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When Opportunity Knocks, Answer The Door


Rich Tehrani

You’ve no doubt read about Just in Time Communications (JITC), the concept of squeezing the inefficiency out of communications. I’ve met with most every major telecom player about this idea and whether they refer to what they are doing as JITC or not, they all seem to be after the same goal: Making us more productive and efficient through the use of effective communications.

One of the companies on the fast track to boosting our productivity is Inter-Tel, a communications company that has been around for a good long while. A public company, the Arizona-based organization isn’t as big as its largest competitors so it has chosen instead to be quicker and more technology-centric than its competitors. In the nineties, it was one of the first companies to market with CTI solutions for the mid-market. The company also embraced VoIP before just about any other PBX player.

Now they are at it again, pushing out leading-edge applications ahead of the curve. To facilitate their latest announcement, the company purchased a leading Web collaboration company named Linktivity last year. Inter-Tel has kept the Linktivity brand alive and in fact released products from the subsidiary just this past December.

Most recently Inter-Tel announced collaboration products named Remote Support and Web Conferencing. Remote Support is Web-based and allows agents to remotely view and control a customer’s desktop so they can effectively troubleshoot and resolve problems or issues with software, etc. This solution can also be used to install software remotely, configure software, and co-browse to allow customers to see links to important resources on the Web.

The product also allows a queuing capability that visually displays specific information on incoming callers, a recording and playback feature developed to enhance technical training and development, a system recovery tool to allow complex problems to be resolved quickly, and online management tools to track and access service histories and other relevant data. What is nice about the application in my opinion is the fact that no software needs to be loaded on a client PC to make this work. I frequently speak as part of webinars and in order to do so in many cases, I must download some sort of software to my desktop. In some cases I need presenter software and also regular “attendee” software. I have come across many enterprises who don’t allow such software to be installed, meaning collaboration software requiring installs can’t be used.

The Web Conferencing product would obviously be similar to the above product but used generally for different applications and as such, the program’s ability to allow for document sharing, file transfers, and other collaborative activities makes sense. Users can take advantage of one-click Web and multi-point video conferencing. The program also integrates with Microsoft Outlook e-mail and calendaring and supports 128-bit encryption as well.

Other points worth noting... These products are smart enough to step down in functionality and interface complexity to deal with over-zealous firewalls. There is an HTML interface that is employed if Java doesn’t work for some reason (yes you have to have Java downloaded for this to work). There is also a Pocket PC client for those of you with iPaqs and other PDAs. Speech technology can be used to change preferences if needed. For current Inter-Tel customers, the company has done its best to be backwards compatible and if your PBX is four years old or newer you can use these applications. I think this is pretty impressive.

I am further impressed by the licensing terms allowing for concurrent users as opposed to per-seat. Packages start at 10 concurrent users, 15, 20, and then up to 100.

Two trends are driving JITC, the first is the realization by all hardware vendors that they are in a dead end business. China will soon eat their lunch. They can choose to do what IBM did and partner with a Chinese company to manufacture products, but still, margins are being squeezed out of hardware so even if you go the China route which many are already doing, you aren’t going to make lots of money selling PBXs. Right now there is a good amount of money being made selling phones but that won’t last forever as soft phone adoption grows, SIP becomes more ubiquitous, and commoditization takes hold.

That leaves software and after you make a soft client you need to figure out what other applications you can sell. Productivity tools are a logical step which is why we are seeing so many PBX companies preaching the productivity mantra. Problem is, they are still all calling it something different.

What does all this mean for you, the purchaser of these systems? Everything. Productivity boosts beyond your wildest dreams. Think I am dreaming? Imagine your users able to instantaneously launch audio and Web and even video conferencing, as easily as you IM. But in this case, the telephony is tied in. Imagine being able to show others a question you have with a document. You can get an instant response on your queries. You can work together to improve the document, get instant sign-off, and record all versions of the document while recording the conversations and corrections regarding the document in question.

Productivity will shoot up when these applications become commonplace, the physical location of workers will not matter. Instead of caring where people are you will need to worry about your worker’s proximity to broadband. We are talking about the connected, seamless, all encompassing corporation that moves at the speed of light and takes no prisoners. If you think technology has made business fast-paced because of e-mail and IM, you aint seen nothing yet. The game will get more fun, you will become more productive and we all win. Will you gain your nights and weekends back to spend with your family instead of checking volumes of e-mail? Sorry — probably not. But on the bright side, if you make your company this much more productive you can likely ask for a nice fat raise. Happy negotiating.

DSP Board Happenings
I recently blogged about how Howard Bubb left Intel/Dialogic after an impressive career helping to build an industry we once referred to as CTI or computer telephony. During Howard’s tenure, Dialogic grew like crazy, they developed an ecosystem of profitable partners and made lots of money for a lot of people to share. Bubb’s company was late to the VoIP gateway market but soon thereafter became the market share leader. Natural Microsystems gets credit for really popularizing the VoIP gateway in the late nineties.

Another departure from the industry was Mike Ross who everyone knows as one of the nicest guys in telecom and with a legacy that others can only envy. He was an essential part of Dialogic during the eighties, founded Rhetorex (now part of Brooktrout) and headed up Aculab in Florida for over five years.

Apparently Bubb is at a start up and I haven’t had a chance to track down what he is up to. Mike Ross is going to do something grand in my opinion. We recently spoke and I am impressed with some of the ideas he has about starting a new business. I can’t share anything specific with you as of yet.

Taking Mike’s place is Mike Donoghue, a veteran of Brooktrout that I had a chance to sit down with recently. Donoghue seems more than up to the task of leading this company into the future and as his first move he will be relocating the company’s headquarters to Massachusetts from Florida. Not only is this where he lives but it gives the company access to loads of talent from Brooktrout, NMS, and AudioCodes. They are hiring so send a resume if you are interested (not to me please, to Mike).

I also recently had a chance to speak with Allan Pound, the founder of Aculab and he is more energized now than at any time I have seen him in the past. Actually to be specific, I saw him this engaged when he launched Prosody, a very dense DSP resource board in the late nineties. Now he is back with what seems like an amazing evolution of this same product: Prosody X. This new board is also very powerful, allowing up to 600 channels of media processing. The core of the card is IP — actually an Ethernet switch. This is in addition to a TDM matrix used by past Prosody cards. There are a number of TDM options and strong SS7 support. We can further expect PCI Express and cPCI variants of this product in the future and ATCA is on the table with no definitive decision to move forward as of yet. The price/performance of this solution is said to be 30–40 percent lower than competing alternatives.

If the “X” product is overkill for you, you may want to consider Prosody “S” as this product is HMP-based and fits better in an SMB environment with the ability to scale.

Speaking At SuperComm With The IPCC
At SuperComm a few weeks back, I was invited to speak on a panel moderated by the IPCC’s Michael Khalilian. The IPCC is the leading VoIP association of service providers and equipment manufacturers and Mike did a stellar job moderating a standing-room only crowd eager to learn about VoIP and what the future holds in this space. The panelists (including Time Warner Telecom’s Erol Turner and SIPquest’s Vish Raju) were first rate and I learned lots while I wasn’t speaking. I even took notes.

Khalilian started off by saying that the FCC shouldn’t just make policy but they need to also provide tools allowing service providers to do what is requested of them. Of course he was referring to 911 and the ability for VoIP providers to provide e911 at reasonable rates.

He went on to ask what happens when you try to make a 911 call on a cell phone that goes out of service? Is Nokia liable for such issues? He has a valid point. Today, if a 911 service provider tells you that you need to sign up for 911 and the customer fails to do so, it is the service provider’s fault. The cellular network after over a decade of development is off the hook if they drop a 911 call or if they don’t have coverage in areas they claim to have coverage. Seems like a double-standard to me. Part of this issue gets back to the definition of a service provider as true service providers are protected to some degree from such lawsuits. VoIP providers are not generally classified as service providers and subsequently need to deal with certain liability issues.

Mike went on to discuss that service providers today must give all the class 4 and 5 features that customers are used to. You can’t skimp on features and finally, the future of VoIP is WiFi telephony and bundled services. Who can argue with that?

Erol Turner of Time Warner Telecom, a telecom industry veteran, discussed his fascination with SIP and the growth rates it is experiencing. Turner said that in five years, even his refrigerator will be controlled by SIP. Is he serious? I am not sure but he said he would put money on it. This means he will either have an unlisted non-SIP number in five years if he is wrong, or he’ll be rich.
Speaking of riches, the most common question I seem to get from people recently is how they can make money in VoIP. Turner told the audience that if he had to leave his job and do something else, he would become a systems integrator. I guess this means that Time Warner telecom job pays pretty well for now.

Vish Raju from SIPquest explained that we need to improve the user experience and we need to enable virtual work-teams. His presentation echoed mine on Just in Time Communications in many ways. IMS excited Vish a great deal and he sees this as the future of telecom. “Communications will eventually become less ‘siloed’ and SIP and IMS will help make this happen.” He said. The promise of IMS is how the panel finished off and he described IMS as “Bell head” a “Net Head” and a “VoIP Head” coming together.

What’s New?
I met a number of companies at the show and one of the first on my list was BEA Systems. My talk with the company was exciting as it reminded me a great deal of what I heard from Lucent in 1999. Back then the premise was that the really exciting applications were going to be developed by 17–25 year-olds. So I smiled when I heard company representatives repeating this now half-decade old prediction. I believe it to be true as well and just like shopping online the prediction was a bit ahead of its time.

BEA Systems
BEA is well connected with service providers, already providing valuable infrastructure to this community. They are in a great position to continue supplying service providers with SIP solutions as the world transitions to VoIP, SIP, and IMS. By enabling applications to be developed using Java and SIP Servlets and allowing developers to deploy applications on carrier networks in a safe and secure manner, tomorrow’s service providers can attract leading edge developers to their platforms.

The company’s various products from SIP Server to Communications Platform work together to allow wireline and wireless providers to among other things, take advantage of a new source of developers on their platforms.

Broadsoft announced some new customer wins at the show but what is more interesting to me is their offerings in the hosted PBX space — applied to mobile carriers. Their Mobile PBX product allows service providers to allow employees to park and pick up calls with full Web control. You also get unified messaging and many of the features of VoIP without the need for VoIP. Of course VoIP can be offered as well in the fixed line world and as wireless and wireline converge, service providers can now offer the best of both worlds and tie it all together for their enterprise customers.

These services can also be supplied by an MVNO if you like and the company claims their solution is the first IMS compliant application server to be shipping. What I am seeing in the market between Broadsoft and Sylantro besides intense competition is growth. This segment is finally doing well after years of struggling in a tough market.

In what may be the most strategic acquisition in VoIP after the acquisition of NBX by 3Com and Selsius by Cisco back in “the day” (prior to 2001) is the acquisition of Jasomi by Ditech Communications. When I recently met with Ditech executives prior to this announcement I asked a whole bunch of questions about how their transcoding solutions would work with a session border controller (SBC). It seemed that the intersection of these two markets made a great deal of sense and Ditech’s experience in codecs and wireless coupled with a session border controller would make a nice offering.

A few months later, the company announced they acquired Jasomi and are now offering what they call the best border services offering consisting of transcoding and encryption among other services. The combined solution goes beyond security and NAT traversal to QoS security, giving what the company calls an umbrella of control. As threats such a voice phishing become prevalent, security becomes an important issue and Ditech Communications is doing a great job getting out ahead of the curve. The future for Ditech? They see themselves evolving into the media layer of IMS.

One last comment on this transaction is that one of the influential factors in the transaction was Jasomi’s decision to design their next generation SBC on ATCA architecture, the new telco grade form factor being touted by Intel among others. Obviously using the same form factor and bus means that cards can be mixed and matched in a chassis to get the desired level of functionality needed depending on the application.

Jasomi is the second SBC vendor to be picked up recently. A few others I have spoken with are in talks to sell. Cisco in fact was rumored to have just passed on an SBC deal a short while back with the word on the street saying that they will acquire someone soon. Interestingly not too long ago, those intimately involved in the SIP space declared SBCs superfluous, now, based on all the M&A activity, they seem to have become the glue that holds VoIP together.

Versatel Networks
You can get bleary-eyed learning about the various technologies in the VoIP space for service providers so whenever I speak with Versatel Networks I look forward to the meeting as they look at VoIP the way I do and that is with “revenue generating services” colored glasses. Their mission is to personalize VoIP and if you are looking to squeeze revenue out of VoIP, you better personalize it by developing device agnostic applications. Similar to BEA Systems, the mantra here is let developers who are not necessarily telecom experts have access to building tomorrow’s killer application.

Some of the applications they allow are a family or workgroup oriented push to talk service. Today there are push to talk services marketed heavily and family plans promoted heavily. Where the two intersect is a sweet spot in the company’s opinion. And mine.
I saw some intriguing demos that kids will drool over, like dragging a buddy list into a voice portal to allow instantaneous conversations. I saw an application that allowed a virtual number to be allocated to a conference bridge coupled with an auto-dialer allowing you to instantaneously connect to a number of callers. In other words, I could have a number, or an IVR menu option assigned to my editorial team for example. When triggered, all parties will be called immediately. You can also set up ring-back tones that are customized for a specific caller allowing you to play a customized message to you spouse for example. This message would be played instead of the typical ringing tone we are familiar with. I could go on but you get the idea. VoIP revenue generation is about services and these services need to be created easily. Companies like Versatel Networks are helping to bring these services to market.

Metro Ethernet Forum
As we walk down the path of new services let’s keep in mind that many of them will take up massive quantities of bandwidth. As such we need to explore ways to get this bandwidth to customers effectively. One way is via Ethernet and if you believe a legion of analysts and the vendors who generally pay the analyst’s salaries, metro Ethernet is where things are headed. In this case I believe the analysts are onto something and metro Ethernet looks like it will become the dominant broadband standard for the enterprise at some point.

I stopped in on the Metro Ethernet Forum’s booth for what was one of the more professional presentations at the show, allowing me to witness IPTV, VoIP, guaranteed rate Internet access and more. The forum has recently contracted with a test lab to allow for certifications so that products will be guaranteed to work together. A full sixty companies that make hardware are part of the forum making it quite a force in the market. Associations like the MEF are crucial to enabling the next generation of bandwidth hungry applications and I salute the association and their partners for helping to get the industry moving towards interoperability across vendor’s products.

VocalTec has made strides in improving its Essentra softswitch platform. They tell me they pretty much have full Centrex functionality and that they compete well with other players in the market. In a continuing sign of converging markets, there is an integrated application server as well, meaning no third party is needed. Furthermore, provisioning is done at once instead of separately. A continuing trend in VoIP and information technology in general is the move to open-source and following this movement, VocalTec has embraced Linux. Similar to solutions from Brooktrout’s SnowShore division the whole package is sold in an IBM Bladecenter T — the ruggedized telecom based server that IBM seems to be having good success selling into the OEM market. In a single cage I am told you can support up to 250,000 redundant subscribers.

Persona Software
Longboard has renamed their company Persona Software and is focusing more squarely on the fixed mobile convergence market or FMC. They play in a space that sees companies such as Bridgeport Networks and Kineto Wireless and they focus on providing a richer set of applications than their competition. The Persona Platform can be an integral part of IMS allowing you to take advantage of many of the 3GPP features today without a forklift upgrade. A case in point is a great demo I saw of a dual mode phone working in the WiFi world transitioning in a few milliseconds to a GSM network and back. I asked how the hotspot would recognize the device and they told me that the service provider would have an agreement with the hotspot vendor and auto logon will take place via an HTTP server. The WEP key will be stored in a database allowing devices to get on the network and be billed accordingly. Dual mode phones will be all the rage in 2007-2008 in my opinion. I am looking forward to getting one for myself.

Bridgewater Systems
Are you one of those people who hogs bandwidth? You know who you are — you are one of the 5 percent of the customers that hogs up to 60 percent of network resources. You heard that right. I suppose many of these people are listening to the latest album from 50 Cent (sure, I am hip) they just downloaded and don’t have time to read my column. A company called Bridgewater Systems makes products that help service providers by allowing for tiered service levels, policy based bandwidth management, metered services, and a whole host of applications from variable QoS services to triple-play to bandwidth on demand. Service providers need ways to generate more average revenue per user (ARPU) and using these techniques, you can achieve such goals.
The company recently decided work on interoperability with companies that manage deep packet inspection allowing for much more granular intelligence about subscriber usage patterns. This technology can be used to direct subscribers to a portal to purchase more bandwidth if they bump up against the maximum allowed threshold for example. Virus detection is another potential use for this feature.

By the time you read this article a flood of WiFi telephony handsets will be on the way to the consumer market from companies like Vonage and Vox Communications. UTStarcom is one of the companies behind the push towards economical WiFi telephony handsets. The company is as much of a force in the service provider space as they are going to become in consumer electronics with this new phone. They recently partnered with Cisco to provide a TV over IP (not to be confused with IPTV) solution to the Brazilian market. The company has also announced a third-generation IP DSLAM named the AN-2000 B1000. The DSL access module will allow bandwidth hungry applications such as IPTV to be rolled out easily. There is also an interesting product called the UBS Fiber Node, an environmentally hardened DSLAM that can be frozen, thrown in water, and launched in the nose of an ICBM (I made the last part up) and still work. We will be seeing more solutions from this company in my opinion as they are gaining tremendous moment um in the market.

ATCA seems to be to have become the defacto Intel-based architecture for building service provider telecom applications. I am seeing more and more companies migrate from proprietary hardware to ATCA systems in an effort to reduce the need to deal with proprietary hardware design and furthermore the ability to take advantage of regular and predictable performance increases.

Intel has noticed this trend and works with manufacturers to help them get their products on ACTA as soon as possible. The more equipment vendors that make the switch, the more processors and associated technology Intel sells. Great business model, isn’t it? In fact if the recent move by Apple to Intel doesn’t tell you about the future of competing in the hardware business with Intel, I am not sure what will... The point is that if you have a proprietary SBC and your competitor is betting on ATCA, you will likely be behind in cost/performance.

Intel is very focused on the emerging areas of telecom and IMS is an important region of growth for the company. They have had 95 ATCA design wins as of late and they are not taking this momentum for granted. They have published interoperability design guides to help different products work with one another like a single and happy TCA family. When I asked about some of the competing enterprise server platforms that are in the telecom space, they told me politely that an enterprise server is just not designed for telecom. They have a point and it isn’t like they don’t make money if you put your operations on an enterprise server (unless of course you’re using AMD chips).

Simply stated, Intel sees a tremendous opportunity for vendors to develop on ATCA as they can increase the time to marker and in turn time to revenue.

Spirent may have had more releases at SuperComm than any other company I visited with. One of the areas of focus was triple-play where Spirent will assure QoS to keep customers happy. They have developed 20 critical test scenarios and test each network element, end-to-end across the network and then continue to monitor QoS after deployment. In addition, the Abacus 53 IP telephony and Video Rollout System validates voice and video media quality in pre-production triple-play networks. Consider the 53 a condensed Abacus 5000 that is ideally suited for distributed deployment. Obviously testing new services and video QoS are crucial to get right before customer roll-out and that is why Spirent has chosen to launch a broad array of testing products to help service providers solve network problems before deployment and in addition be notified as soon as there is a problem with voice or video performance.

VoIP Developer
The inertia in the service provider market seems greater to me than in the enterprise space at the moment. Many developers attending TMC’s VoIP Developer Conference ( next month have told me they think the best ROI is in the provider space. There is just s much spending that is going to be done by service providers as they embrace VoIP. From IMS to new ATCA systems, I see this segment of the market growing fastest for the foreseeable future. I also believe we are at an inflection point in the enterprise space. A boatload of new resellers are learning to sell VoIP and they will soon give the SMB market a tremendous shot in the arm. IT


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