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While unified communications is an area that has held much promise for the channel, turning that potential in major new business opportunities has been something of a challenge.

Not only is there a lot of internal customer politics to navigate as teams of IT and telecommunications people battle for control of unified communications, customers are not sure where to deploy it.

There are plenty of options available for deploying unified communications on premise, but they usually require the customer to fund significant upgrades to their IT infrastructure. In the age of the cloud, however, many customers are not sure this is the right way to go with unified communications.

In fact, there is a general feeling that the unified communications market will really take off once these technologies are readily available as a service in the cloud. The reality of unified communications, however, is likely to be a little more complicated.

There’s no doubt that some unified communications will be delivered via the cloud either directly by a vendor or through one of the major telecommunications carriers. It’s just as likely, however, that some unified communications services will be managed or delivered by more traditional solution providers that will manage unified communication services on behalf of their customers. And it’s also just as likely that some unified communications capabilities are going to be deployed on the customer’s premise.

Given those distinct tiers of unified communications it’s quickly becomes apparent that the world is headed towards a federate model for delivering unified communications. Case in point is Avaya, which makes available a virtual appliance based on Aura communications software that solution providers can use to create a cloud service.  In addition, Avaya at the Enterprise Connect conference announced a unified communications alliance with Level 3 Communications. And Avaya also offers Aura as a branded cloud service and, if a customer so chooses, the software can be deployed on premise.

According to David Murashige, Avaya vice president of business development, the end goal is to create a framework that will make it possible to federate unified communications across multiple tiers of services. Also announced at the Enterprise Connect conference this week, the Avaya Collaborative Cloud framework sets the stage for significantly expanding the size of the available unified communications market by delivering these technologies as a service that can be invoked, as opposed to products that need to be acquired, deployed and managed.

Avaya is hardly the only unified communications vendor moving towards a federated unified communications model. The reality is that just about every vendor in this space knows that more customers would prefer to leverage unified communications services versus having to roll their infrastructure.

But the other reality that is being mostly ignored is that none of this is going to really take off until customers have a lot more confidence in the interoperability of these services. No company can dictate what unified communications infrastructure should be in place at another company. They can reasonably expect another company to take advantage of open standards that would allow the two organizations to communicate. While there has been a lot of progress in term of interoperability, technologies such as the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) unfortunately still leave a lot of room for proprietary interpretation.

The good news is that there is a lot of pressure coming from the consumer side to solve these issues because companies such as Microsoft, which bought Skype, and Google have big ambitions in this space. But until those interoperability issues get resolved, the ambitions that vendors have in this space will continue to be more of an aspirational nature.