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The PBX is Dead! Long Live the PBX!

Well, maybe the PBX term is dead. Maybe, going forward, we will be referring to the platforms delivering PBX functionality as “communications systems” or “UC solutions” or something else.  But it is just funny how industry pundits frequently seek a sensational effect by using strong terms like “death” and “extinction” to refer to certain aspects of technology evolution. The reality is – market trends take a long time to mature and legacy technologies just don’t disappear over night. We were quick to “bury” the TDM PBX some ten years ago, but TDM line shipments, lo and behold, account for an impressive 25% of total line shipments today.

I was reading my colleague Alaa Saayed’s upcoming study World Enterprise Telephony Platform and Endpoint Markets and the following excerpt made me smile so I thought I would share it here.

•Just like in 2009 many observers prematurely pronounced the death of IP desktop phones, today, the same group of people is predicting the impending death of premises-based telephony platforms.

•Our findings show that the premises-based telephony platform market is still very much alive and displaying sizeable growth rates in terms of both shipments and revenue across the world.

•Although Frost & Sullivan recognizes the relentless advancements in communication technologies that are, today, allowing businesses to choose from multiple deployment and architectural options for enterprise telephony, including hosted and cloud-based technologies, premises-based solutions are still the most popular and dominant type of architecture among businesses of all sizes and verticals. The unfamiliarity with other technologies, the uncertainty about the benefits offered by the new delivery models, and the potential risks associated with decommissioning and/or replacing existing solutions are some of the main reasons why businesses continue to choose premises-based systems.

•Instead of the death of the premises-based telephony platform market, Frost & Sullivan prefers to talk about the death of the “PBX” terminology and the continuous transformation of communications architectures. In fact, since the introduction of enterprise IP telephony technologies around a decade ago, the traditional PBX platform has been completely re-designed, enhanced and re-purposed for the ultimate benefit of the customer. The multiple “boxes” required to support an enterprise-grade communications architecture in the past have been condensed into a smaller number of multi-purpose servers. The market has shifted from hardware-centric solutions to software-based, application-centric solutions. The call-control component of the PBX (practically, the heart of the PBX) has been extracted, in many cases,  and modified into a software application that can run on any third-party standard servers or treated as a virtualized application in a virtualized data-center environment. Finally, the IP PBX functionality is increasingly becoming just one of several applications in a comprehensive unified communications solution/bundle.

•While all these technological advancements have certainly transformed the communications marketplace, from large, isolated, proprietary cabinets to easily distributable low-cost, space-efficient, rack-mountable chassis equipment (servers for call control and media gateways for port interfaces), this evolution should not be misconstrued as the death of enterprise premises-based telephony.

The study will be published within the next few weeks on Frost & Sullivan’s Enterprise Communications portal.

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Siemens (Finally) Launches a Cloud UC Service

 Siemens Enterprise Communications has launched a new cloud communications solution. Leveraging SIP, open standards and its highly scalable softswitch-based OpenScape suite, it is looking to provide partners and customers with more flexible deployment options. The cloud solution includes virtualized, multi-tenant versions of Siemens’ OpenScape Voice, OpenScape UC and OpenScape Web Collaboration software, hosted in four geo-redundant data centers. The service features top-notch availability, survivability, governance and data privacy features, including:

  • Highest availability, TIA-942 class data center, voice redundancy, secure endpoints
  • Edge survivability option, local trunking, IPSec VPN, local firewalls, SBC and media server
  • Multi-tier role-based access management, automated management and provisioning, application-level data center protection
  • End-to-end encryption in the cloud, local country data storage, multitenant capability, data protection audits

Cloud-based voice and UC services will be available only through partners, who will handle customer needs assessment, CPE installation, billing, 1st and 2nd level tech support and ongoing equipment maintenance. The service will be first launched in the U.S., Germany and the Netherlands. Initial partners include Black Box in the U.S., mr.net and Telefonbau Schneider in Germany, and Televersal, ICT Trends Group and onecentral in the Netherlands.

The cloud solution is considered optimal for organizations with about 350 to 1,000 users, with a need for highly packaged, tightly integrated solutions. Users can choose from a variety of features and capabilities grouped in Base Packs and Booster Packs. The estimated end-user list pricing ranges between $5 and $30 per seat per month, based on required functionality.

What I like about this announcement:

Siemens has finally launched a cloud solution – something it started exploring about two years ago by demonstrating a proof of concept with Amazon’s EC infrastructure. With the incredible (I think, almost unreasonable) amount of hype surrounding cloud technologies and the cloud business model, it was about time for Siemens to finally bring this effort to fruition. I have to agree that there is a group of customers out there that would indeed appreciate the opportunity to outsource its communications infrastructure to avoid CAPEX, focus on core competencies or gain access to superior technologies and expertise. This customer segment would remain out of reach for Siemens, unless it finds an appropriate role for itself in the hosted/cloud-based communications marketplace.

It should be noted that Siemens has had a multi-tenant voice platform for years and some service providers such as Postrack and Engage have been using it to deliver services to end users just like others use BroadSoft’s or Metaswitch’s platforms. Other vendors such as Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco and Mitel have also deployed multi-tenant communication managers with service provider partners.

The new approach has significant advantages, however. It gives Siemens continued control over the platform and its capabilities. But more importantly, it empowers partners that cannot or do not wish to manage their own data centers to deliver services using Siemens’ feature-rich and highly scalable platform. Siemens allows partners to use its brand, co-market or white label their cloud services. This is an opportunity for them to gain differentiation as well as new recurring revenue streams. This model provides a fast and economical entry point for small MSPs and VARs to become hosted service providers. It is noteworthy that Siemens announces the new solution along with six partners already lined up.

Issues that Siemens will need to address:

Siemens is not alone in this market. Other telephony vendors are experimenting with new delivery models as well. For example, Mitel offers the Mitel Anywhere service, which it sells directly to business customers. Now it is exploring opportunities with data center providers such as Host.net and Hosting.com, which can host the platform on behalf of small MSPs and VARs. Siemens and other vendors will need to find ways to differentiate or be fast to market with the right partnerships while the market is still nascent and untapped.

 More importantly, this new delivery model is still unproven and it is not clear how all market participants in the value chain will reposition themselves for competition in the evolving marketplace. Will the MSPs and VARs be successful in penetrating the CPE customer base? Will the vendors be able to successfully manage their channels to ensure customer satisfaction and optimal benefits from the cloud services? How will carriers be involved to ensure proper bandwidth and QoS management – critical elements for real-time communications services delivered over the WAN? Who will manage the carrier relationship? How will the hosted IP PBX and UC solutions be aligned with SIP trunking and IP VPN services to provide superior benefits to multi-site organizations?

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Mitel Redefines Hosted Communications

 The Hosted IP Communications Market

I am currently updating Frost & Sullivan’s North American Hosted IP Telephony and UC Services study. This is one of my favorite enterprise communications markets and I have tracked it closely over the past nine years. To many that may sound unbelievable as hosted IP PBX and UC services have only recently gained popularity, boosted by the cloud hype.

Over the years, hosted communications services have evolved and matured – both on the platform/technology side and the business model side. BroadSoft has gobbled up two of its original competitors – VocalData (aka Tekelec, aka GenBand) and Sylantro; softswitch vendors such as Sonus and Metaswitch have more aggressively pursued feature-rich services; Nortel’s carrier group has been acquired by GenBand; and a host of PBX vendors have launched various hosted/cloud platforms. Fortunately for these vendors, service providers are becoming increasingly interested in hosted IP communications as traditional voice loses ground to mobile and consumer PC-based communications. On the demand side, economic factors coupled with greater awareness of the benefits of hosted communications are making enterprise decision makers more open to discussing outsourcing alternatives.

I will delve deeper into market trends, market size and competitive factors when I complete my research. In this article, I would like to focus on Mitel and its portfolio of hosted solutions. As always, Mitel is at the forefront of technology development, but this time also venturing with some new delivery models.

Mitel MICD

For about a year now, Mitel has been offering a multi-tenant platform – the Multi-Instance Communications Director (MICD). This solution is targeted at service providers looking to brand their own hosted IP communications services and provide all billing and management support. MICD is a high-density platform that competes directly with the more “traditional” hosted IP telephony platforms (such as BroadSoft’s) and appears best suited for SMBs looking for standard PBX functionality, along with voicemail, twinning and basic conferencing. Its architecture makes it more flexible than most other hosted platforms, however, enabling service providers to deliver more distinct sets of capabilities to each customer, resembling single-tenant hosted PBX implementations.

MICD has so far found appeal with CLECs, traditional VARs, as well as for in-building multi-tenant deployments. Service providers can purchase either perpetual licenses or a licensing subscription. Mitel claims about 15 service provider customers globally.

Virtual MCD

Mitel has been one of the first communications vendors to offer a virtualized solution – Virtual Mitel Communications Director (MCD). It is available to service providers looking to target a slightly different customer base – typically larger businesses with hybrid (hosted and premises-based) environments. Distributed organizations typically have different needs across their geographically dispersed sites. While larger locations favor premises-based implementations, smaller remote sites are more suited for hosted services. Virtual MCD allows service providers to deliver highly customized communications solutions to businesses that require integrations with premises-based platforms and databases. For service providers, the virtual MCD architecture is comparable to MICD in terms of implementation and management costs. It is less scalable, but delivers some superior features and functionalities, such as virtualized contact center, web conferencing and UC capabilities.

Virtual MCD has been commercially available for approximately one year and, to date, Mitel has mostly marketed it, directly and through its channel, to the traditional CPE base. More recently, it has enabled hosted providers to also take advantage of this cloud-based offering. Resellers can use this solution to generate additional revenues and differentiate, leveraging their existing customer relationships, knowledge of customer CPE infrastructure and close familiarity with Mitel’s portfolio.

Mitel Anywhere

For a little over two months now, Mitel has been offering yet another hosted alternative – Mitel Anywhere. With this solution, Mitel steps in as the communications service provider hosting the MICD platform in its own data center. Mitel recognizes that, while demand for hosted communications is growing, a lot of the service providers are not equipped to host advanced communications infrastructures. Mitel has identified the SMB customer segment up to 100 users as the sweet spot for Mitel Anywhere services. It can, however, meet the demand of larger, distributed organizations using Virtual MCD.

Mitel plans to add some advanced capabilities such as contact center ACD to its suite of messaging and audio and web conferencing apps currently available on the platform. Eventually, the full Unified Communicator Advanced capabilities are likely to become part of the offering.

Datacenter Accreditation for Cloud-based Communications Services

On February 7th, Mitel announced a new initiative. The Virtualized Datacenter Accreditation program is targeted at datacenters, and Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), and Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) providers. The program is intended to certify partners’ infrastructure capabilities required to support Mitel voice and UC applications. Mitel announced three certified IaaS providers: Artisan Infrastructure, Host.net, and Hosting.com, who intend to support or offer hosted voice and UC solutions to the market in the coming months based on Mitel cloud-ready software.

Mitel acknowledges that there are many partners who wish to be between an agent and a service provider. They have the capabilities to interface directly with end users and design and market hosted communications to them, but are not well equipped to manage a datacenter or a sophisticated communications platform with the required billing and management infrastructure and processes. By enabling IaaS and PaaS providers to deliver the appropriate infrastructure to VARs and managed services providers (MSPs), Mitel effectively creates a new business model that leverages the specific skills and capabilities of different providers to extend the reach of advanced communications to a larger number of market participants.

Conclusion

The value chain in the communications marketplace is likely to disintegrate further as vendors and service providers choose whether to develop technologies, manage datacenter infrastructure and/or communications platforms (now increasingly part of virtual datacenter environments), or specialize in marketing, sales and customer relationship management. New business models will emerge and market participants will have to find the formula that best works for them.

Mitel has been fast to market with its hosted/cloud initiatives and is now offering some appealing deployment options to its partners and business customers. It is likely to face competition from other carrier and traditionally CPE vendors pursuing similar strategies. For example, BroadSoft has a cloud service delivered out of its own datacenter in beta trials and claims overwhelming interest from the service provider community. Microsoft is likley to launch a multi-tenant VoIP capability on its Lync platform in the future, even though it has so far declined to support service providers in customizing Lync for hosted voice. Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco and Siemens are developing technologies and strategies for the cloud market as well. As the market evolves, functionality, partner relationships and financial viability will represent key success factors.

WebRTC

A Fresh Look at UC

A few days ago, I had the pleasure to visit Aastra’s Concord, ON, headquarters and to meet again with Tony Shen, Aastra’s Co-CEO, President and COO. I must admit, he is quite different from other executives I interact with! His practical, down-to-earth talk is in complete contrast with the inflated marketing bravado of most other high-ranking individuals in the industry.

I also enjoyed listening to Jason Andersson, Head of Aastra’s Center of Excellence for Applications, brief me about Aastra’s current UC strategy and portfolio using Aastra’s ViPr videoconferencing technology.  Thank you, Jason, for going back to the office at 9 pm Swedish time to do this video call for me! I have to say video really adds to the quality of the conversation. It helps establish a rapport with the other participants and be more productive. Although I found the ViPr quite good, the Aastra folks hinted at the upcoming launch of a next-gen product that will help bring better and much more affordable video to the mass market.

So where does Aastra stand today in the global communications market? According to our recent research, in 2009, Aastra was among the top 6 market participants in terms of total PBX and IP PBX line shipments and revenues and IP desktop phone shipments. It has a large installed base it can leverage for future growth. It is also on track to gradually consolidate and synchronize its multiple product lines over the next couple of years. But how does it differentiate? What does it do better than its competitors?

It is tempting to quote Shen who addressed the above questions by saying “We all sell sugar,” referring to the fact that communications have become a commodity, adding “we are just easier to do business with.” He strongly believes that Aastra’s main competitive advantage is in delivering technologies tailored to local customer needs and its ability to use local resources who speak the language and best understand the peculiarities of the specific market. “The French buy French”, Shen elaborated, pointing to one reason why Aastra is doing so well in France, whereas Ericsson before couldn’t (and where U.S. vendors are struggling, too).

Aastra has also adopted a very pragmatic approach to UC. While the rest of the market has gotten a little carried away with the desktop-centric approach spearheaded by Microsoft (as it best serves its purposes), Shen and his team see little demand for soft clients. As I have indicated in other blog posts and presentations, I also think it will take a few years for soft clients to populate the marketplace and become a more commonly used interface. It will not be until customers deploy a larger number of advanced communications and collaboration applications such as IM, presence and conferencing, that they will see the value in the unified desktop client. For most users, a basic softphone provides little more than a convenient alternative when travelling. Yet, Aastra is looking to keep up with its competitors and potential customer demand and will soon be launching InTouch Plus, an advanced client that can be used both for voice and IM. So, if you are looking for an OCS-like experience and you believe in convergence at the desktop – Aastra will have a solution for you later this year.

Aastra sees greater potential in mobility. In fact, according to Shen’s definition, UC is more about integrating corporate and mobile voice communications, than it is about the desktop client. Aastra offers both mobile PBX extensions and a solid portfolio of VoWLAN and DECT capabilities, which can meet both outdoor and indoor mobility requirements. Although Frost & Sullivan’s definition of UC is quite client-centric as well, I have to agree that mobile smartphones have a greater potential than desktop clients in replacing the desktop phone as a primary communications device.

Aastra is also one of the few telephony vendors heavily promoting the voice interface. I thought voice navigation remained somewhat confined to the IVR and auto attendant space. Shen, however, gave me some interesting examples of his vision for speech, which included voice navigation of calendars and folders. When I think of the time I waste looking for documents, this sounds like a life-saver to me. Also, the ability to schedule a meeting over the phone, speaking commands such as “book me a meeting with Joe at 2 pm on July 3rd” may be where the market is going next.

Aastra is also offering some interesting collaboration capabilities with its recently launched InReach social networking software. It enables employees to create various interest or project groups where they can post comments (“micro-blogs”) and share files and ideas. This software will eventually become integrated with InTouch Plus, the advanced UC client, so users can IM each other, see status updates and pictures, etc.

Although it feels like Aastra is lacking that single defining characteristic that will differentiate it in the marketplace – such as Microsoft’s message around software-based communications or Cisco’s one-stop-shop approach, for example – it may very well be that Shen and his team have identified a successful growth formula that is not based so much on marketing, but on practical, customer-centric strategies. In the SMB market especially, its local approach is far more important than technology superiority or marketing clout. Of course, this is not to say that Aastra’s technologies are not competitive, it is just to reinforce Shen’s pragmatic view of the commoditization of communications.

Shen stated that Aastra seeks to evolve its portfolio around four main tenets: the voice interface, mobility, video and security. Although I believe these have a very different value for different users, they seem like potential growth opportunities and differentiators for Aastra.

In my opinion, Aastra’s open, standards-based approach and ability to integrate its endpoints and applications with other vendors’ technologies could be its ultimate key to success. Going forward, an accelerated portfolio harmonization roadmap and a stronger message around the benefits it can deliver to larger businesses with disparate, multi-vendor environments could help it maintain and grow its market share in the communications marketplace.

Watch out for Sharks in Turbulent Water

                   

It has certainly been anticipated that the recession would force telecommunication markets (not unlike other industry sectors) into further consolidation. The enterprise telephony space, for example, has long been struggling with slowing revenue growth, limited differentiation opportunities and rising competition from non-traditional vendors such as open-source telephony providers, Microsoft, Skype, mobile carriers (somewhat indirectly, through increasing usage of mobile phones for business purposes), you name it.

 

Although we have no sufficient evidence on what is going to happen with Nortel, we can speculate based on recent news about M&A negotiations taking place and some general marketplace analysis.

 

At this stage, it just does not seem likely that Nortel is going to make it through bankruptcy protection intact. Rumors that Avaya and Siemens (probably among several others) are in acquisition talks with Nortel for its enterprise business unit should not be surprising. In tough economic times, as demand shrinks, there is no space for too many similar vendors. Also, acquisition costs are at an all-time low, so if anyone is striving for market share growth, this is the time to leapfrog ahead of the competition with an acquisition rather than waiting for slower organic growth.

 

Nortel’s enterprise business is attractive for several reasons. Nortel has some great telephony, messaging and UC technologies, leading contact center solutions, a large installed base and a loyal channel. Yet, the value of this business to its different competitors will not be the same.

 

With Siemens Enterprise now financially more stable with the Siemens AG and Gores Group joint venture, it is focused on growth and market expansion. A potential acquisition of Nortel’s enterprise unit could provide it with an immediate access to a North American channel and customer base. Further, from a UC point of view, there are opportunities for eventual synergies. For example, both vendors have partnerships with Microsoft for the delivery of unified communications solutions to business customers. A potential merger will position the new entity very competitively in the enterprise communications marketplace.

 

Some industry pundits claim Siemens and Nortel have similar technologies; yet, in my opinion, there will be major redundancies as well (e.g. MCS vs OpenScape, large-business telephony platforms, etc.). One of the most significant advantages is Siemens’ open standards approach which allows it to integrate with multi-vendor IM/UC and telephony environments. Finally, both vendors have been on track to become “services” companies for some time now, which could help the new entity more easily align resources under a common vision and consolidate business operations.

 

Avaya could also benefit from a potential acquisition of Nortel’s enterprise unit as it will emerge as the undisputed North American telephony leader, with a compelling global market share and a significant advantage in the SMB space. The two companies are believed to have a similar customer base described as fairly “risk-averse”, i.e. inclined to work with incumbent vendors with a proven track record of delivering reliable enterprise telephony solutions. Also, Avaya has committed to expanding its channel partnerships and further shifting sales towards a more indirect model, and access to Nortel’s partner base can help accelerate this trend. Finally, Avaya can thus get a hold of some of Nortel’s more advanced UC technologies such as MCS and other solutions already interoperable with Microsoft’s UC portfolio, which will position it even more competitively in the evolving UC space. Needless to say, there will be various portfolio integration challenges and redundancies as well.

 

Although Alcatel-Lucent is not mentioned to be in any active acquisition talks with Nortel, no doubt, it could also benefit from the opportunity to grow its North American presence leveraging Nortel’s customer base and channels. It could also use Nortel’s technologies to enhance its UC portfolio, which at present, is somewhat less complete than those of its telephony competitors.

 

Cisco, on the other hand, as stated in other commentaries in the press, may really consider a potential acquisition less beneficial given its proprietary technology approach and anticipated greater difficulty in integrating Nortel’s technologies into its portfolio. It should be noted, however, that Nortel’s contact center solutions could greatly enhance Cisco’s enterprise portfolio as it is somewhat behind its competitors in that market segment.

 

There are others that could perceive benefits in acquiring Nortel’s enterprise business: Aastra, Microsoft, NEC, etc. Yet, with no evidence of actual activity taking place, I would hate to go into pure speculation at this point.

 

I will postpone the discussion of other potential advantages and disadvantages of the above scenarios until an acquisition actually takes place. We should not exclude the possibility of a non-telephony vendor acquiring Nortel’s enterprise business. Let’s not forget, however, that there is no vendor or financial institution that is not experiencing some difficulties today. Therefore, a potential acquisition will have to be very carefully considered and tightly aligned with the vision and strategy of the acquiring entity.

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