Its Not Just for Cheap Minutes

Cisco pushes its partners to pick up on IP telephony.

Cisco Systems message to partners at last weeks Las Vegas summit was nothing if not consistent: Get into Internet Protocol (IP) telephony.

Speaker after speaker promoted Voice over IP (VOIP) to the 4,000 or so conference attendees. Cisco even wheeled in a tractor trailer-borne demonstration center stuffed with IP phones and other converged network gear.

Why the fuss? In a shaky market, Ciscos IP telephony sales have grown 100 percent quarter-over-quarter for the last two quarters. And as traditional PBX sales drop, Cisco and its partners have an opportunity to capture market share, Cisco executives contend. Rivals Lucent Technologies and Nortel are in Ciscos sights.

"IP telephony is fascinating in the disruption it is putting in the marketplace," says Tom Mitchell, senior VP of worldwide channels at Cisco.

Mike Volpi, Ciscos chief strategy officer, says PBX sales were off 16 percent for the first calendar quarter. In that same timespan, Cisco won 850 new customers to the IP telephony fold. Volpi points out that those customer wins are not just for pilot systems. He says that eight customers including Ariba purchased systems with 2,000 or more phones.

Cisco executives want to enlist partners in the IP push, noting that projects may call for as many as four teammates. Cisco offers an IP telephony specialization, which currently ranks at the top of the companys system of awarding points to partners that focus on particular technologies. Cisco also is working with partners to analyze the return-on-investment of IP telephony projects.

Some of Ciscos partners are getting the message. Comstor, a Cisco distributor in Chantilly, Va., recently became certified on Ciscos Architecture for Voice, Video and Integrated Data (AVVID) program. "Demand has increased dramatically in the last few months," says Joseph Heinzen, VP of engineering and professional services at Comstor.

He attributes the uptick to growth in the number of people trained and authorized to work with IP telephony gear, as well as greater market acceptance of the technology.

And Ciscos AVVID-based solutions have become easier to sell in light of an improved feature set, which provides a better cost/benefit match-up with PBXs, Heinzen says.

Overall, Ciscos brass is building a case for IP telephony as an application-rich technology. Volpi points to such apps as voice-enabled commerce, unified messaging and directory-enabled services. VOIP is no longer a gee-whiz technology for beating long-distance charges. "IP telephony is not about cheap minutes," Volpi contends.

Cisco hopes its about beating Lucent and Nortel at their own voice game.