Media servers will bring new services

As service providers slow their spending on gear to make the transition to versatile packet-based networks, one piece of network equipment that spans legacy and next-generation networks may buck that trend.

The media server, a general-purpose processing workhorse, plugs into either traditional voice networks or packet voice networks to deliver such services as voice recognition and voice-to-text messaging, among others. They crunch packets on behalf of service software, packages that define new services and reside on the media server or on other application servers.

Under the instruction of the service software, the media server might convert voice into text for a unified messaging service, or process speech to trigger the appropriate recorded answer in a voice-activated response service.

The services these devices support will be attractive in a number of ways to enterprises. A corporation might buy, for example, a service that allows callers to navigate the company’s automated attendant using normal speech rather than punching phone digits. Also, internal sales forces can use the same type of voice-activated services to automate access to key data they need when they are on the road.

This valuable functionality is keeping the money flowing for young companies that are developing these devices, says Morgan Jones, a general partner with Battery Ventures. Battery has invested in media server maker IP Unity, and Jones sits on its board.

“Telecom in general is in a very tough situation, but [media servers] will have an easy time compared to the rest of the marketplace,” Jones says. This is because this type of equipment enables carriers to create new services quickly while minimizing the number of new boxes the provider needs to manage.

The alternative is strapping together multiple devices to deliver a single new service.

“With a media server, you can use one hardware platform to handle a bunch of different tasks,” Jones says.

Plus, media servers operate equally well in traditional circuit switched voice networks and in newer, packet-based networks. Indeed, this flexibility is a key thrust of media server maker ThinkEngine, according to Rick Saltzman, the company’s vice president of business development.

And it has venture capitalists and makers of ancillary gear opening up their purses to fund companies focused on media gateways. One such company, Convedia, just landed US$20 million in additional venture funding to boost its total to US$50 million. IPUnity has US$48 million, with US$24 million of that coming in August, and ThinkEngines has US$15 million and expects to land a second round soon.

Key to the success of these companies is alliances with other vendors that make devices such as traditional phone company voice switches, media gateways and softswitches, says Tom Jenkins, vice-president of consulting for TeleChoice, a telecom marketing firm.

“You want to know who their partners are and what other relationships they have,” Jenkins says.

With close partnerships, applications, for example, can be tightly integrated with the media server, he says. Without such partnerships, the applications and media server might work together, but not as well or be more difficult to set up.

Vendors dedicated to media servers have been cropping up in greater numbers over the past year, notes Tom Valovic, an analyst with Framingham, Mass.-based IDC. Others in this area include Snow Shore and Mockingbird Networks, he says. These companies also compete with Nortel, Lucent and other larger networking companies that make less flexible media-server-like devices.

So far, IDC, which predicts how well networking devices will sell, has no numbers on the media server market or who is likely to do well.

“Some are positioning themselves for major growth when voice-over-IP really hits the public network. Meanwhile, they’ll jockey for position hoping to catch the big wave,” Valovic says.