Avaya reassures Nortel customers at conference

When Nortel Networks Inc.’s enterprise division was sold to Avaya Inc. just over a year ago, Toronto’s Humber River Regional Hospital was one of hundreds of organizations across the country with Nortel equipment who were worried: What’s the future of our phone system?

That’s one reason why Lynn Yurchuk, the hospital’s telecommunications manager attended a panel on options for Nortel system owners at a telephony conference in Toronto on Thursday.

There she and others in the audience heard an Avaya Canada Inc. official try to put their minds at ease, while a competitor hinted lots of Nortel customers were abandoning ship.

“Rest assured your investments in existing [Nortel] platforms are still good,” said Amir Hameed, director of national solution specialists.

Avaya will allow Nortel customers to either upgrade their software to the latest versions or convert to Avaya’s Aura platform at their own pace, he said. Since Nortel and Aura products are Session Initiated Protocol (SIP)-based, changing platforms will be seamless, he said. There will be a one-year advance notice when production of Nortel products are to be ended, and support for them will be continued for another six years.

But panelist David Hobbs, a senior solutions engineer with the Canadian division of ShorTel Inc., which makes unified communications systems, wanted to make sure the audience knew Nortel owners have a choice.

ShorTel’s telephony equipment runs on one software platform, he said, and is managed from a single Web-based interface. Asked by a moderator why Nortel customers switch to Shortel, he replied, “simplicity” in operations and installation.

Partly caught in the middle was Andrew Judd, senior solutions engineer with Toronto-based Eclipse Technology Solutions Inc., a telecommunications integrator which sells equipment from Avaya, Cisco Systems Inc. and Mitel Networks.

He pointed to advantages of all three manufacturers: Avaya has a standards-based architecture that integrates well with Nortel’s platforms and has one of the best contact centres; Cisco has a wide product range with unified communications baked into every one; and Mitel has tight integration with Research In Motion’s BlackBerry Mobile Voice System (MVS), which links the handset to many telephony systems.

There’s lots of life left in Nortel systems, Judd added. But, he said, some companies don’t want to merge into the Avaya system for a variety of reasons: Modern telephony systems are IP-based as are their data networks, so it can make sense to have identical telephony and network vendors; and some are looking for a “killer app” Avaya doesn’t have.

One thing panelists did agree on: Microsoft Corp.’s new Lync communications platform, which has replaced Office Communications Server, isn’t ready to take over the entire corporate communications system.

In the end, Judd tried to give independent advice for all users: “Look at your business. What do you need? What’s the growth potential within your organization? Then pick the solution that best meets your needs.”

That was the take away for Humber River hospital’s Lynn Yurchuk. In an interview after the session, she said she didn’t have concerns with Avaya’s purchase of Nortel’s enterprise division. But she admitted that others in the hospital aren’t sure whether they should abandon their Nortel Communications Server (CS) 1000 system for Avaya Aura or something new. A choice has to be made soon because the institution is preparing to build a new facility, merging three hospitals across the city into one.

The conference, which was aptly named Know Your Alternatives, also had panels on how to assess managed and hosted telephony services, the benefits of SIP and competition in the industry.

At an opening panel, executives of Mitel and Shortel also took pains to tell the audience their platforms are options for Nortel customers.

While Avaya has been careful in the past year to ease concerns of Nortel customers, at least one isn’t happy. A network staffer at an Ontario company at the conference told Network World Canada his firm isn’t happy that it can’t buy more licences for its Nortel CS 1000 system unless it upgrades to a newer version of the operating system. “If we’re going to pay a half a million dollars we might was well look for alternatives,” he said. The staff can’t be identified because his company hasn’t authorized him to speak to the press.

Told of the comment, Avaya’s Hameed said in an interview the customer is running a version of software that was unsupported when Avaya bought Nortel, so it can’t sell more licences. Avaya has made it clear that it will support CS 1000 Release 5.0 and above, he said. “That being said, we’re committed to making our customers happy,” Hameed added, and welcomed an opportunity to talk to the customer.

Luc Babineau, a telecommunications consultant with Integrated Voice Services Inc. of Aurora, Ont., who was at the conference, said there was a lot of uncertainty among Nortel customers after Avaya’s Nortel deal. However, he added, Avaya has done a good job of reassuring them.

One the other hand, he added, it has opened some customers to thinking about changing suppliers.