Before I left for Enterprise Connect this week, I had completed nearly a dozen pre-briefings and tweeted that I expected to see themes including cloud, collaboration, interoperability, mobility, SMB, social, and video. All those topics have been covered and re-covered — and they have often overlapped. As I attended sessions, visited vendors on the floor, and met on-on-one with unified communications and collaboration (UC&C) vendors and service providers, I heard echoes of my late 2008 report, “The Broad Opportunities In Managed Services,” where I highlighted tight credit, rapid technology change, and uncertain business volumes with creating unique opportunities for managed services from onsite management through the then new concept of software-as-a-service (SaaS). This brought cloud and as-a-Service topics to the front of almost every conversation and announcement. Vendors are pursuing this opportunity that we continue to see growing in our surveys, with only 3% of IT buyers in North America and Europe reporting that they currently deploy or manage their unified communications in an as-a-service model; but 23% are interested in doing so in the future.* Vendors from CallTower to AT&T (although neither was at the show) are offering services, and several new cloud announcements were made at the show.

In my discussions with Farooq Muzaffar, Verizon Business vice president of enterprise network and communications solutions, about the company’s UC&CaaS announcement, he talked about the flexibility of the Cisco Hosted Collaboration Solution (HCS) service platform to deliver unique service packages to customers — as well as the company’s ability to bring together network services from Verizon Business and Verizon Wireless to optimize/harmonize experiences for end users delivered from multiple networks and service platforms to various wired and wireless endpoints.

Global Crossing also made an announcement of cloud services — Global-Crossing-Communications-as-a-Service (CaaS). In my discussions with Global Crossing in December as it planned the rollout of the service, I learned that its global network reach and uCommand customer portal, which provides deep access to account and service management capabilities, are on target to address customer requirements head-on.

Mark Straton, SVP of product marketing at Siemens, briefed me on the company’s announcement of new OpenScale Cloud Services, and he stressed the requirement for robust infrastructure (the company runs two pairs of redundant data centers on different continents) and reliable network connectivity. Siemens has built browser-based processes to order, managing these cloud services and delivering the full suite of services — including conferencing and collaboration based on their recent acquisition of FastViewer — to connected users around the world.

In his keynote, Arthur Filip, vice president and general manager of HP's technology consulting business,took cloud in stride, painting it as a logical extension of the hot market trend of the 1970s: mainframe and time-share services from centralized computing platforms. When I spoke to a group of HP leaders including Manfred Arndt, a distinguished UC&C technologist, they highlighted the interest and attraction to managed, hosted, and as-a-service models for all types of collaboration. HP offers a portfolio of HP and partner capabilities that can deliver total cost of ownership (TCO) optimization with reliable delivery of 99.999% availability of services.

When I spoke to Kevin Kennedy, president and CEO of Avaya, about the modular delivery of UC&C components, he highlighted the use of open interfaces (“SIP has come of age”) to enable the creation and assembly of virtualized infrastructure, enabling deployment of private and public cloud deployments of UC&C infrastructure. Kevin announced in his keynote that a hybrid combination of cloud and in-network deployments was his vision for the future where he sees Avaya delivering more than half of products in cloud-ready architectures by 2012 — identifying private versus public clouds, premise versus network, and application integration as key issues yet to be solved.

Joe Burton, Polycom’s chief strategy and technology officer, highlighted the company’s strategic pillars in our discussion, and cloud was the first one. This strategy enables Polycom to more easily deliver to mobile devices and to SMBs when they have service partners (including video-specific services from companies like Glowpoint and network-focused offers from companies like BT) offering exchange and bridging services that enable cross-business video communications to support collaboration.

When I spoke with Barry O’Sullivan at Cisco about endpoint diversity and enterprise control of applications delivery to those endpoints, the discussion quickly turned to enabling partners like Verizon to launch UC&CaaS services that harness and extend the capabilities of Cisco’s entire collaboration portfolio.

Microsoft launched its UC&CaaS offer, Microsoft Office 365, in the fourth quarter last year; but Lync in the cloud only offers on-net point-to-point voice and does not integrate with on-premise Lync deployments that do offer PSTN connectivity, so my discussions with BJ Haberkorn, senior product manager on the Lync team, focused on large on-premise customer deployment at clients like Revlon, LA Fitness, the Columbian National Police, and Marquette University.

Fred Knight, general manager of Enterprise Connect, kicked off the closing session by asking about cloud services, and few of the audience members would raise their hand to indicate they were buying cloud services today There was general agreement on the value to mitigate technology and financial risk, but implementing the integrations with existing hybrid solutions and incorporating business processes and applications are hard tasks to understand and often not a core skill set for today’s buyer.

What does this mean for vendors? Train your channels to deliver seamlessly and train them to sell to buyers who may need to be educated about what is REALLY possible. Many IT users look at cloud offers and all they see is a significant commitment to re-training and re-tooling, as well as retirement of equipment that is not fully depreciated and can’t make the numbers work. Make your solutions interoperate with the existing on-premise infrastructure and the future business application to take advantage of this remarkable opportunity for the entire range of managed services to blossom and grow. Cloud cannot work unless there is proven, reliable interoperability at the network layer and up and down the application stack.

*Source: Enterprise And SMB Networks And Telecommunications Survey, North America And Europe, Q1 2010. Base: 444 North American and European enterprise and SMB telecom and networks decision-makers responsible for unified communications at firms with 20 or more employees.