Unified Communications on the Cheap

By Dave Greenfield  |  Posted 2008-10-09

Unified Communications on the Cheap

With the economic downturn (to put it mildly), IT organizations are looking to reduce their capital expenditures while implementing technologies that increase organizational productivity. Many companies are evaluating unified communications to meet these goals, but the costs involved can seem prohibitive, especially for small and midsize businesses.

The good news is that many providers are delivering technology and financing solutions aimed at attracting customers and reducing the cost of diving into UC.

Of course, no matter what the technology or pricing scheme, companies will need to figure in the costs of software upgrades, training and management during a five-year life-cycle. But now, with many of the available options-or combinations thereof-an expensive UC solution could turn into a relatively affordable buy over time.

Host with the Most

Basic VOIP hosting services have been around for a while, delivering simplicity of deployment and management. Increasingly, these providers are adding things such as hosted PBX and unified messaging. Enventis' Encompass, for example, provides hosted IP PBX functionality, as well as unified messaging, calendaring and contact center capabilities.

The leading UC players are also pushing the hosted or SAAS (software as a service) model. Cisco Systems just announced its WebEx Connect, for example, as part of the company's broader UC push; Verizon a year ago introduced Integrated Communications Package for users of its Hosted IP Centrex business; and Microsoft in June released Hosted Messaging and Collaboration 4.5, which allows carriers to deploy hosted UC and messaging services to their customers.

Smaller vendors are also getting into the UC services act. Intermedia, for example, hosts Microsoft Office Communications Server and Exchange.

Hosted services promise lower costs and less management overhead, but these systems have been seen as too limited within the enterprise. With Centrex services, for example, organizations need to pay for each move, add and change, as well as for numerous other features and functions.

The integration of SOAs (service-oriented architectures) with VOIP could significantly improve the adaptability of these services. By opening up their UC platforms for SOA, hosted providers could give organizations the flexibility of a premises-based service at the price point of a hosted service.

Premises-Based Equipment


Premises-Based Equipment

For organizations that want more control over their voice services, major telephony suppliers continue to look at ways to reduce capital expenditures. In part, this is being done though equipment and functionality consolidation to reduce the number of devices that need to be purchased.

Cisco, for example, continues to focus on the total solution play. The company introduced the UC 500, an all-in-one box that provides either eight or 32 IP phone stations; four FxS (Foreign Exchange Subscriber) DID (Direct Inward Dialing) ports for analog connections; four FxO (Foreign Exchange Office) ports for analog network connectivity; optional T1/E1 voice interface (Primary Rate Interface and Channel Associated Signaling); integrated voice mail; automated attendant capabilities; basic call center capabilities; optional wireless access; and integrated VPN, firewall and system management.

Meanwhile, Avaya continues to push its IP Office for the SMB. IP Office costs $540 per user in a 50-user configuration. The solution includes end points for all 50 users, as well as advanced applications including Telecommuter Mode, in which users can turn any phone into a corporate phone; an IP soft phone that will become available in November for off-premises, mobile workers; Mobile Twinning for pairing a cell and office phone; and One-X , a GUI for  PDAs. Adding unified messaging capabilities costs another $40 per user.

Open-Source Route

Another way to cut down the costs of UC is to leverage open-source applications.

Open-source PBX implementations, for example, provide increasingly attractive options.

Today, most are based on the open-source Asterisk, and there are a number of Asterisk-based implementations-including Digium, Fonality and Escaux-that have addressed the security and support concerns some companies have with open source.

These vendors also have built on Asterisk to provide relatively rich UC capabilities. Fonality, for example, couples its Asterisk-based telephony solution with a collaboration platform. Fonality HUD (Head's Up Display) displays the status of users and can let users call, send e-mail or IM with just a click.

The Fonality Asterisk solution-along with conference phones, soft clients for remote access and hard phones-runs $32,918 or $658 per seat for a 50-person office.

Asterisk has been showing its age, however, which is why a number of vendors and consultants have started looking at sipXecs from SipFoundry as the open-source approach to UC.

While Asterisk is a PBX replacement, sipXecs is a native SIP solution architected to switch any kind of media stream. In addition, sipXecs is a SIP proxy, where sessions can go directly between clients; Asterisk, in contrast, uses a back-to-back user agent, where state on every session is held in the switch.  

Nortel has been using sipXecs in its Software Communications System 500 solution, targeting offices of 50 or fewer users. In August, Nortel acquired Pingtel, the vendor that created and led the sipXecs effort.

Financing Options

Last September, Avaya Financial Services announced the availability of Next Wave, a program that offers zero percent and 3.99 percent financing to businesses based in North America. The offer is available through Avaya certified business partners and Avaya's direct sales force, and can be combined with other Avaya discount programs and promotions for maximum appeal to customers.

 The Next Wave financing is available for Avaya IP Office 500 with Avaya VoiceMail Pro, Avaya Distributed Office and Avaya Communication Manager.

Two financing options are available under the Next Wave promotion:  a 60-month true lease at zero percent or a 3.99 percent finance lease.

 A true lease is typically designed for businesses that want the lower monthly payment with the greatest flexibility at the end of the lease term.  Finance leases are especially advantageous for companies that plan to keep their equipment at the end of the lease term.

Similarly, ShoreTel recently introduced Flexguard, a leasing program that allows customers to pay over time and includes technology obsolescence and satisfaction guarantees.

Nortel Enterprise Financing Solutions can help customers in their UC purchases by deferring payments. Customers can also opt for the lowest lease payment by purchasing with a fair market value lease and paying no interest for up to 48 months.

Like a lot of IT buyers, David Phillips thought that after 20 years it was time to retire his Definity PBX. So the IT manager from Foley, a Caterpillar equipment reseller, went looking for a new phone system.

In the end, he settled on a managed service offering through Mitel. With Mitel's TotalSolution Program, Phillips knows exactly what it will cost to maintain, operate and expand his communications system.

Foley is paying a fixed cost for up to eight years, so budgeting became a lot simpler. For a single per user price, Phillips said, Mitel provided all consulting, a network stress test, 24/7 tech support, training, fixed costs for the life of the lease, all software upgrades, and an option to renew the lease after five years at half price.

All add-on items will be priced at the same terms of the lease as long as they are purchased before end of the lease.

"We could, conceivably, purchase phones two months before the end of the lease and pay just $20 per phone per month," said Phillips.


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