United they stand, but unified telco may fall

Nortel and Microsoft’s plan to connect desktop office tools with back-end PBX systems has one dark side: every LAN network issue could potentially affect enterprise phone systems.

In the first glimpse of their combined product roadmap since announcing a wide-ranging partnership six months ago, the companies last month announced native session initiation protocol (SIP) interoperability between the Nortel Communication Server 1000 and Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 Unified Messaging, to be available in the second quarter. By the end of the year, they said they will offer a combination of Nortel’s Multimedia Conferencing product with Microsoft’s Office Communicator 2007. At the same time, Nortel will unveil a new product, UC Integrated Branch, which will allow large companies to easily set up unified communications tools that run on voice over Internet protocol.

Speaking from a webcast event from New York, Microsoft president Steve Ballmer said the portfolio of products will allow IT departments to extend the solutions they provide and drive complexity out of the related infrastructure, but that preparing for the two firms’ 2010 roadmap could provide some complexity of its own.

Ellen Koskinen-Dodgson, principal of Vancouver-based Telecommunications Management Consultants Inc., said successful deployment will probably depend on whether an organization has already IP-enabled other parts of its infrastructure.

“What some companies do is just upgrade the core of their phone system and keep the old (PBX) technology for many of the staff and just buy some interface gear. Only some get the newest IP phones.”

By “core,” Koskinen-Dodgson is referring to the call processing capability of their existing telephony infrastructure. What would remain unchanged in a unified messaging environment is the phone wire that connects back to the phone room and the old interface line card supporting the phone in the old system. It’s a matter of setting up a new call control system based on IP that would provide instructions to those line cards.

In unified messaging, the location of where the voice messages are stored is an issue, she said. Sometimes they might get stored on a Microsoft server, sometimes on the voice mail system itself, and only the signaling goes back and forth. In the latter case, voice mail would still be available even if the e-mail system crashed. That may be important for organizations that have spotty performance on parts of their IT infrastructure, according to Koskinen-Dodgson.

“They’re used to voice (technology) being absolutely bullet-proof,” she said. “Coming into a unified system where you’re using data wiring and plugging the phone into the wall in those cases, it’s the data side that causes the problem. A data switch crashed or something like that. IT departments aren’t held to the same level of accountability, I don’t think.”

Eduardo Kibel, an analyst with Toronto-based Frost & Sullivan, said companies should show an interest in integrating VoIP with Office applications. SIP, meanwhile, is furthering the adoption of mobile telephony that would make unified communications more compelling.

“Landlines are kind of outdated,” he said.

Koskinen-Dodgson said companies may decide to keep their old phone system and their unified communications platform working in parallel. They might also improve their enterprise architecture along the way.

“It may help clean up some of the really bad habits that people have developed on the data network – splitting wiring runs and sticking an extra hub in a room because you didn’t want to pay for an extra wiring run,” she said. “It may have made sense at the time, but now that won’t work.”

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