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March 2000


Bundle In The Jungle


Snakes in the grass, and claws at your back -- that's how it is in business, which is so often (and so aptly) called a jungle. It can be a dangerous place, particularly for small and medium-sized businesses, which to date have relied on camouflage for their survival. That is, these businesses have relied on technology (such as voice mail and interactive voice response) to help them project a large, impressive appearance. But can such a strategy work for long? Is it enough to look big, when larger companies, accustomed to taking leading-edge communications solutions for granted, are in a position to boost productivity, cut costs, and realize the unanticipated synergies of real-time, collaborative applications?

That question may discomfit small and medium-sized businesses, and make them impatient for other options, that is, solutions that might actually let them emerge from hiding, and even take the offensive now and then. As it happens, such solutions are becoming available -- solutions that allow small and medium-sized businesses to explore the possibilities of converged voice and data, not just in the realm of access to services, but also in the realm of applications and enhanced services.

To date, small and medium-sized businesses have lacked the resources available to larger enterprises. A smaller business, unable to justify the purchase of an enterprise-scale multi-service platform, might instead resort to a multi-vendor solution. Provided it really was more affordable. Provided it allowed for an upgrade path (to permit the addition of branch offices, say). And provided such a solution wouldn't impose too great a management challenge (particularly at branch offices, once they were added).

Sounds complicated. A simpler alternative, however, is suggested by a recent trend in communications solutions -- extending to offer small and medium-sized businesses converged voice/data platforms that offer both applications and flexible access to network services. Some of these platforms are premises-oriented. Others rely more on a service provider's contribution, which might include access to enhanced services.

While these solutions may be services-oriented or premises-oriented, they have at least one thing in common: a role for value-added resellers and systems integrators. That's because these platforms, by bundling applications, offer the possibility of customizing and configuring solutions appropriate for vertical markets. In fact, VARs and integrators may find the scope of their activities enlarged in unanticipated ways. That is, customization and configuration possibilities may become more interesting if not only applications but services themselves become part of the mix.

Services-oriented solutions include offerings from Flexion Systems and Accelerated Networks. Examples of premises-oriented solutions include offerings from Praxon and Vertical Networks. Let's review a few details for each of these offerings:

Flexion Systems
Platform: Business Guardian Management Platform: BusinessGuardian; Insight; Reseller Program: Business Guardian Reseller Program.

Initially designed to support a business of up to 64 users, the BusinessGuardian X300 is built on an open and scalable hardware platform that works in conjunction with a Windows NT Server-based environment. By harnessing the power of Windows NT server, the X300 is able to deliver unified messaging, CTI, and other business applications in addition to PBX functionality. Designed to take advantage of the converging public voice and data infrastructures, the X300 delivers a comprehensive, integrated communications and information technology solution.

According to Andrew Bale, president and CEO of Flexion Systems, "BusinessGuardian bridges the gap between the integrated voice and data needs of the small business and the current offering of the broadband and telecom providers. It empowers the next-generation small business to reach a new level of control and professionalism over their communications with their clients and partners.

"The reseller and service provider program is particularly vital to the solution, because it enables growing companies to inexpensively gain Fortune 500-class voice and data capabilities, while at the same time, providing resellers and service providers an opportunity to develop long-term professional advice and service relationships with its customers.

Accelerated Networks
Platform: A range of integrated access devices (IADs), concentrators, and voice services gateways.

Accelerated Networks supplies voice over DSL (VoDSL) and integrated broadband access solutions. These systems enable providers to offer a full complement of bundled voice and data services over a single DSL or T1 access line, with advanced provisioning and management features. Accelerated offers all three components of a complete access solution - customer premises IADs, NEBX-compliant central office DSL and T1 concentrators, and voice service gateways for regional POPs.

According to Kathy Tebben, director of corporate communications for Accelerated Networks, "Carriers that adopt a multi-service over broadband access (DSL or T1) approach open the door to delivering a plethora of services and applications over a single access facility. Using an ATM-based architecture, providers can deliver voice and data services -- ranging from local and long-distance voice, to voice VPNs, to corporate VPNs, to high-speed Internet access, to e-commerce, to B2B applications ... with guaranteed quality of service, and extremely flexible destination and call routing capabilities.

"VARs and/or integrators that can guide providers into adopting a multi-service model stand to gain significantly as those providers realize the value of constructing an ATM-based access network and the cost benefits of delivering many services over a single pipe. Once the pipe is there, they can pile as many services over that pipe as they can imagine."

In addition to enabling the bundling of access services, Accelerated Networks is looking forward to enabling the delivery of enhanced services -- or so it would appear, since the company's announcement that it is partnering with Atreus Systems, a software vendor of vertical market solutions for high-speed Internet services.

The immediate goal of the partnership is to help telecommunications service providers accelerate deployment of DSL-based services. To achieve this goal, the partners plan to rely on Atreus's StartSmart Professional Services, a suite of tools and templates to help carriers define, deploy, and market service offerings. Professional services components include project management, market development, business and OSS process definition, supplier selection and implementation, systems and OSS integration, and market launch programs for Internet services.

Eventually, the partners may embrace more ambitious goals. For example, Atreus is actively developing its xLINK product family, software that enables service providers to deploy a networked solution of vertical portals for broadband services including traditional value-added services as VPN, e-commerce, unified messaging, business-to-business commerce, voice over IP, fax over IP, and e-mail. With xLINK, service providers (ISPs, ASPs, etc.) can bundle voice, data, and content-oriented services into a portal tailored specifically for a particular community of interest.

Platform: Praxon Phone Data eXchange (PDX); Management: Features and functions may be managed through a standardbrowser; Reseller Program: Praxon Authorized Reseller Program

The PDX system integrates four essential business communications functions: voice, data networking, messaging, and Internet access capabilities into one seamless, single-system solution that is scalable, modular, and designed for small and medium businesses, as well as remote offices. The Praxon solution is a fully integrated, reliable platform which is easy to install, simple to use, easy to manage, and scalable to accommodate business growth.

According to Praxon, the PDX is an Integrated Business Communications (IBC) solution. Praxon's Tom Williams, the company's president and CEO, explains, "An IBC solution should give businesses not only significant cost savings, but also greater efficiency, improved management capabilities and better communications overall. This integrated approach makes it much easier for telecom resellers to focus on their core competency, yet also provide a data communications solution and thereby give their customers a complete solution."

"In short, IBC solutions strengthen reseller opportunities to engage in the lucrative and growing convergence marketplace. We rely on our resellers to demonstrate the product and expose potential buyers to its benefits. The PDX gives resellers the opportunity to expand their market and develop strategic relationships with their customers with a value-add solution."

Vertical Networks
Platform: InstantOffice; Management: InstantOffice Remote Management Console; Reseller Program: Vertical Networks Partner Program

The InstantOffice solution is a single system integrating PBX, full LAN/WAN connectivity, a multiprotocol router, and a suite of communications applications including voice mail, auto-attendant, remote management tools, and high-speed Internet access. In the most recent version of the solution (InstantOffice 2.0), Vertical offers packet switching, circuit switching, IP voice, traditional voice, secure Internet connectivity, and open applications support in a single integrated solution. In addition, the product enables "virtual tie line" IP voice connectivity for branch offices and small businesses over multiple WAN access types.

Vertical Networks maintains strategic partnerships with value-added resellers, systems integrators, and network service providers. According to Steve Pataky, director of field marketing for Vertical Networks, "Our bundled solutions put the value-add back in VAR. With the InstantOffice system, VARs integrate CPE, with voice and data applications including VoIP and remote management, and WAN services from leading providers such as AT&T. VARs now have a platform that allows them to deliver margin-rich, high-value services for their customers voice and data networks."

"We've learned that convergence VARs quickly see the value in offering their customers bundled solutions including CPE, applications, services, and even WAN access. In addition to more revenue and higher margins, it is the best way they have to deliver a solution that offers maximum value to the customer, while protecting them from competitive VARs. If you deliver the entire solution, you make it pretty tough for your competition to break in."

With solutions converged in multiple dimensions -- in terms of voice and data, and in terms of access and business applications -- small and medium-sized businesses may emerge from their insecure niches and move up the food chain. Then, they will be the ones to echo the sentiment once expressed by Ian Anderson, saying, "I'll write on your tombstone thank you for dinner."

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