IP PBXs could be kink in unified communications plans

Cisco, Microsoft, IBM, Avaya, Nortel and Shoretel among myriad vendors who need to work together to meld IP PBX and UC

Microsoft and IBM loom large

The largest vendors -- Cisco, Avaya, Nortel and Shoretel in the United States, are making interoperability efforts with the two big vendors of unified communications platforms, Microsoft (Office Communication Server) and IBM (Sametime), says Matthias Machowinsky, an analyst with Infornetics.

Microsoft and IBM's platforms are so compelling that they may be freezing IP PBX decisions as potential customers digest how UC platforms might help their businesses and how all the pieces would fit together, Lassman says. "I think we've actually seen a slowdown of the adoption of IP telephony as organizations try to guess what's going to happen with these new offers from Microsoft and IBM," he says.

Both Microsoft and IBM recognize the need to cooperate with the IP PBX vendors on interoperability to help businesses make the leap to UC, he says.

IBM, for instance, has a close relationship with Nortel, which bundles its IP PBX with Sametime hardware and installs it as a package to make the transition simpler. Nortel has a close relationship with Microsoft trying to achieve similar goals. Similar alliances abound among the IP PBX vendors and the collaboration and messaging vendors.

Microsoft has a different spin, developing its own PBX functionality with OCS, with the long-term goal of supplanting PBXes. That may be a way off still, according to Gartner.

The OCS telephony platform lacks standard PBX features such as attendant operator, emergency services support and failover, according to the recent Gartner Magic Quadrant report on corporate telephony, "taking it out of the running as an all-out replacement for a PBX or an IP PBX until at least 2010." Gartner ranked Microsoft high in its vision but low in its ability to execute in IP telephony.

Similarly, Cisco is piecing together its own UC platform and a collaboration service that could combine with its VoIP gear to deliver UC support.

Seeking IP PBX vendors that support widely held interoperability standards is important because no single vendor has mastered all the broad elements that UC comprises. In addition, it leaves open the option to use multiple vendors whose products a business might already own or that the customer regards as preferable. "That is an essential element if you are a business that wants to integrate telephony into line-of-business applications or federated dial plans with partners and expand the connectivity of voice systems to outside entities," he says.

Ease of integration also can play in the cost of UC, Lassman says. "We have clients tell us that they are about to buy their last release of an IP PBX because they are looking ahead at unified communications and how they can wrap that in to what they're doing.

It has to do with the ability to be UC-ready, for lack of a better term," he says.

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