Nortel links telephony, data via new Inca platform

As users mull whether to take the IP voice plunge or sit still with circuit-switched voice nets, another voice heavyweight has jumped into the enterprise IP telephony fray.

This time the vendor is Nortel Networks, which brings to the table the market-leading Layer 3 routing switch for data networks — the Accelar series. The core of Nortel’s strategy is to use the Accelar — one of the fruits of Nortel’s acquisition of Bay Networks — as the switching core of its new IP voice boxes. The boxes will become PBX replacements that can handle a unified voice/data campus network.

“I think there’s a lot of pent-up demand for convergence of networks,” said Jim Long, president of Nortel Enterprise Solutions, during a satellite broadcast of the company’s New York launch of its IP telephony strategy for enterprise customers.

To cover its installed base, Nortel’s IP telephony roadmap also includes some more-conservative product plans to add outbound IP trunking options and Ethernet phones to existing Nortel PBX systems.

Reflecting Nortel’s desire to serve users unwilling to throw away their PBXs as well as those willing to move quickly to converged networks, Nortel’s IP telephony roadmap includes a whopping 11 products — two more than Lucent unveiled several weeks ago.

Perhaps the most important piece of Nortel’s roadmap won’t even go into alpha test until the fourth quarter of 1999, with availability slated for the second quarter of 2000. Called the Inca M1, the box is a PBX powered by an Accelar switch. Inca stands for Internet Communications Architecture and is the product name for Nortel’s IP voice products for locations without traditional PBXs.

Other models in the new Inca series include larger campus-class IP voice boxes that can potentially support tens of thousands of users.

Also in the Inca line is a smaller voice switch on a Windows NT server, often referred to in the telecom industry as an “unPBX.” The device is expected to compete with Cisco’s Selsius voice switches and Lucent’s IP Exchange Systems.

Meanwhile, for users with existing Nortel PBXs and key systems that they want to keep, Nortel announced the Meridian 1IP, Meridian SL100IP, M6500IP and MercatorIP Communications systems. Each device will get trunk-side and line-side IP interfaces to existing voice boxes.

To complete the connection to the desktop, Nortel announced the i2004 Internet Telephone, with Nortel officials bragging that their product would be available in the fourth quarter of 1999, about six months before Lucent’s expected introduction of a similar product.

Nortel did not release pricing for its new products.

Analysts gave Nortel good marks for thinking through different users’ situations.

“It allows for a gradual migration, taking you from circuit-switched to a completely converged IP net, and gives you the ability to stop halfway there if you want to,” said Ray Kneipp, analyst at the Burton Group consulting firm based in Midvale, Utah.

John Morency, analyst at Renaissance Worldwide Inc. in Newton, Mass., agreed.

“Most network managers break out in a cold sweat at the mention of replacing their tried-and-true PBXs with new IP systems, but Nortel has given them options for moving to IP at their own pace,” Morency said.

He added that Nortel’s plans position the company ahead of its major competitor, Lucent.

Nortel plans to manage all of these new IP telephony products, plus Bay routers and switches, from the Optivity management platform. That will make moves, adds and changes simpler than the typical need to reprogram PBXs and move wires often, Burton Group’s Kneipp said. IP with Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol allows you to plug your phone in and get an IP address, and then puts your location in the database — your phone number never changes.

Several large users expressed interest in Nortel’s plans to support voice and data traffic over a single network, but said they would move toward a converged network slowly. Many said they don’t yet see strong business benefits or a compelling reason to move away from their separate voice and data networks, except at small sites.

Steve Garner, IT manager at the Bank of Montreal, said: “I don’t know if there’s a business driver here, but these products do represent the next phase of IP technology with the promise of reducing costs.”

Bank of Montreal has 13 Nortel PBXs, and may start a lab trial of products next spring, Garner said.

Countrywide Home Loans Inc. of Simi Valley, Calif., is initially considering convergence at remote offices. The firm is contemplating replacing its key telephone systems at up to 600 branch offices with Nortel’s new PC-based IP telephone system because the new boxes offer data routing support, said Michael Spalter, senior vice-president of enterprise communication services for Countrywide Home Loans.

“Once the reliability and quality of the NT platform come up, there’s all sorts of opportunities to add value while reducing maintenance and complexity of connectivity,” Spalter said.

However, at Frontier Communications in Southfield, Mich., the IT group put the brakes on running voice over the data network.

“They want to know how much voice we’re talking about and don’t want us bombarding their network with [new] traffic and sucking up too much bandwidth,” said Tim Conley, a telecommunications staffer at Frontier.

Conley and Bank of Montreal’s Garner were split on whether the PBX upgrade, which hasn’t been priced yet but is supposed to preserve most of the system investment, is attractive.

Nortel Networks in Brampton, Ont., can be reached at 1-800-466-7835 or at