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March 2010 | Volume 13 / Number 3
The Channel Perspective

Appliance vs. Software Voice Architectures: Two Paths to a More Unified Business

As the global business market evolves, enterprises are forced to fight for competitive advantage. Converging information and communications technologies help to create differentiation while laying the foundation for a more efficient, unified business. Unifying infrastructure over IP networks to accommodate voice and data is the technology foundation of a unified business.

Companies can build a solid path to convergence in one of two ways: using traditional communications appliances, or with a software-based architecture approach. Increasingly, I’ve been getting questions from our dealers asking which path is best for their customers. The answer is simple: it just depends.

Both approaches ultimately can deliver equally robust IP telephony and unified communications functionality, so the advice I give is enterprises should select the most appropriate path based on current technology, budget requirements and future business goals.

The appliance-based approach employs proprietary hardware components commonly used within a traditional voice network. For many, this is a tried-and-true approach that allows enterprises to migrate over time and as business dictates. Companies can use a phased approach and implement smaller projects to reduce risk and costs. It also makes possible the deployment of advanced unified communications and mobility applications to targeted or broad groups. Since the hardware-based approach also supports TDM, digital and IP environments, companies can use existing equipment and phones over the duration of the migration, thus extending the lifespan of current investments.

The hardware-based approach is still preferred by a number of telecommunications and IT managers familiar with the wide variety of these solutions on the market. For this reason, appliance-based solutions are ideal for technology migrations, such as companies that already have a large amount of hardware invested in an existing solution, and organizations that require minimal disruption to normal business (like hospitals) as well as those needing to spread deployment over several budget cycles.

The software-based communications approach involves installing an enterprise-class softswitch on industry-standard servers, which support voice and unified communications services from a virtualized or traditional data center over the IT network as if they were any other business applications. This approach is ideal for companies seeking flexible management, easy deployment, full redundancy and failover capability with state-of-the-art business communications features. It also requires a willingness to make a comprehensive change from their existing proprietary hardware infrastructure.

Because some software-based solutions operate on open standards, companies can integrate the solutions with other applications on the network to communications-enable business applications (i.e. ERP, CRM, or customer Web portals) to shorten or otherwise improve business processes for greater efficiency and profitability.

Because software-based communications runs on industry-standard servers, many IT managers unfamiliar with appliance-based telephony prefer this solution because the deployment and management is similar to that of other applications on the network.

The software-based approach is ideal for enterprises that need to replace outdated equipment and wiring. It is also a viable solution for reducing monthly telecom costs via SIP trunking, but can also work with analog and digital handsets using gateways.

Software-based convergence is currently gaining popularity as more companies embrace service-oriented architectures. SOA enables companies to share and reuse application technology easily. It also allows software-based communications solutions to fit easily within SOA environments.

IDC (News - Alert) estimates that roughly half of all large U.S. enterprises either have deployed or are piloting SOA projects. The report reveals most respondents report keeping up with new business dynamics as their organization’s primary motivation.

In summary, enterprises should select either the hardware-based or software-based approach based on company-specific goals and needs. Companies should map their convergence strategies to best facilitate their organization’s overall business goals. What’s more, becoming well acquainted with financial implications of the project (e.g. return on investment and total cost of ownership) should be contributing factors in determining whether a complete overhaul or migration approach is best for a particular environment.

Best practices also include becoming thoroughly familiar with existing infrastructure and equipment. By understanding each of the key components within infrastructure, companies can better assess what elements perform well and which ones could use improvement.

As always, offering services as a trusted technology partner, dealer or consultant is another key to helping customers choose the appropriate convergence path. A knowledgeable partner is committed to the most viable solutions to meet customer needs, as well as its continual development and forward migration path. IT

Larry Levenberg (News - Alert) is vice president and general manager of national channels at NEC Corp. of America (

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