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Mind Share

July 1999


Marc Robins

IP Breathes New Life Into The Traditional PBX Market

BY MARC ROBINS

Despite all the worthwhile hubbub about PC- and IP-PBXs and ACDs — those open, standards-based solutions offered by innovative startups such a COM2001.com, Vertical Networks, and PakNetX, — the market for these solutions is still small relative to the market for more traditional “big-iron” switch solutions. These new PC-based solutions target the replacement phone switch market, and for small to medium-sized customers looking to swap out their aging 100 or fewer station PBXs and key systems, the PC or IP-PBX is the right move. And as the technology becomes more reliable, more feature-rich, and increasingly less expensive, it is sure to capture a sizeable share of the overall replacement market.

But let’s focus for a moment on the vast, installed base of traditional PBXs. For years, it seemed like the traditional PBX vendors watched from the sidelines as upstart CTI companies leap-frogged over their rigid (and closed) feature sets to offer newfangled voice/data capabilities. The PBX vendors certainly didn’t rush into the CTI market — they almost had to be shamed into participating. I suspect it had something to do with the failure of prior voice/data integration efforts in the mid-80s and the fact that many vendors felt they got burned as a result.

At first, they tried to push kludgy, proprietary, and expensive enhancements on their customer base, and for the most part the market failed to respond. Slowly, the vendors started to take the open and standards-based mantra everyone else was singing seriously, and TAPI-compliant enhancements started to emerge.

Today, the old-line PBX vendors are starting to act like the upstarts — and moving at lightning speed (compared to their snail pace in the past) to embrace IP telephony and next generation voice/data convergence technology. Finally, rather than waiting for the market to force them to act, vendors including Siemens, Nortel Networks, NEC, Lucent, and Comdial are starting to push well-thought out — indeed elegant — strategies and products into the market to serve the needs of customers who are ready and willing to test the waters of IP telephony.

For the most part, each vendor is following the path of least customer resistance   and actually paying attention to the concerns of their installed base. High on the list of concerns are:

  • Protection Of Investment (no forklift upgrade, PLEASE!)
  • Preservation Of The User Experience (no function key changes, PLEASE!)
  • Seamless, Transparent Migration.

With the addition of new IP trunk and line cards, souped-up software versions, and new IP hard and soft phone sets, PBX vendors are starting to offer an incredibly attractive alternative for customers that may be feeling left out on the sidelines of the voice/data convergence trend. These new enhancements will allow customers to start enjoying the current cost benefits of VoIP toll bypass, as well as offering a wealth of new capabilities, including remote access options and “single wire” voice/data communications transport.

My prediction: Once the traditional PBX vendors get this stuff down cold (and I’m betting that they will), they will give the new generation of voice/data server folks a giant run for their money. I predict that the revenue opportunity represented by customers upgrading their current switches to support IP telephony — and especially new customers attracted by the rock-solid reliability of traditional switch architecture coupled with next-gen IP support — will easily surpass the modest numbers predicted for the voice/data server market (which according to some research houses is expected to reach around $650 million by 2002).

To help you gauge the impact of this new IP telephony-enabled PBX fervor, I’ve compiled a sampler of new IP telephony-enabling enhancements being introduced by some of the big guns of the PBX market. By no means is it intended as a comprehensive roundup of activity — but hopefully it will provide you with a lucid review of what’s coming down the pike.

NORTEL NETWORKS
Announced last summer and commercially available since this past March, the Meridian Integrated IP Telephony Gateway (ITG) from Nortel Networks  is a special circuit card that plugs into the Meridian 1 Intelligent Peripheral Equipment (IPE) shelf and links two or more Meridian 1 systems together on a private network. The ITG compresses voice and fax communications, converts them to IP packets, and routes them over available bandwidth on an IP network. Importantly, the ITG leverages existing equipment to route voice and fax calls over IP networks instead of the public network.

The initial ITG offering supports H.323, and sports eight trunk ports per card. And because ITG is an integrated solution, it allows companies to leverage Meridian 1 system features such as billing, least-cost routing, system management, and class of service. To help ensure quality of service (QoS), the ITG features something called “fallback to traditional trunking,” which automatically re-routes calls to traditional PSTN networks if IP network QoS declines due to congestion, packet loss, or high latency. When data line conditions improve, IP routing is automatically resumed with the next call. The Meridian ITG is an option for Meridian 1 system customers with software Release 21 and above.

Other notable features include automatic echo cancellation, silence suppression, and the ability to utilize Meridian Administration Tools — Nortel’s Windows-based system management application — to choose among several difference codecs, including G.711, G.729, and G.723, as well as threshold levels for QoS.

Recently, Nortel announced a way to extend Meridian IP telephony to the desktop with Meridian IP Telecommuter, a Windows 95/98-based software package loaded onto a multimedia PC or laptop. It enables the PC or laptop to serve as the voice and data terminal, utilizing a single analog line and IP technology. Users of this software package can make calls using Nortel’s Meridian 9617 Universal Serial Bus (USB) phone. The USB phone connects directly to the USB port on the PC and gives users a more familiar device for making calls while providing the efficiency of the IP Telecommuter package. Optionally, users can make calls with IP Telecommuter’s softphone, which emulates common features of Meridian digital telephones. The computer is used for data service and as the real-time voice communication terminal. The Meridian IP Telecommuter softphone can be used anywhere there is analog phone service, and enables users to offer the appearance of being in the office. Remote users get a broad set of voice features, including conference, transfer, hold, message waiting, voice mail access, and class of service. Calls to a user’s office number will automatically transfer to the remote location.

LUCENT TECHNOLOGIES
Like Nortel Networks, Lucent Technologies  is corralling a comprehensive selection of VoIP hardware and software products for enterprise customers. Announced a few months ago, DEFINITY IP Solutions is a software and hardware upgrade for its flagship DEFINITY Enterprise Communications Server (ECS) (a.k.a. PBX) that adds IP telephony capabilities.

Developed by Bell Labs, DEFINITY IP Solutions allow businesses to send voice and fax communications over their local-area networks (LANs), intranets, wide-area networks (WANs), and the Internet. They include a software upgrade for the DEFINITY system, available on a trunk card, a SoftPhone that allows a PC or laptop to operate as a fully featured telephone, and an IP telephone deskset.

The DEFINITY IP Solutions software operates both as an IP gateway and gatekeeper. As a gateway it converts voice traffic to data for transmission over IP networks. As a gatekeeper, it provides IP endpoints with secure access to the DEFINITY system. This connection lets users take advantage of all applications residing on the system, including voice mail, computer-telephone integration, call center, wireless, and call control features such as conferencing, call forward, transfer, hold, speed-dial, and multiple line appearances.

The software supports Distributed Communications System (DCS) and Q-Signaling (QSIG) protocols over IP networks to provide centralized voice mail and attendant operations across multiple sites. The DEFINITY IP Solutions software can be managed through the server’s existing systems administration tools, and can take advantage of the DEFINITY system’s call routing, cost accounting, self-diagnostics, security, toll fraud protection, and remote access applications. It enables IP telephones to communicate with analog, digital, and ISDN phones on the DEFINITY network, and supports the H.323 protocols and standard application programming interfaces, including TAPI, TSAPI, and JTAPI.
The DEFINITY IP Software is available on an upgradable trunk card and supports 24 simultaneous conversations. Future releases plan to support data and video capabilities.

The DEFINITY IP SoftPhone turns a PC or a laptop into an advanced telephone. Its interface gives on-site and remote users the ability to access all the applications offered by the DEFINITY through a single IP connection — from voice messaging to call control to call centers. The SoftPhone is CTI/TAPI-enabled to allow users to launch calls from TAPI-compatible applications and receive a screen-pop based on calling name and number. In addition, the software can be configured in a “dual connect” mode, allowing the DEFINITY to send voice across the circuit-switched network for toll-quality audio. The software supports the H.323 protocol and is interoperable with Microsoft’s Net-
Meeting and Intel’s ProShare.

The DEFINITY IP Ethernet Telephone is a multi-line, multi-button telephone set that will provide access to the DEFINITY system through an Ethernet connection to the LAN. The DEFINITY IP Solutions Software and IP SoftPhone will be available by year-end. The IP Ethernet Telephone will be available by the second quarter of 2000.

COMDIAL CORPORATION
With Comdial Corporation’s  purchase of Array Telecom, an IP telephony gateway vendor, this venerable phone switch company boldly demonstrated that it is serious about the VoIP market. Recently, Comdial announced that it is close to delivering some fruits of the acquisition.

The company’s next generation communications server, the Impact CT, will come equipped with IP telephony access integrated directly into its platform. This product will integrate IP access into the same Windows NT platform and allow it to coexist and cooperate with other programs such as voice mail, ACD, IVR, and Comdial’s proprietary CTI software suite — Impact Call, Impact Group, and Impact Attendant. The integrated IP access will also enhance or enable applications such as unified messaging, remote agents, personal assistant devices, multimedia collaborative workgroups, telecommuting, and call centers.

NEC
Not to be outdone by its competitors, NEC  has embarked on a comprehensive strategy to enhance their flagship NEAX PBX with IP telephony functionality. At the heart of NEC’s strategy is to offer a seamless migration path that avoids any “forklift” activity, protects the investment made by their existing customer base, and preserves the familiar user experience.

To wit, a number of products are being developed to accomplish this goal. This includes the development of new IP trunk and line cards for the NEAX2000, NEAX2400 switch, and NEAX Express IP switch cabinets that support VoIP and H.323 standards by both gateway and gatekeeper functions. The IP line cards support basic IP H.323 phones on a corporate LAN as well as remote access features, and provide access to the switching matrix from new NEAX DTERM IP phones that support the full DTERM PBX phone feature set.

Other features of the DTERM IP phone include a 10/100 Ethernet 2-port hub, a 3 x 20 LCD screen, and “soft keys” for desktop programmability. Other goodies include a new softphone that runs on a networked multimedia PC that supports H.323 and Microsoft NetMeeting and can talk with any other NEAX IP product.
Expected availability of these new enhancements is Q399.

SIEMENS
Siemens Information and Communications Networks, Inc. — the U.S. subsidiary of Siemens AG of Germany, the European networking, communications and electronics powerhouse — was formed in 1998 with the merger of Siemens’ U.S. enterprise and carrier operations in order to create a “one-stop-shop” for advanced telecom solutions. Recently, the company has made it loud and clear that it will not be left floundering in the dust of voice/data convergence. Indeed, the company is in the midst of a complete reformation of its product development and marketing strategy, and has begun to deliver a host of new IP telephony-enabling products that are helping to breathe new life into its flagship Hicom enterprise telephony switch family. The Hicom 150 E is a communication system based on Euro-ISDN technology for digital and analog exchange and user interface, and can support up to 250 voice users.

A few of Siemens’ new offerings include the Hicom Xpress @ LAN, an integrated Ethernet gateway module that enables data communication and analog voice calls to be routed through a Hicom 150 E switch via the IP protocol; the Windows NT-based HiNet RC 3000 communications server that features IP telephony gateway and gatekeeper functionality; the HiNet TA 1100, a terminal adapter for connecting analog phones, faxes, and even modems to an IP-based data network; and the HiNet LP 5100 IP telephone, a full-fledged H.323-compliant Ethernet phone.

With Hicom Xpress @LAN, the Hicom E switch is transformed into a LAN-based communication server and a central platform for voice, data, and fax communication. The Hicom Xpress @ LAN features an integrated H.323 gateway, and allows for access to Hicom 150e features with new Xpress IP client software for multimedia PCs, which includes a JAVA-based interface for conferencing, Caller ID, and other applications. The Hicom Xpress IP client software also allows users to communicate with optiset E system telephones connected to Hicom systems, with any telephone connected to an operator network, and with H.323 standard clients such as personal computers on which Microsoft NetMeeting is running.

Hicom Xpress @LAN connects Ethernet LANs at different sites via dial-up ISDN lines to a corporate network so that branch offices, partner companies, and telecommuters can access central files or files stored at any of the other sites. Personal computers installed outside the corporate LAN can be linked so that authorized personnel can have external access to central IT applications and databases in the company. With Hicom systems integrated in the corporate network, least-cost routes can also be used for data transfers.

The HiNet TA 1100 terminal adapter presents a perfect migration path to IP telephony for existing Hicom switch customers since it promises “plug and play” installation and completely transparent performance. The HiNet TA 1100 features an RJ-11 interface and measures 10.3" x 9" x 1.7". The device supports the H.323 standard to ensure seamless integration with other Internet telephony devices, and many other standards and protocols, including H.225 (signaling), H.245 (media control), TCP/IP (Internet protocol), TFTP (file transfer for remote configuration), DHCP (dynamic IP address assignment), and SNMP (remote network management) protocols. It also supports ITU’s G.711 and G.723.1 voice compression standards — both part of the H.323-standard suite. T.38 (real-time fax over IP) standard compliance is targeted for mid-2000. The unit will be available later this summer and has a planned list price of around $500.

The HiNet LP 5100 is a high-featured business telephone with a built-in Ethernet network adapter for direct connection to a company’s LAN. The HiNet LP 5100 brings many of the desired features of a full-function business telephone to the IP environment, enabling calls between the HiNet LP 5100 and other IP telephones, classic PSTN phones, and H.323-standard-compatible PC clients.

The HiNet LP 5100 offers a number of compelling features. Siemens’ OptiGuide interface, for example, allows users to access and setup phone features by simply scrolling through a menu and selecting the desired option from the phone’s 24-character LCD display. Other features include automatic redial, on-hook dialing, hands-free operation, 16 programmable speed-dial numbers, and a date and time display. The phone also stores information on the last 20 calls not answered, enabling the user to retrieve the names and IP addresses of the callers (if available), and the times of the calls. Finally, the IP phone enables users to download software directly to the phone, making feature upgrades simple.

The HiNet LP 5100 IP supports the H.323, H.225, and H.245 standards and the TCP/IP, FTP, DHCP, and SNTP protocols. ITU standards G.711 (64 Kbps) and G.723.1 (6.3 Kbps) can be used as speech algorithms. High speech quality is achieved by active echo suppression. The implementation of SNMP and the provision of an HTTP server help ensure that the HiNet LP 5100 IP telephone fits into the management environment of the data world. The status, user name, and address can be checked from any workstation, even from a remote workstation. The DHCP protocol makes it easier to configure an IP telephone as each IP telephone can be assigned an IP address automatically. The HiNet LP 5100 IP telephone will also be available later this summer and will be priced at around $425.

Marc Robins is Associate Group Publisher for INTERNET TELEPHONY AND CTI magazines. His column, Mind Share, appears monthly in the pages of INTERNET TELEPHONY magazine. Marc looks forward to your feedback.








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