VoIP horizons expand

The IP telephony offensive continued in earnest last week as a handful of vendors announced products aimed at helping organizations of all sizes make voice over IP a reality.

Cisco Systems Inc. released IP PBX products and product bundles aimed at shops with 50 to 200 seats, while Pingtel Inc. and Mitel Networks Corp. targeted small and midsize companies with IP PBXs based on the emerging Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) and the Linux operating system. 3Com Corp., already a leader in VoIP for midsize companies, has bigger plans for its convergence box. The company this week will announce it is doubling the capacity of its SuperStack 3 NBX IP PBX to 1,500 users.

The moves could be key for users thinking about converging their voice and data networks, as IP telephony promises to reduce administration costs.

“For a small business, the real advantage [of VoIP] is what it offers in terms of lowering our administrative costs,” says David Roessler, director of IS at Quay, which uses one of the new Cisco small-business VoIP bundles.

Cisco Systems Inc. – which has led the large-enterprise VoIP push with customers such as Dow Chemical Co. and Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. – scaled down its IP PBX with the new Media Convergence Server (MCS) 7815-1000, aimed at sites with up to 200 users. The Windows 2000-based IP PBX runs the company’s CallManager call control software, which is the base technology for Cisco’s higher-scaling MCS products as well. (The MCS 7815-1000 is available now for US$8,000.)

Cisco also released two packages based on its Integrated Communication Solution (ICS) 7750, which combines voice mail, PBX functions and auto-attendant features in one IP platform: the ICS 7750-AV, which has eight analog port trunks for public switched telephone network connections and eight analog lines for fax and audioconference devices; and the ICS 7750-DV with eight digital PSTN trunks, and eight digital fax and conferencing device lines. The packages are available for $12,000 and $19,000, respectively.

The ICS 7750 package installed at Quay, a high-tech components manufacturer in Eatontown, N.J., recently replaced an aging Lucent small-office PBX that was becoming too cumbersome to manage.

“The cost for doing moves, adds and changes is much lower compared with our legacy PBX,” Roessler says.

For deploying new desktops, Roessler says the converged network also reduces the cost of running cable in half because only one line for Ethernet needs to be run instead of separate voice and data wires. While savings are difficult to quantify, Roessler estimates he lowered the overall maintenance costs for maintaining the company’s voice system by 18 percent with the Cisco ICS 7750.

Going against Cisco’s forays into the market for small and midsize VoIP customers, 3Com is announcing this week a software upgrade for its SuperStack 3 NBX device that increases IP handset support to 1,500 IP phones – twice as many as the previous version. 3Com says a memory upgrade on the NBX in addition to the software upgrade could be required to support 1,500 devices – 3Com recommends 515M bytes of RAM on the box. Release 4.1 of the NBX software, which will be a free upgrade to 3Com NBX customers, also will include Web browser access to the NBX’s unified messaging voice/e-mail server, allowing users to access voice mail and e-mail through a Web browser.

As 3Com and Cisco appear to be straying from their VoIP bread-and-butter IP telephony bases, some analysts say the use of VoIP by smaller companies has the best payoff.

“Small and medium businesses [are] the bulk of the marketplace. A significant amount of implementations [of Cisco VoIP gear] are small sites already,” says Elizabeth Ussher, vice president for convergence at market research firm Meta Group Inc. Ussher says Cisco’s value-added reseller (VAR) network will help it in the smaller VoIP markets. “The number of Cisco VARs [that serve midsize] customers is huge . . . a smart move.”

Sales of IP PBXs and phones reached $1 billion last year, while the average VoIP deployment was around 70 seats per system, according to Instat/MDR – numbers which bode well for Cisco’s push into the small- and midsize-business market.

A report on the new Cisco small-business convergence offerings from Current Analysis Inc. e-business infrastructure analyst Brian Riggs also praises the vendor’s move into small and midsize companies.

With the new products, “Cisco is able to compete in a [small and midsize enterprise] packet telephony market that has, for all intents and purposes, been closed to it,” Riggs says. However, he says, while Cisco will tap a market in which a majority of IP telephony purchases are made, the pricing for the MCS 7815-100 and ICS 7750 bundles – around $600 to $800 per user – could scare away some smaller customers with tight budgets.

As for 3Com scaling up its IP PBX support, Meta Group’s Ussher says the challenge to move up the ladder to large-enterprise customers will be significant, partly because of the company’s past strategic missteps. “That’s going to be a tough one for them on the voice side,” Ussher says of 3Com, as some large corporations still remember the vendor’s exit out of the business of selling high-end network gear several years ago. “It will be hard [for 3Com] to go back to those large enterprise customers and say, ‘Hey, we’re back and we have a high-end voice solution for you.'”

Meanwhile, at SuperComm in Atlanta last week, smaller-office IP PBXs based on the emerging SIP standard were on display from two vendors with disparate telephony backgrounds. SIP performs basic call-control tasks such as session setup and teardown, and controls other signaling for features such as hold, caller ID and call transferring.

Mitel – a maker of traditional circuit-switched PBXs – and Pingtel – which sells SIP-based IP phones – each announced converged telephony boxes for sites with 10 to 500 seats. Mitel already sells H.323-based IP PBXs.

Pingtel’s SIPxchange IP PBX is based on the SIP VoIP protocol – rather than the H.323 protocol, as implemented by 3Com and partly by Cisco. The company’s first entry into the switching arena, SIPxchange can provide call control, voice mail, interactive voice response and a browser-based system management. The box also supports applications using XML, Java and voiceXML.

The SIP stack running on SIPxchange lets the box support Pingtel Expressa SIP phones, or other SIP-based phones from companies such as Cisco and Siemens. Windows XP clients using the SIP-based Windows Messenger application also could attach as a client to the SIPxchange server. SIPxchange is slated to be available in the fall for around $600 per seat.

Mitel showed a SIP-based office device that acts like an IP telephone key system, file and application server, print server and firewall. The 3050 Integrated Communications Platform features two Ethernet ports, one to attach to a LAN switch and one to attach to a WAN access device such as a DSL box or cable modem. The 3050 is scheduled to be available in the fall for $1,900, and the 5055 SIP phone will be available later this month for $350.

“SIP really is a better standard for enterprise VoIP,” says Brian Strachman, an analyst with Cahners Instat/MDR. “The rest of the industry uses H.323 for the most part, but it is not as well-refined a standard as SIP.”

Senior Editor Tim Greene contributed to this report.