Feature: Has Cisco’s AVVID lived up to the early hype?

Almost two years ago, at NetWorld+Interop 1999, Cisco Systems Inc. first announced AVVID (architecture for voice, video and integrated data), its all-encompassing blueprint for converged enterprise networks.

While the list of products that come under AVVID’s umbrella continues to increase, some users still see the architecture as focused predominantly on voice over IP rather than as a broad, overarching framework encompassing security, VPNs and other products, as Cisco has positioned it.

Indeed, since its introduction to the market as Cisco’s convergence blueprint, AVVID has become synonymous with IP telephony to many Cisco customers.

“We looked at AVVID as a cost-savings measure,” says Billy Rudeck, network coordinator for Village Care of New York, a Manhattan nonprofit network of health clinics. Rudeck says his firm is looking into Cisco AVVID voice-over-IP products to replace Mitel phones and PBXs in the organization’s seven facilities throughout the city.

“We know Cisco knows what they’re doing with [voice over IP], even though they were not involved in telephony in the past. They’re the pioneers in IP telephony,” he says. “The potential is there in our network for these IP phones to reach more than 1,000 users.”

While Cisco’s AVVID brand has helped the company become a leader in IP telephony – Cisco became the No. 1 seller of IP phones this year, according to Cahners In-Stat Group – the vendor wants to spread its AVVID brand further.

AVVID: More than just VoIP, Cisco says

One thing that Cisco has stressed is that AVVID is supposedly more than just the marriage of IP video/voice to traditional datacom products. Lately, the company has lumped almost every non-service provider announcement it makes – including those on PIX firewalls, VPN products, security and network management software, content distribution and Web switching appliances, as well as storage routing products – into the AVVID product family

Last year, Cisco said it would invest heavily in integrating software and hardware into a more cohesive network communications layer. The push to expand AVVID’s umbrella was led in large part by James Richardson, Cisco’s chief marketing officer, who oversaw AVVID’s inception and development as the former vice president of Cisco’s enterprise line of business (Richardson changed titles when the company reorganized last month).

Richardson has said that investments in middleware development will let AVVID become more than an IP voice and data convergence blueprint and reach into all areas of large enterprise networking – such as e-commerce, content delivery networks and security.

Cisco has taken the steps to do this. The firm has spent more than $4 billion on software companies, while increasing the number of partners in AVVID to 33, including several new members in the security area, such as content filtering firm N2H2 Inc., Entrust Technologies Inc. and Sygate Technologies Inc., which makes personal firewall software.

Also in line with its software investment strategy, Cisco recently released the applications for companies to install around the converged IP voice and data infrastructure promoted by AVVID. Cisco has added personal messaging management applications, scaled-up IP call center applications for both large and small businesses, management software specifically for controlling an IP voice environment and most recently, a version of its unified voice/e-mail messaging software for large companies.

AVVID perceptions

While Cisco has spent billions of dollars on positioning and marketing the AVVID brand, users and network integrators who actually work with AVVID products on a daily basis are making up their own minds about what works, and what doesn’t, regarding Cisco’s “uber-brand.”

“Cisco has done a pretty good job of trying to wrap a brand around AVVID,” says Stu Feddersen, vice president of Network Visions Inc., a Herndon, Va., network integration firm that specializes in installing Cisco voice-over-IP products in small and midsize companies.

“A while back [AVVID] was kind of a piece-parts strategy with different manufacturers’ products they bought. They’ve brought it into a pretty cohesive marketing piece,” he says.

While Feddersen says he has seen AVVID evolve as a marketing plan and product integration blueprint, he says pushing AVVID’s scope beyond IP voice and video might be a stretch for Cisco.

“I really haven’t seen Cisco roll out security pieces or wireless or storage under AVVID,” he says. “I don’t know how that’s going to work. I don’t know if it makes sense either. AVVID’s already pretty broad.”

Feddersen adds that trying to sell IP telephony to a business has unique challenges. Cisco could risk making enterprise users shy away from an already complex technology by piling more applications and technologies on top of AVVID.

Other users call into question Cisco’s choice to rely heavily on Microsoft products for many of the key parts of AVVID, such as a server and messaging platform.

“Cisco AVVID products have their limitations because they’re kind of [Microsoft Windows] NT-ish,” says Steve Donnegan, a senior network architect with Predictive Systems Inc., an integration firm in New York. Donnegan, who has helped several companies install Cisco voice-over-IP sites, says because Cisco’s CallManager software and Media Convergence Server hardware are based on the NT server operating system, the offering can be a turnoff for some corporate users.

One early adopter says he would like to see Cisco rely less on Microsoft software, but is not displeased with his AVVID-based voice-over-IP network.

“My gut feeling is that Cisco is a data company in the first place and a telephony vendor in the second place,” says Jim Olson, CIO of Menlo College in Atherton, Calif. Menlo uses Cisco’s CallManager software to support 600 students, staff and faculty on its IP phone network.

Olson figures Cisco did not want to reinvent the wheel when it got into the voice-over-IP business by creating its own IP PBX operating system.

“Cisco wants to be first to market with an IP voice server, so they developed something fast and got the thing out the door and that’s fine,” he says.

While Olson hasn’t experienced many problems with CallManager servers crashing, he would like to see Cisco come up with either a Unix- or Linux-based platform for its IP voice servers.

“Cisco is new to servers,” Olson says, but he doesn’t see that as a major problem. “AVVID is the way to do [voice over IP]. If I were to go with another college, I’d choose to install [voice over IP] with Cisco again.”