Cisco aims Smart Business Communications at SMB crowd

Cisco Systems’s SMB products used to be based on enterprise-class products scaled down for use in small to mid-size businesses.

But yesterday the company announced a new line called the Smart Business Communications System, which the company said will help organizations attain anytime, anywhere access to calendar, e-mail, customer relations and enterprise resource management applications.

At the heart of this system is the Unified Communications 500 Series, powered by Unified Communications Manager Express and Unity Express. This platform supports Unified IP phones, IP Communicator softphone, firewall, VPNs, wireless LANs and security.

Cisco’s vision behind the Smart initiative is that IT is transforming SMB businesses.

“The build-out with the enterprise in the late ‘90s is happening today in SMB,” said Peter Alexander, Cisco’s vice-president of worldwide commercial marketing. “They see the business benefits and the vendors have made them more consumable. Easy adoption further helps this market.”

Today’s SMB businesses operate around the world and on one time zone, with regulation concerns on top of that if they are in verticals such as health care.

“SMBs owners work 24 hours and IT technology can address this. The Smart Business is ubiquitous and real time access to information and communications that is secure and operationally efficiently over competitors,” Alexander said.

The secret, Alexander added, is to leave the functionality inside this product and make it easier to use for the partner and the customers.

Alexander went further to say that some of the new Cisco products can be ready to use in 15 minutes.

Analyst Stefan Dubowski of Decima Reports is very skeptical that it will take 15 minutes to configure the product at a small business.

“But there are some good things about it. It is really an indication that Cisco is taking on unified communications and you got everything in there: voice, video, data and wireless components as well. This system brings it all together and suggests that Cisco’s unified communications program is more than marketing-speak,” Dubowski said.

Available at no cost is Cisco Configuration Assistant, which has embedded Smart Assist technology to provide plug-and-play functionality for the system, reducing setup time and optimizing network settings. Smart Assist allows partners and customers to quickly set up a small business network, Alexander said.

“This is plug-and-play not plug and pray,” he added.

John Breakey, president of Unis Lumin, a Cisco gold partner based in Toronto, called this Smart product line is a gap filler for the networking giant.

“From our perspective, we were playing in the enterprise and were moving down into the SMB space. We can reach down now and provide a comprehensive solution that is priced right and is simple enough,” he said.

The Smart Business solution will start at US$699 per seat and includes Unified Communications 500 and Unified IP phone.

Philip Stone, director of Boardwalk Communications, a Victoria, B.C.-based premier partner, agreed with Breakey, saying that historically Cisco’s SMB offerings were enterprise-level products for branch offices.

“We had to take advanced technologies, which are complex technologies, and take those smart guys and fit those into a small deal,” Stone said.

This cost Boardwalk profitability with its services, Stone said. With the Smart Business system, lower-skilled services staffers can be used, saving higher end service professionals for mid-market projects, he added

“There are real benefits in post-sales, such as day two support with these products. The 15-minute install can be possible, but if they do not have an IT department they will look to us for day two support. They are purposely-built and we can staff up our NOC and get more recurring revenue,” Stone said.

He added that the anticipated margin for Smart Business deals will not be great, but will be adequate.

However, Stone believes that these affordably priced products will give customer more bang for their IT budget.

“One of the problems is that customers understand the value of the dollar, and an owner will say, ‘We have this budget for IT and can you put in this high-end phone system?’ We tell them that will blow the entire budget. Then there is no more money for post-sales support or when they want to look at other applications.

“If we can take a smaller bit of the budget (with Smart Business) then there can be more for us down the road,” Stone said.

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