Cisco Versus Microsoft: The Ongoing Debate

27 Oct 2013

Earlier in October at Interop New York, I participated in a session entitled "Microsoft Lync vs. Cisco: Which Path Should You Choose?" along with Tom Doria from Cisco. The session was structured as a debate and I was asked to take the pro-Lync position.

Admittedly, I had an easier job than Tom, since I neither work for Microsoft nor Cisco, and given I have implemented both Microsoft Lync and Cisco UC, I was able to simply present my experience regarding the types of organizations who choose and succeed with Lync.


In my opening statement I highlighted the fact that Lync is a full voice and UC solution that can completely replace existing PBXs (I have converted 30+ offices to full Lync Enterprise voice in the past year; I have also deployed the complete Cisco UC and contact center solutions). I also noted that the Cisco and Microsoft UC solutions have many architectural similarities. Further, I shared that to be successful either solution must be aligned with business objectives, requires an experienced team and needs to include training and ongoing usage and adoption monitoring.

I concluded my opening remarks by presenting and discussing a table giving guidance on when organizations may choose each respective solution:


You might choose Microsoft Lync if...

You might choose Cisco if...

The apps/server team is running the show

The telecom group is running the show

Plan to use more softphones than IP sets

You really just want/need voice

You want to provide great remote support

Contact center is core to your business (but in which case you might choose Avaya or Interactive Intelligence!)

Other business partners use Lync (and you plan to federate)

You have large investments in Cisco telepresence rooms/units

You want to integrate more easily/strongly with other Microsoft technologies

You are a small business with fewer than 100 people



Tom presented a number of oft-repeated Cisco arguments, many of which were first espoused on a Cisco micro-site launched to coincide with the start of the first Lync Conference earlier this year.

According to Tom...

  1. Microsoft Lync solutions are difficult to support;
  2. Cisco UC solutions are more "open" and more standards-based; and,
  3. Cisco solutions integrate better with HD video.

Additionally, Tom also criticized (Microsoft) Skype as a solution not ready for business and seemed to suggest that somehow because the Lync product was now under the Skype Division led by Tony Bates this may somehow diminish the capabilities of Lync. I didn't really understand this last argument; perhaps I misunderstood it (?). I would, however, like to address the other three points Tom raised.

Question: Is Lync more difficult to support?

Every vendor wants you to buy most of what you need from them. This is called "maximizing wallet share" and it is something that sales teams track for key accounts.

For Cisco this means encouraging customers to buy all their network gear and UC applications from Cisco. As part of this approach, Cisco suggests that having one vendor for your network, servers and UC applications will simplify support.

Microsoft instead suggests to customers that acquiring your business software (Office, Exchange, SharePoint, Lync, etc.) from one vendor simplifies support.

Both Cisco and Microsoft are right and they are both wrong. They are right that fewer vendors means less process, in terms of purchasing, and likely means better product integration. They are both wrong in suggesting that integrating products, even from the same vendor, is straightforward. Cisco is specifically wrong in suggesting that running a Cisco UC solution on top of a Cisco network is any easier than running a Microsoft Lync UC solution on top of a Cisco network. An effective UC solution takes effort and expertise regardless of the selected network or application vendor.

Purchasing SMARTnet support from Cisco is likely to cover more solution components than software support from Microsoft. Though, even SMARTnet will not deal with integration issues to other applications such as Office or SharePoint or telecom issues dealing with PRIs or SIP trunks.

Because Microsoft acts as a "software only company" in terms of Lync, most Lync implementations are handled by systems integrators; this is the Lync model. As such, most of these systems integrators offer post-implementation support that covers all of the solution components.

Microsoft has established a Lync Certified Support Partner program but at present it is far less mature than the Cisco SMARTnet program. In general, a Cisco UC solution may be somewhat easier to support as compared to a Microsoft UC solution; however, given the scope and number of integration points for most UC solutions, supporting either is not a simple undertaking.

The more important question: What support model is best for your organization and what will the costs for this support be?

Regardless of which UC solution you choose, you will need to work with multiple vendors. If you choose Cisco for UC then you will need to deal with integration to non-Cisco applications. If you choose a Microsoft Lync solution then you will need to deal with supporting non-Microsoft hardware.

Question: Is Cisco More "Open" and More Standards-Based?

Every vendor claims to support open standards...

  • From ShoreTel's website: "ShoreTel's support of open standards offers customers the flexibility to integrate leading business process applications with their business telephone systems."
  • From Avaya website: "Because our solutions are based on open standards, our customers can decide what works best for them."
  • From "Why Mitel" brochure: "Through a commitment to open standards and interoperability, Mitel Networks allows enterprises to migrate with confidence, knowing that they will always have a way forward and not be locked into end-to-end proprietary solutions."
  • From Cisco website: "Cisco engineers have led the development of Internet Protocol (IP) networking technologies and contributed to industry open standards organizations. The company advocates open standards, since they allow customers to adopt new technologies with confidence."
  • From Microsoft Lync website: "Lync uses open standards including H.264 SVC to provide a high-quality video experience on a wide range of devices."

...and then every vendor develops proprietary protocols in order to enhance the functionality of their products and provide a better experience and advantage compared to the competition.

In my experience, a commitment to "open standards" provides little or no measurable business benefit. Being more "open" or more "standards-based" does not directly impact or provide value to customers.

Related specifically to Cisco: Cisco phones have long used "skinny" SCCP a proprietary protocol to communicate between phones and the Cisco Unified Communication Server (CUCM, a.k.a. Call Manager). Enhanced Interior Gateway Routing Protocol (EIGRP) is Cisco's proprietary routing protocol (Although earlier in 2013 Cisco announced plans to transform EIGRP into an open standard, sort of.) CDP is a proprietary protocol developed by Cisco to share information between directly connected Cisco equipment.

Related to Microsoft Lync: Lync endpoints use the proprietary protocol. Microsoft has extended the SIP protocol to provide additional functionality. In a Lync deployment the mediation server is responsible for transcoding media and signaling streams between Lync and external connections.

It is impractical for anyone to rate whether Cisco or Microsoft is more "open;" and, more importantly, in terms of business outcomes, it does not matter.

The integration reality: I was at a client last week that had invested in high-end Cisco HD endpoints. Sadly, for a most recent "town hall" meeting they opted to simply purchase an inexpensive HD web camera and connect it to hosted WebEx because they could not integrate their hosted Cisco WebEx with their Cisco meeting room endpoints.

I provide this example not to criticize Cisco but rather to illustrate that integrating different platforms, even from the same vendor, can be challenging. Unifying your communications can provide benefits but you need to make sure you are integrating the right things and that the effort associated with this integration is aligned with your business objectives.

The more important questions: Regardless of whether a solution uses "open" or "proprietary" standards, does the solution meet your specific business requirements? Do the protocols of the selected solution allow integration with the other systems you already have in place?

Question: Does Cisco UC better Integrate with HD Video?

Here, I concede that Tom is correct. Cisco does provide a much wider range of video endpoint solutions as compared to Lync.

Lync 2013 does support HD video up to 1920 x 1024 at 30 frames per second, provided the endpoint has sufficient processing power to code and decode the media stream. Lync also supports unique video endpoints such as the 360-degree view provided by the Polycom CX5000, CX5100 or CX5500 "Roundtable" devices. And with Lync 2013, there is now support for Lync Room Systems (LRS), which are complete, "plug and play", attractively priced ($20K - $40K), room-based conferencing units available from SMART, Crestron, Lifesize and Polycom. For example, a SMART LRS system designed for a large room (16 people, 300 sq. ft. plus) that includes two 70" screens retails for $30K.

However, even with the new Lync room systems, if your requirements warrant spending $200K+ on a full telepresence room then Cisco provides options Lync currently does not.

The more important question: Does your organization need high-end video? During the Interop session I asked for the audience members who regularly used video to raise their hands. Only three or four hands went up.

There are certainly some very specific use cases that require and can benefit from HD video including remote healthcare or telemedicine. However, for most workers collaborating on content (i.e. web conferencing) is far more useful than video and even the few that require video do not often require high-end, expensive, room-based video; desktop video provided by either Lync or Cisco Jabber is sufficient.


After our session, Tom and I spent some time at the Cisco booth. Tom and the Cisco team demonstrated some very powerful real-time adaptive routing solutions that allow organizations to leverage internet connections to augment traditional service provider connections (such as MPLS).

These are impressive Cisco networking technologies. I appreciated Tom and the Cisco team taking the time to demonstrate these to me. I do think that these technologies will assist the deployment of either a Cisco or Microsoft UC solution.

Postscript: Cisco Collaboration Summit

I have often written and tweeted that UC vendors should focus on how their solutions meet customer requirements as opposed to "bashing" the competition. Because of the "debate" format at Interop, Tom was forced into more of the "anti-Lync" stance.

Given this, I do need to acknowledge that last week Cisco held their Collaboration Summit in Boca Raton, Florida and I was pleased to see Cisco, with Rowan Trollope leading the charge, focusing clearly and concisely on the capabilities and benefits of their new product offerings/versions:

  • Jabber Guest providing the ability for participants outside your organization to collaborate. (When available this will provide similar capabilities as does the Lync Web App allowing any external participant with a browser to join your meetings; note licensing models seem to vary with Cisco requiring a license for a maximum number of concurrent external participants.)
  • Cisco Expressway® an edge architecture that allows remote users to connect over TLS without a VPN connection. (This will allow Cisco UC users to connect as easily as Lync users have always been able to.)
  • Improved centralization of server/service administration through Cisco Prime Collaboration®.

(I would suggest that the approach and messaging at last week's Cisco Collaboration Summit was a huge improvement as compared to the ill-timed and poorly executed "pre-emptive" Cisco blog strike during the February 2013 Lync Conference.)

And in Conclusion...

To conclude, both Microsoft Lync and Cisco Jabber/Webex are strong communication and collaboration solutions and most organizations would do well to implement either. That being said, each solution should be evaluated against the unique documented, prioritized requirements of a specific organization. Sometimes Microsoft will be a better fit and sometimes it will be Cisco. To suggest there is one solution that is always "best" is to believe too much of the marketing hype.

I want to thank Tom Doria for taking the time to share his insights with me before, during and after our Interop session. In my experience, both the Cisco UC and Microsoft Lync solutions can be successful. I am most interested in matching the right solution to a specific organization as opposed to "bashing" the competition. What has been your experience? Comment below or follow me and engage via twitter: @kkieller.

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Also on on the Cisco Collaboration Summit:



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