like” UC environments configured for open federation. To set up open federation, all an organization has to do is publish a DNS SRV record. Once that record is published, any organization can send UC traffic your way.
  • Direct “like-to-like” federation: In order to prohibit unauthorized traffic on their servers but still take advantage of federation, some companies establish a series of one-to-one relationships of allowed UC domain names. In this closed approach to federation, each enterprise must share specific information in order to establish a federated connection. As such, traffic is either allowed or blocked, depending on approved domain names and federated servers.

In order to establish direct federations, a UC decision maker first must know the other organization’s UC czar. Once you have discovered who the right folks are on the other side, you have to get them to agree to configure their UC platform to federate with yours. This takes considerable time, as external partners will likely have to put together a business justification and get managerial approval for the federation. This process can quickly become overly burdensome—particularly when dealing with multiple business partners. In most cases, this taxing approach results in few federated relationships.

To avoid the workflow that many organizations implement around direct federations, most Lync 2013 and XMPP-based UCs opt for open federation configurations by publishing either a SIP-based DNS SRV record for Lync 2013, or an XMPP-based DNS SRV record for XMPP-based UCs. In doing so, they allow any and all companies out there to federate with their UC environments. Once that’s done, the federating entity’s end users can add the organization’s employees to their own UC client’s contact list and engage them in chat sessions.

Given recent high-profile cyber attacks at places like Sony, Anthem and JPMorgan Chase, many organizations are realizing that open federation by its very nature opens an enormous security hole in their operations. Open federation grants ill-intended individuals the ability to automatically federate with a company’s end users. And once that’s done, they can initiate phishing attacks on unsuspicious employees. Keep in mind that all it takes is for one or two users to click on a URL before your network and systems are crippled by nasty malware.

On the other hand, direct federation is cumbersome because of all the work involved. In reality, employees hold relationships with each business partner—not the IT team. Therefore, employees need to determine the list of partners, suppliers, customers, etc., and IT needs to manage all those federations.

As a result, when it comes to like-to-like UC federation most enterprises are left between a rock and hard place. If they continue with open federation, they risk getting hacked. And if they try direct UC federation, they can only enjoy a handful of federations.

3. How does the NextPlane UC Exchange help companies avoid the pitfalls of UC federations?

NextPlane: NextPlane’s UC Exchange acts as a UC federation clearinghouse. Once an enterprise federates its UC domain with UC Exchange it becomes federation-ready. As a result, it can easily federate with an unlimited number of partner organizations without the need to set up and maintain separate direct federations with each one.

Moreover, such organizations can take advantage of UC Exchange’s directory of federation-ready companies, which boasts over 250 large enterprise customers who federate across more than 1,000 domains. More often than not, one of the companies they want to federate with is listed in the UC Exchange Directory.

The NextPlane UC Exchange Service only permits authorized traffic to a member’s UC environment. As a result, it blocks UC traffic from ill-intentioned individuals seeking to prey on unsuspecting employees.

What’s more, the UC Exchange Secure Management Portal simplifies the complexities traditionally involved in securely on-boarding a UC domain and safely federating with external entities.

Finally, the NextPlane UC Exchange Federation Service enables any-to-any federation, offering the widest UC platform support while also covering all major UC as-a-Service (UCaaS) solutions, such as Office 365 and WebEx Messenger.

The NextPlane UC Exchange Federation Service is the easiest path toward enabling your workers to collaborate with their external business partners in real time, giving them the tools they need to be more effective.

4. How is UC Exchange different or better than other UC federation services?

NextPlane: Since the need for real-time B2B UC collaboration is becoming more pronounced, new players are trying to make inroads in the UC federation market.

Most recently, we saw AT&T announce its own federation service. Still in its infancy, the offering is quite limited, just allowing Lync 2013 and Cisco CUPS users to do basic IM and presence. 

To be honest, both Cisco CUPS and Microsoft XMPP Gateway already provide basic IM and presence federation. I’m not sure why large companies would pay more than $50/user/year for AT&T’s federation service when they can get it from UC vendors for free. 

Unlike the AT&T federation service, the NextPlane UC Exchange extends beyond simple IM and presence federation. Our service also includes enhanced presence states, custom statuses, multi-user-chat and much more.

Beyond that, UC Exchange features:

  • Voice and Video Collaboration. Our recently launched Voice and Video Collaboration Service allows business customers to quickly escalate chat sessions to voice or video calls without having to switch to a third-party service or download any plug-ins. This functionality allows knowledge workers to use whichever medium of communication makes the most sense for their particular situation.
  • Security and Privacy. At NextPlane, we believe security and privacy are of the utmost importance. As such, UC Exchange—which works with virtually every UC platform—doesn’t record calls or store messages, unlike AT&T’s federation service, which only works with Microsoft Lync 2013 and Cisco UC Manager IM and Presence Service 10.x.
  • Proven Performance. NextPlane’s UC Exchange has served enterprise customers for over seven years. Each month, more than 500,000 unique users exchange upwards of 1 billion messages across 1,000 domains through our service. With more than 250 large enterprise customers, NextPlane’s UC Exchange is the world’s largest and fastest-growing directory of federation-ready companies.

5. Any final thoughts?

NextPlane: As leaders in the UC federation space, NextPlane also provides ongoing customer support for our clients. As B2B UC collaboration continues to transform and evolve, we keep current with that evolution, making sure our customers do, too. 

We also recently announced a new, three-tiered pricing plan. So whether you want to take advantage of:

  1. Presence and instant messaging
  2. Presence, instant messaging and voice; or
  3. Presence, instant messaging, voice, and video,

we’ll work with you to make it happen.


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