Do VoIP vendors strong-arm customers into committing?

A debate has been sparked within the VoIP (voice over IP) vendor community over accusations from 3Com Corp. that other equipment makers are forcing customers to invest exclusively in their solutions.

“Some of our competitors are suggesting that you pull out [your existing Ethernet network] and start again with a branded solution,” said Greg Zweig, a 3Com product manager. “A customer who has a perfectly good, operational system is suddenly told by a sales rep, ‘That’s nice, but it doesn’t meet our requirements for X, Y, and Z.'”

To many, those tactics violate one of the founding principles of IP networking: that third-party equipment, ranging from PBXs to desktop phones, should interoperate with equipment from other vendors.

Cisco Systems Inc. ranks among the worst offenders, according to Zweig, who accused the networker of seeking to control customers at every level of the network infrastructure, thereby preventing them from selecting the solutions that best meet their needs.

Worse, some observers feel that the move toward branded solutions is being conducted very subtly, meaning that customers are unlikely to even realize that they are being forced into committing to a single vendor.

“You hear a lot of references to the ability to take advantage of installed equipment,” Zweig explained. “But what if you don’t have that equipment? What if you have something older installed? What [other vendors] are really saying is that you have to take out [legacy equipment] and put in [new equipment].”

Some customers have also cried foul over Cisco’s perceived strong-arm tactics. For example, the Exeter Township School District in Reading, Pa., is currently migrating its equipment from Cisco to 3Com partly because of interoperability concerns.

“[3Com’s claims] are pretty accurate,” said Joe Way, the school district’s IT supervisor. “We had several resellers saying, ‘You have a Cisco network, so if you have any 3Com switches around, you’ll need to upgrade them to Cisco.'”

Cisco defended itself by pointing out that its equipment is completely interoperable with third-party gear, such as gateways. However, the company also sticks by the single-vendor approach, arguing that end-to-end solutions offer features such as integrated management that are not available in mixed-equipment environments.

“If you’re using a best-of-breed approach, you assume that you can’t get everything you’re looking for in an end-to-end solution; and if you’re [using] an end-to-end solution, perhaps you’re willing to give up a feature or two to get an integrated solution that has integrated management,” said Craig Cotton, a senior product manager with Cisco’s enterprise voice and video business unit. “We support both camps. I don’t think we’ve got anything to hide.”

Other VoIP players, such as Basking Ridge, N.J.-based equipment maker Avaya, have sided with Cisco’s approach, suggesting that even if the San Jose, Calif.-based giant is guilty of attempting to corner the market, those activities do not conflict with standard business practices.

“Cisco, with much of the installed base, is doubtless arguing – as any of us would do in that situation – that it all works together,” said Donald Peterson, Avaya’s president and CEO. “That’s a standard competitive practice in all industries. It’s a little bit in the eye of the beholder.”

Peterson allowed that “there’s an increasing realization that VoIP needs to work within other ongoing networks at the enterprise level,” but he also said that Cisco’s success in selling networking gear bodes well for the industry as a whole.

“Four out of five LANs are not ready for VoIP,” Peterson said, citing independent research. “What [Cisco] wants to do is build the infrastructure. Voice, more than any other application today, drives upgrades to that infrastructure. It’s the right thing to do, because there is value in delivering application access broadly.”

In the standards arena, Cisco admits having occasionally broken away from the norm in order to innovate, partly because standards have not been established in all areas of VoIP technology and partly because the standards that do exist do not always address customer requirements, according to Cotton.

As an example, he pointed to Cisco’s use of SCCP (Skinny Client Control Protocol) signaling technology in its IP telephony systems, which, although not ratified by any standards body, still provides a more effective means by which IP phones can communicate with call agents than the H.323 standard can.

However when Microsoft recently threw its weight behind the SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) standard, citing the technology’s ability to integrate with legacy systems, a blow was struck against Cisco and its proprietary AVVID (Architecture for Voice, Video, and Integrated Data) standard. SIP support is included in Microsoft’s Windows Messenger, XP, and CE products.

Many other vendors are also jumping aboard the SIP bandwagon, such as Sei Yang Network Communications and Voix, which demonstrated SIP support for their VoIP products at the recent Comdex tradeshow in Las Vegas.