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
  • Tim Greene (Network World)
  • 18 September, 2008 10:20

Buyers of IP PBXs need to look beyond simple voice capabilities to unified communications and make sure the gear they buy will be compatible with applications they will want in the future, experts say.

IP PBXes won't be just about making phone calls as they become the anchors for UC technologies, which draw instant messaging, presence, collaboration and business-process applications into the mix with voice.

As long as an IP PBX has the software interfaces it needs to integrate with UC platforms, it will be serviceable for the foreseeable future, says Jay Glassman, an analyst with Gartner. That is a major concern among his clients, he says.

Those who may just be moving to corporate VoIP -- what Glassman terms IP telephony -- are well aware of UC and want to be sure they make the right choice of IP PBX. "They are looking ahead to what will be available in three years and want to know what is their investment protection going to be like if they an IP PBX today." he says.

That protection will require that the platforms support open interfaces to all the key applications that create UC, says Phil Hochmuth, an analyst with the Yankee Group. "You need to think of an IP PBX as another data center server," he says. "How will it work with database servers, with CRM and ERP applications? Look at it as part of a larger IT infrastructure puzzle."

In particular that means Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), Hochmuth says, which is not necessarily the signaling protocol used by the top IP PBX vendors today, but that all of them are moving to adopt. They are also trying to make their implementations of SIP interoperable with those of other vendors. For instance, Avaya says it performs compatibility testing with other vendors' gear such as phones and with service provider trunks.

This is good for customers but also serves Avaya's game plan of helping customers link business applications together with business processes, says Lawrence Byrd, director of IP telephony and mobility at Avaya.

It is conceivable using UC for a help desk application to spot a critical problem and automatically launch a voice call, IM or e-mail to notify someone who can deal with it, Byrd says, a process pulling together multiple individual underlying applications.

"If they are all SIP-enabled it is much easier to orchestrate them to make them work together," he says.

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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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ROI is lacking

Most businesses have given up trying to justify VoIP based on return on investment, according to a study by Nemertes Research. Capital outlay for IP PBXes is about the same or more than for traditional PBXs, operational start-up costs are higher and it takes about three times longer to isolate and repair outages, says Robin Gareiss, Nemertes executive vice president, in a report on the business case for VoIP.

"To be sure there can be a net savings after the first two years, but organizations are focusing on other benefits, such as streamlined features, improved productivity and integrated voice/data/video collaborative applications," Gareiss says.

When blending IP PBXes into collaboration, messaging and presence, the cost of UC licensing will determine the customer's starting point, Lassman says.

A Microsoft shop, for instance, will look at its current licensing and determine whether adding UC is incremental or a significant cost jump. "If you're starting from scratch and you have Exchange 2003, it's going to be hard to justify UC because of the increase in the cost of the license," he says. On the other hand, if they already have Exchange 2007 a move to UC would cost less.

The open standards will allow customers to shop around. "If they're starting from scratch, they could look at some other vendors," Lassman says.

Another way to save is by limiting UC deployment at the outset, Lassman says. "I think some clients think they've got to do it to everybody everywhere, but the reality of it is there's no need to," he says.

Regardless of how fast UC grows, an IP PBX is a wise investment for now, he says. "Anybody who invests in one today will get a lot of mileage out of that for awhile. It will be part of any UC migration regardless of the UC platform," Lassman says.