Alcatel-Lucent Takes a Contextual Route with Rapport

I’m a fan of the notion that the future of communications, in fact of applications, is contextual services.  I’ve used that term to describe applications/services delivered to users/workers in part or whole based on their geographic, social, or other context.  It’s not just a matter of answering a question, but a matter of understanding that question in context and providing a contextually reasonable response.

What’s good for services overall should be good for a given service, or for a framework to support multiple services, including the service of collaboration.  Alcatel-Lucent seems to believe that because they’ve announced a new cloud-based communications platform called Rapport.  They use the term “contextual” in describing it, and they’re right not only with respect to how Rapport works but also how it fits in an evolving network/IT industry.

At a high level, Rapport is a set of tools that integrate communications services into existing applications, documents, or experiences.  Rapport creates a kind of unified communications domain by linking PBX and IP network assets into one pool.  This is done with what Alcatel-Lucent calls “Global Routing”, a layer below “Session Control”.  Open Communications and Collaboration builds on this, and above that you’d have applications like Contact Center, which Alcatel-Lucent provides.

In implementation, it’s probably fair to simplify Rapport as being a tool set to create what’s effectively a UCC-platform-as-a-service framework that’s very extensible both in terms of what it covers and in terms of what it does or can do.  This toolkit can be run in a cloud platform by an enterprise or, I assume, a cloud provider who wants to build services based on it.  It could also be offered as an NFV service set to network operators, which is a nice slant on the way relationships between services and applications should be developed.

To make Rapport work, Alcatel-Lucent has re-architected IMS to be friendlier to web-style application development and more accommodating to application models other than the pure 3GPP vision.  IMS gives Rapport the ability to manage enterprise mobility and session continuity both for mobile devices (BYOD) and for more traditional ones, including handsets and computers.  It’s not the first time that someone has tried to make IMS into something bigger and better, but it may be the most relevant given overall trends in mobility both for workers and consumers.

The notion of creating a UCCPaaS that’s portable across virtually any cloud-suitable platform and can be used both by enterprises and service providers is the greatest strength of Rapport.  This is a good idea in today’s world, where it’s clear that buyers of all sizes want as-a-service offerings but may also want in-house hosting either as an alternative or perhaps as an endgame with –aaS as the on-ramp.

The IMS linkage may also be a good idea.  Mobility management is mobility management, whether you depend on 3/4G or WiFi and it’s logical to use what’s proven in the space, particularly when you’re expecting to support the same handsets for enterprise WiFi mobility and cellular mobility.  That’s even true for enterprises, but it’s most compelling for the operators.

The linkage with NFV is also very smart.  Ultimately NFV has to boost operator revenues to deploy optimally, and in many cases perhaps to deploy at all.  There are many different directions operators could take “new services” but they’d certainly be most comfortable with something that involved “communications” in a more traditional sense.  Such an offering would also likely be more credible to buyers.  Rapport is a platform to fulfill the revenue-side NFV benefit case, and if its own APIs are used to enhance service features and even build new offerings, it could be a complete near-term revenue driver.

The biggest upside for Alcatel-Lucent would be that operators started with a UCC-like service and built other service offerings outward from that.  This would create a kind of service ecosystem within NFV, and also perhaps establish the value of having a PaaS substrate to NFV that takes care of some of the messy business of adapting applications to the ETSI model.  I like a more generalized model-driven approach to NFV adaptation myself, but an expansion of Rapport could still be helpful in cutting down on development and also standardizing management practices.

Of course, there are downsides.  My qualifier on IMS (it “may also be a good idea”) is deliberate.  A lot of people will see the IMS dimension as an attempt to validate something Alcatel-Lucent already has and is good at.  Some may even see an IMS link as a chain of the very kind Alcatel-Lucent says Rapport is supposed to break, a tie to the past.  Even if Alcatel-Lucent’s motives were entirely unselfish here, they’ll have to address a skeptical crowd and prove their IMS inclusion is more than self-validation.

The other issue is that while you could do a lot with Rapport, somebody is still going to have to do something more than that provided in the initial suite.  Call center is an important application but it’s not the only one.  I’d have suggested that Alcatel-Lucent bring out at least two applications for Rapport to show that it’s not a one-trick pony.  Three would be better, particularly if one was an open-source application that exploited Rapport’s APIs in the cloud.  That could serve as a model for others to develop even more stuff.

APIs are tricky things on which to base a product offering.  Alcatel-Lucent should know that given that it’s tried to build a service on APIs before with less than spectacular results.  Given that HP is a partner on the enterprise side of Rapport, Alcatel-Lucent should consider playing some ball with those guys to quickly build an inventory of Rapport applications.  That would make the platform more credible.

But such an HP initiative exposes a potential issue.  Rapport for operators is explicitly a cloud offering suitable for use with any NFV platform, but it’s also available for Alcatel-Lucent’s CloudBand.  HP’s OpenNFV is also an NFV platform, a competitor to CloudBand.  In fact, the two vendors have the two most credible large-vendor NFV approaches, but HP has servers and you need servers to have clouds.  With Nokia waiting in the wings, it will be interesting to see how the competition between these two NFV platforms plays out.