Make a Splash

By eweek  |  Posted 2001-02-12

We told you a while back that a tsunami was headed our way. Well, its here.

Many vendors and analysts predict that converged data and PBX systems will take over the small to midsize business (SMB) market in just a few years. Integrators that dont have both oars—IP and voice expertise—in the water will be rowing in circles, as competitors race on by.

By 2002, 3.7 million phone extensions in the SMB market will use converged technology—and that number will double by 2004, predicts Joe Gagin of the The Yankee Group. Moreover, the converged premise system switching market will enjoy a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 128 percent from 1999 through 2004, according Dataquest forecasts.

Over the years, Sm@rt Partner has reviewed and reported on many of these solutions, which are alternatives to traditional PBX solutions from telecom equipment giants such as Lucent Technologies and Nortel Networks. A tenderfoot industry has matured into a series of products that not only compete with the big boys in both price and feature set, but have actually surpassed them, as well. In addition to standard PBX functions once reserved for the enterprise, these products now offer Voice over IP (VoIP) and robust telephony applications, including those for the call center. To us, the convergence industry has come of age and is ready to take the world by storm. Your challenge is to align your customers with the appropriate current.

Strong Undertow We started reporting on the Un-PBX back in 1998. A few enterprising companies (Altigen and Artisoft, for example) built voice technology into standard PC components, such as PCI or ISA cards. That approach delivered a low-cost solution with nearly all the functionality of a traditional PBX.

Until such new approaches came along, the PBX was often a proprietary box locked away in a closet. Few people ever saw a PBX, and even fewer people understood how to manage it. But with the rise of Windows-based voice systems, management became easier; all of the functions could be accessed with a mouse and keyboard rather than through an expensive phone—or arcane commands entered through a terminal attached to the PBX.

Soggy Solutions Still, the Un-PBXs had problems during their early years. The operating system would crash, taking the phone system with it. The application would crash, along with voice mail. The solution wasnt fault tolerant or reliable. Software developers and hardware experts have been working overtime to correct those limitations. The results are quite promising. "Un-PBXs" are now called PC-PBXs or PCXs, and theyre a lot more robust and sturdy.

Other vendors saw what was happening with the PC-PBXs and asked, "Why stop at the PBX, why not deliver the whole office?" Gear providers like Praxon and Vertical Networks delivered all-in-one solutions as integrated communications platforms, or ICPs. From a full-featured PBX, to a router, hub and mail server, everything was included. All a communications provider had to do was grab one of those products, install it in a small office, and reap profits from both the voice and data.

At the same time, networking giants Cisco Systems and 3Com delivered on their vision of the future: VoIP or the IP-PBX. The approach goes something like this: Packetize the voice and deliver a PBX thats inexpensive and as reliable as a traditional phone system. Just dont deliver the network, since its already in place. Instead, replace the PBX with a system that works within the existing data network.

And lets not forget the traditional voice solutions vendors. Lucent and Nortel arent standing idly by, living off the riches of their huge enterprise-level solutions. (Heck, Lucent isnt even profitable these days.) Data veterans have given both companies a wake-up call. Lucent and Nortel are now delivering low-cost solutions aimed at the SMB market. Although we didnt look at them here, Nortels Business Communications Manager and Lucent spin-off Avayas MerlinMagix Integrated System compete head-on with the products we have looked at.

Surfs Up Customers now have dozens of choices, though each wave is headed toward a different market segment. Heres an update on where things stand.

All of the convergence solutions weve seen—with the exception of Praxons PDX—support VoIP. And all but one—3Coms NBX 100—support the use of cheaper analog phones. All offer rich PBX feature sets that will suit most SMB businesses. But the icing on the cake is the rich set of telephony applications such as automatic call distribution (ACD) and call-center reporting that these products can deliver. While there are many waves crashing down on the market, each has its own niche that can make a profit for the smart partner.

AltiServ The grandfather of the group—Altigen has been around since 1994—is still a major player. The Un-PBX solution was defined by Altigen, which was head and shoulders above the rest when we last reviewed its product in June 1998. The product since has improved, but the market has caught up. Other vendors are delivering products with the same extensive feature sets.

Altigen still has some tricks up its sleeve, though. Since we last looked at AltiServ, the communications software that drives the Altigen system, the company has made some significant advancements, notably in IP trunking and IP extensions, which is basically VoIP. Trunking means that calls between Altigen systems in different offices are carried via an IP network, while IP extensions mean that the phones are IP end points and can be seen on the network.

AltiServ runs on Windows NT Server or Windows 2000 Advanced Server. Functionality comes in a series of Altigen-designed boards installed in the server. You can mix and match IP, analog and trunk boards, depending upon customer needs. For example, theres a separate board for VoIP than for regular phone extensions (of which there are different cards depending on the interface). This is a modular design, but not one thats much different from the other products.

Altigen sees itself as a way to evolve from the PC-PBX model to a fully converged system, but in reality, all of the products weve looked at for this report are part of the transition.

InstantOffice Is your customer ready for an upgrade to the phone system and network? Deploy InstantOffice from Vertical Networks, dust off your hands and manage it from somewhere else. InstantOffice can be part of the existing network, as well, because it uses all of the standard protocols for its e-mail, file serving and routing.

Voice-mail interoperability is lacking on all of these products, but InstantOffice does support the Audio Messaging Interchange Specification (AMIS) for connecting voice-mail systems of different brands, as well as TAPI 2.1, which allows telephony applications written for Windows to run with InstantOffice. Theres no TAPI 3.0 support yet, but that should be out if and when InstantOffice moves to Windows 2000.

One of the major selling points to InstantOffice is its bundled applications. For an extra fee, InstantOffice comes with ACD applications and call-center solutions. Bob Small of Data-2-Profit, a Connecticut-based reseller, says that the decision to go with InstantOffice and its Interactive Intelligence call-center application was a "no-brainer" compared with a $350,000 solution from Genesis, Lucent or Nortel. And because it had all of the networking services bundled, it was perfect to drop into his customer sites.

Since we last took a look at InstantOffice, Vertical Networks has introduced a scaled-down version, called InstantOffice 3000. It has a smaller chassis (36 extensions compared with 84 in the 5000) and a lower price, to boot.

InstantOffice really does include every- thing, even a firewall, and it can work as a single unit or in multiple locations. This entry might be a bit beefy for some of your customers, but how often is having too much a bad thing?

NBX 100 The main selling point to 3Coms NBX 100 is VoIP. Solutions providers can take the NBX 100 and install it in an existing network. All of the phones are IP phones, so theyll be part of the network, as well. So as long as the phone is part of the network, it can access all of the functions of the PBX.

This is great for home offices and small offices that are spread out geographically. The NBX 100 can be in one location, but the users can be anywhere. Of course, the downside is that there are still major quality-of-service issues with bandwidth-sensitive VoIP. So long as you provide the dedicated bandwidth your customer needs, there should be no problem.

Because of its network origins, the NBX 100 seems ripe for excellent remote management, but it isnt. It doesnt support SNMP, so it cant be integrated with management applications like HP OpenView. The NBX 100 can be managed with the 3Com Network Supervisor, which is free, but that doesnt help with non-3Com products. Of course, says Gary Macy of Paladin Data Systems, an Oracle Integrator, "We just use Telnet to manage all of our boxes because were not big enough to need a network-management application"—something thats probably true for most businesses these products target.

Size Matters The sheer weight and power of 3Com give NBX 100 an advantage in the market over the other products. While maybe not as robust and mature as some of the others, 3Com shops dont need to go any further than the NBX 100, as long as the VoIP functionality justifies the cost of the expensive IP phones. However, the return on investment could be favorable for an installation with multiple, geographically distributed offices.

PDX Similar to the InstantOffice, Praxons Phone Data eXchange (PDX) is an all-in-one solution. Although both products deliver similar PBX feature sets, there are differences. Like InstantOffice, the PDX includes all of the basic needs of an office. Theres RAS, an e-mail server, Internet access and hubs. The differences are more subtle.

Praxon says its target market is SMB businesses, while Vertical Networks has set its sights on the enterprise branch office, as well. That could be because the PDX doesnt support VoIP, and two PDXs in separate locations cant act as one unless using third-party VoIP Gateway cards. If your customer is in only one location, then theres no compelling need for VoIP.

The PDX also doesnt provide support for digital phones (as does InstantOffice), so any advanced functionality must be performed in the application rather than at the phone itself—something your customer may or may not want to live with.

When we last reviewed the PDX, our biggest beef was that if the system went down or lost power, all communication was cut off. Now we happily report that Praxon has implemented a CompactFlash card that retains the system configuration data, and dial tone is preserved.

The PDX is good for a smaller business in a single location. Its inexpensive and includes most features that a business would need.

TeleVantage Open. Open. Open. Thats the mantra echoing throughout the halls of Artisoft. TeleVantage is a software PBX that will run on any Intel server, a Dialogic card, and Windows NT or Windows 2000. Skeptics say TeleVantage doesnt run on Solaris or Mac OS, but you can still pick the Intel server of choice, whether its Compaq, Dell or HP. And if and when the CT Media standard takes off, other cards supporting the H.100 specification should work nicely.

Architecturally, TeleVantage is similar to AltiServ because it is software that runs on a board installed on a Windows NT or 2000 server. But whereas AltiServ runs on an Altigen board, TeleVantage runs on a Dialogic board.

Again, like the other products, TeleVantage has an excellent feature set, including VoIP capability. If CT Media does become a standard, TeleVantage will find itself sitting pretty.

Ride the Wave All five products can serve the needs of your client, but they each target a different market.

For a customer with multiple locations and remote users, a VoIP solution is a must. Any customer that operates a business with a call center needs one of the call-center applications that includes call queuing and call-center reporting. (Sorry about all the calls; at least we didnt dial you at home.)

Each solution rides a different wave to convergence. Choose wisely, or your customers could wind up all wet.

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