Thursday, October 14, 2010

Inside the Unified Communications Interoperability Forum (UCIF)

First UCIF Face-to-Face Meeting

UCIF members met for the first time face-to-face during IT EXPO in Los Angeles last week. I had four presentations at IT EXPO and was in town, so I had the opportunity to meet key people and get an overview of the activities in UCIF. Polycom is a founding member of the forum, and actively participates in working groups along with Microsoft, Logitech/LifeSize, and other member companies.

36 people gathered in the LA Convention Center for series of meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday, while up to 22 people joined online. Recruitment of additional members is ongoing, so if your company would like to join, let me know.

UCIF Working Groups

The meeting included sessions of the active UCIF groups. Each UCIF group starts as a Study Group (similar to a BOF in IETF) which studies certain issue, and develops a proposal for charter. Once the charter is approved by the UCIF board, the group becomes a Task Group. On a high level, UCIF has three WGs: Technical WG, Test & Certification WG, and Marketing WG. Within the Technical WG, there are currently three Task Groups (USB Audio Task Group, Webcam Task Group, and H.264 Profile Task Group), and three Study Groups (Voice Study Group, Instant Messaging and Presence Study Group, and Provisioning Study Group).

I was able to attend few of the groups’ sessions, and got the following understanding of where UCIF is going. Based on the trend towards simplifying the infrastructure for video (and preparing it for cloud deployments), Scalable Video Coding is the focus of the H.264 Profile Task Group. The group will create an H.264 SVC profile to ensure that video encoders and decoders interoperate. The group will not address SVC description in SDP, transport via RTP, etc., since there is already work on these topics at IETF.

SVC moves the complexity from the infrastructure to the edges of the network, i.e. in the endpoints. As video soft client proliferation is expected to lead to mass deployment of video, solutions are needed to free the computer CPU from the video processing work. Current SVC implementations run on high-end computers and consume a lot of their performance impacting other applications; therefore, looking for ways to free the CPU is an honorable task.

The UCIF Webcam Task Group is focusing on compressing video in the webcam, and defining the interface between webcam and video soft client application. Since webcams are usually connected to the computer via USB, the USB Video Class Specification V1.1 can be used as baseline but H.264 SVC configuration requires exchange of additional parameters. The specification must also allow for multiplexing video streams on single USB interface while keeping the interface simple for the client.

Provisioning of endpoints is critical in multi-vendor environments where the configuration server may come from one vendor while the endpoint comes from another. Most recently, the SIP Forum set out to define a profile and recommendations for User Agent configuration. The result of this work was a contribution in IETF that describes a mechanism for server discovery using existing standards. The SIP Forum, however, did not address the configuration data model/schema. At its meeting, the UCIF Provisioning Study Group discussed the gap between its charter and the work done in the SIP Forum. There does not seem to be a good reason for UCIF to define yet another mechanism for discovery for SIP User Agents when both SIP Forum and IETF have defined mechanisms. Focusing on the format for the configuration data (data model/schema) makes sense and so does creating a test and certification around the provisioning interface. Several previous attempts at IETF to define a schema can be used as a starting point for the UCIF Provisioning SG.

The UCIF Provisioning Group is still a Study Group but a charter is almost done and nothing should stay in the way for the group to become Task Group very soon. Polycom is obviously very interested in this work, since Polycom endpoints – telephones, video endpoints, etc. – are deployed with dozens of servers. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a standard way of configuring endpoints, no matter what environment the endpoints are deployed in? Another example for the importance of interoperability is deployment of CMA 5000 management application in mixed video endpoint environments. Now management applications have to support multiple configuration methods to support endpoints from Polycom, Tandberg, etc., which is very inefficient and limits scale. The UCIF Provisioning group discussed the use of service announcement via DNS SRV and Bonjour (previously called ‘Rendezvous’). While discovering the provisioning service is important, I think defining the configuration format - possibly an XML file – and transport mechanism – I vote for HTTPS – are important requirements for interoperability.

The Test and Certification Work Group is probably the most important group of all. All working groups are required to create test plans along with creating interop specifications. When a group finishes work, it sends the interop specification and the test plan to the Test and Certification Group, which is responsible for testing and certification of the vendors that pass the test. This promises more structured approach to testing than other test venues such as SuperOp and SIPit.

UCIF and Other Industry Organizations

I had the chance to represent UCIF in several industry panels, and the question that comes up a lot is how UCIF relates to other industry forums, for example, the International Multimedia Telecommunications Consortium (IMTC) and the SIP Forum.

Marc Robins, President of the SIP Forum, and Richard Shockey, chair of SIP Forum’s board, attended the UCIF meeting in L.A., and identified areas of possible cooperation. Founded as a nonprofit in 2000, the SIP Forum includes many of the same companies that participate in UCIF, and focuses on SIP Trunking (based on the SIP Connect specification, now in V1.1), User Agent Configuration, and Fax-Over-IP. UCIF is currently not looking at fax, although surprisingly fax is getting a second wind with mandatory HIPAA requirements that do not allow sending medical test results over email. The work in the SIP Forum’s User Agent Configuration group led to the definition of a mechanism for finding configuration servers but stops short of defining the actual format of configuration files. The UCIF Provisioning Group could take that work to the next level, define formats, create test plans, and certify vendors that comply. The same applies to the SIP trunking work in the SIP Forum: the UCIF Voice Study Group could take the SIP Connect specification, create a test plan, and certify vendors complying with it. I think that if the group focuses on SIP trunking (or more generally on SIP interop), it should not be called Voice Group. While SIP trunks today are defined and used for voice, they will support video once SPs start interconnecting video IP-PBXs through SIP trunks.

With regards to IMTC, I see interest in telepresence interoperability in both IMTC and UCIF. Standardization bodies ITU-T and IETF are also working on the subject. Whatever happens in this area, I expect that any activities in UCIF will include test plans and certification, which is not in the scope for IMTC and standards organizations. Obviously, the challenge with interop test among telepresence systems is the size of these systems, and the difficulties moving them. This leads to the requirement for testing infrastructure to connect UCIF members over the Internet in a test environment that allows for continuous testing.


The true value UCIF brings to the table is the ability to create test specifications, verify, and certify vendor compliance and interoperability. This will finally create an independent seal of approval that is very much missing in UC environments today, and which customers are calling for before committing to Unified Communications.


  1. Stefan and the UCIF community, my question is: So why didn't UCIF start with a "living communications WG or at least a human communications WG"? I get the technical need to standardize but are you truly trying to standardize or jocking for technical/market dominance position?

    It just seems to me that you need to start with a "common unity" (aka "comm on unity" (community)) before you can even begin to work together towards the best solutions. And the best solutions are only best in their simplest form.

  2. Looks like UCIF will be more useful in test/certification/approval processes when interoperability solutions are created rather than helping create them. Currently what value does this approval/certification have?