Cisco forges ahead into unified messaging

Cisco Systems Inc. is expected to announce a new version of its unified messaging server with twice the end-user capacity as before, reinforcing the notion that the company intends to be a major player in the enterprise messaging software arena.

The company is expected to announce that the Cisco Unity 3.0 will increase the total number of users, or “subscribers,” on a Cisco Unity server to 5,000, as opposed to the 2,500 limit on Unity 2.46, according to product information obtained from sources.

Cisco would not confirm nor deny that they would make the announcement.

The software will also reportedly let users set up and manage a unified voice and e-mail system by hooking into Microsoft Active Directory in a Windows/Exchange 2000 network, letting network and messaging system administration be centralized. Cisco Unity 3.0 will be available only for Windows 2000, but will work in a mixed Windows NT/2000 environment, according to product information.

Pricing for Unity 3.0 will be the same as the previous version, starting at US$146 per seat.

While Cisco’s clout with large companies may help it become a unified messaging player, analysts say the network hardware giant will have to fine-tune its sales engine to pitch mission-critical applications, such as messaging, to big corporations.

Cisco’s Unity product is part of its AVVID (Architecture for Voice, Video and Integrated Data) IP telephony product family, which includes Cisco’s CallManager server software; its Media Convergence Server (MCS), a dedicated server running CallManager on top of Windows NT; as well as IP phones, VoIP and IP video gateways and VoIP-enabled routers and switches.

Cisco’s Unity product competes with unified messaging wares such as Nortel’s CallPilot, and Avaya’s (formerly Lucent’s) Unified Messenger. Avaya and Nortel have offered unified messaging products for their circuit-switched PBX voice mail systems for several years, and both companies this year have integrated the software with their IP-based call server offerings. Unlike its competitors, Cisco has no PBX customer base to tap for its Unity product, but plans to push unified messaging and IP telephony into corporations looking to replace their aging PBXs. Unity can also be integrated with PBXs.

A Unity server provides voice mail services by connecting over an IP network to an MCS, or cluster of MCSs, running CallManager 3.0. Unity 3.0 also can provide unified voice mail and e-mail to multiple MCS clusters.

The Unity software, which runs on a Windows 2000 server, interfaces with an Exchange 2000 server, allowing voice mail – saved on the Unity server as WAV sound files – to appear in an end-user’s mailbox. This lets users listen to voice mail on a PC. Users can view voice and text messages through a Microsoft Outlook application, or see their voice mail in a list on a Cisco IP phone’s display screen. Unity’s text-to-speech engine can also translate e-mail text into a computer-generated voice, which lets users have e-mail “read” to them over a phone.

The State of Connecticut will roll out Cisco Unity 3.0 and Microsoft Exchange 2000 over the next several weeks. The Cisco/Microsoft Corp. combination will serve 1000 employees in the state’s 62 agencies, says Rock Regan, the state’s CIO.

“This will allow our employees, regardless of where they are, to deal with all kinds of messages from one system,” Regan says of the Unity server. Besides giving state employees a new productivity tool, Regan adds that the ability to standardize on one system for voice mail and e-mail, and manage both messaging technologies from one directory, was a major motivator for going with unified messaging.

Connecticut’s Department of Information Technology installed a Cisco AVVID voice-over-IP system a year ago, and was using Cisco’s Unified Open Network Exchange voice mail-only product to support around 600 IP phone users, according to Bob Dixon, director of enterprise networking for the state.

“We decided not to spend any time or money on the previous version [of Unity] because of where we’re going on our other server initiatives,” including Windows 2000 server and Exchange 2000, Dixon says. “Because [Unity] is a similar product to what we had before, the risk is a lot lower,” Dixon says.

With 70 percent of the enterprise switching market under its thumb, and the top spot in terms of IP phone shipments so far this year (according to International Data Corp. and Cahners In-Stat Group), Cisco is looking to use its hefty influence in converged IP networks by pushing applications such as unified messaging, personal organization software (such as its Personal Assistant product) and call center applications, into large companies.

According to IDC, the number of unified messaging user mailboxes will boom over next few years, going from 3.1 million mailboxes installed this year to 21.7 million mailboxes by 2005.

Robert Mahowald, senior analyst at IDC, thinks Cisco can be a factor in the market if it can focus on selling IP telephony and messaging software differently from how it markets routers and switches.

“I’m not sure if Cisco salespeople know how to sell software,” he says. “They’re new to software. While the idea of unified messaging is great for Cisco’s business, they have to learn more about how this fits into the overall enterprise puzzle.”