Partners push voice/data convergence

A recently formed team of industry heavyweights — Nortel Networks, Hewlett-Packard Co., Microsoft Corp. and Intel Corp. — could succeed in luring enterprises to converged voice/data wares where other vendors have failed, according to one industry observer.

Businesses have been bombarded with a barrage of marketing and information touting the advantages of bringing voice onto their data networks, but few have actually implemented voice/data convergence.

However, according to John Armstrong, an analyst with Dataquest Inc. in San Jose, Calif., the latest vendor grouping could change that because it has the backing of a major voice equipment vendor in Nortel.

“All the other announcements I’ve heard have come from the data communications side of the house,” Armstrong said. “This is significant, because it’s putting real-time traffic over data systems and upgrading data systems to become carrier-grade systems is not a trivial matter.”

The first products resulting from the four companies’ collaboration will be two HP servers incorporating Nortel software and running on Windows NT and Intel chips.

The HP communications server will incorporate complete phone functionality including voice mail, call centre, IP telephony, Microsoft Small Business Server and remote management tools. The product is geared to the small- to medium-sized business market.

The HP business messaging server, targeted at medium-sized to large businesses, integrates Nortel’s CallPilot voice messaging software with e-mail servers, allowing end users to retrieve both their voice and e-mail messages from their desktops. Both servers are slated for second quarter 1999 availability.

In the past, said John Roth, vice-chairman of the board and CEO of Nortel, convergence capabilities such as those available on the HP servers could be hammered together only by very large corporations with extensive voice and data expertise. The four partners are working to change that.

“This is unified solutions for the masses,” Roth said, “for the small business, the department levels and those people who are looking to run their business and not become experts in how to manage a telephony network.”

Nortel opted to work with partners rather than develop communications servers on its own, because of the time it would have taken Nortel to produce the servers, Roth said.

“We probably could have developed these products over time. But we saw the pace at which the Internet was moving and decided a better way to get there is to partner…and bring these solutions out now when the market place needs them.”

In addition to announcing the HP servers, Nortel said it is working with Microsoft to integrate NT into Nortel’s enterprise communications product lines. Also, HP, Microsoft and Nortel will open two centres of expertise for the development and testing of enterprise communications systems on Microsoft platforms. The centres will be at Nortel’s Santa Clara, Calif., and Brampton, Ont., offices.

Dataquest’s Armstrong said the partners’ long-term plans are more significant than the initial product offerings.

One of the challenges he believes the partners will face will be scaling their voice/data products up to serve large enterprise customers. That’s something that won’t happen overnight, Armstrong noted.

“It will take a while to evolve,” he said, “because you need to not only support convergence in the enterprise, but you need to do it in the wide area as well and that’s another challenge.”