The one-year anniversary of the Innovative Communications Alliance between Microsoft and Nortel Networks on July 16 will be a short-lived celebration, as both vendors quickly go back to work on further extensions to their VOIP-focused partnership.
Both vendors claim that in a years time, the joint Unified Communications initiative has resulted in 430,000 individual end-user licenses for joint offerings from over 100 customers in North America, Europe, Asia and Latin America.
At the same time, "Nortel now has more people trained on (Office Communications Server) than any other channel partner in the world," and it set a speed record for becoming a Microsoft Gold Certified partner in under six months, said Greg St. James, senior director of the Nortel Alliance at Microsoft in Redmond, Wash.
"No one else can as readily in any part of the world help customers optimize OCS and the PBX working together," he added. The two vendors chose to highlight the anniversary because they believe it is a departure from most industry alliances, which often result in little to no real advances for customers.
"This is an opportunity to make sure people realize our commitment is even stronger than it was a year ago. People are used to big, splashy announcements and little follow through. This is lot of follow through," he added.
Other proof of progress points include the pending delivery over the next several months of a range of new or updated products based on joint development work, including the UC integrated branch, the first joint product from both vendors.
At the same time, the two vendors have opened over 100 labs or customer demonstration centers around the globe, including two collaboration centers in Raleigh, N.C. and the UK where, "customers can bring their applications and test them out on any configuration you can imagine," said St. James. "They can roll up their sleeves and pilot without having to touch their own networks or their own labs."
Nortel, in its bid to quickly grow its professional services business around the ICA, has to date certified 105 of its sales engineers on Microsoft products, trained 120 sales engineers on Live Communications Server and trained over 50 technicians on Microsoft Exchange.
"No other Microsoft partner has this many [technicians] trained," said Wes Durow, vice president of global enterprise marketing and strategy at Nortel in Richardson, Texas.
Whats resonating for early customers is the promise of better integration between desktop applications and business communications as well as the opportunity to preserve existing knowledge and experience with Microsoft desktop applications and Nortel PBX gear, according to Mike Lucas, director of telecom infrastructure at Indiana University in Bloomington.
"We made a decision several years ago that we couldnt justify going to VOIP just for its sake: it had to be applications-driven. I think the collaboration is the killer app that makes moving to VOIP justifiable. When we looked at the functionality, using a Microsoft tool like Excel or Word and being able to access all your phone capabilities from that Microsoft tool—thats pretty powerful, I think," Lucas said.
IU, which is an alpha customer for the integrated products, will deploy Nortels Communications Server 2100 and a beta release of Microsofts Office Communications Server 2007.
"We can do call control with existing phones—we dont have to change them all out and move everyone to IP. There are situations where you may not want to move people to IP. This gives us the best of both worlds," said Lucas.
Still, for customers that dont have that legacy of Nortel and Microsoft products, their choices may be different, Lucas added. IU will make a big bet on the integration later this year when it attempts to put VOIP traffic on 60 miles of dark fiber linking IUs main Bloomington campus with its campus in Indianapolis, which now support 20,000 and 14,000 phone lines respectively.
In that project, IU will replace two existing Nortel SL 100 switches in those locations with Nortel CS 2100s—the first implementation to span that distance.
But is Lucas nervous about moving voice communications to call server software that includes Microsoft code from reliable, well supported Nortel hardware?
"What Im most nervous about is that 60-mile difference between the switches. We have very good optical equipment and carrier-grade redundancy built into that. Its certainly worth the risk to see how well this will work," he said.