NT servers have had the ability to function as PBXs (private branch exchanges) for some time, but the soft PBX market has so far failed to take off. According to some technology watchers such as the Gartner Group, this indicates that we are in the early phase of the soft PBX market. Gartner's predictions put any large-scale move to soft PBXs three to five years away, but it sees the movement as inevitable. In Gartner's briefing note on the future of soft PBXs, it said that the evolution of PBX architectures has already begun. Vendors are already or will shortly be moving away from their traditional proprietary approach to PBX design, towards open-systems, server-based platforms. However, the clearest message Gartner can give its enterprise clients is that they should start adjusting to the idea that in future their enterprise PBXs can't be expected to have a 10-15 year lifecycle. Five years or less will be a good life for a new PBX, Gartner suggests. "Enterprises planning to purchase new PBX systems, or upgrade or extend existing systems over the next five years face difficult and complex tactical decisions," it said. Weighing the options On the one hand organisations are quite responsive to the idea of one network infrastructure for voice and data. Soft PBXs naturally benefit from playing directly to this theme and to the growing popularity of Voice over IP (VoIP). On the other hand, no organisation wants to swap the proven reliability of proprietary PBXs for the hoped-for reliability of an NT server. Viewed in this light, consolidation sounds like adding to the risk equation rather than generating benefits. A similar dilemma prevails in the small to medium sized enterprise space. Most small to medium enterprises (SMEs) would probably like to have their telephony PBX thrown in free with their NT server. But the sector generally lacks the NT skills required to configure NT servers. Most SMEs would rather have a telco come and install a proprietary PBX for a nominal fee, than have to mess about under the bonnet of an NT server. They also not keen on the idea of entrusting their telephone system - seen universally as mission critical - to their Lan server. Andrew Owen-Price, strategic business development director at Nortel Networks, sees soft PBXs as a natural part of the VoIP and internet communications evolution. The company will bring product to market in 2000 as part of its INCA (internet communications architecture) initiative, in the form of the INCA M10, an NT server-based soft PBX for enterprises. Owen-Price argued that the most sensible approach to this new market is to look at enabling an evolutionary approach by users. Things may be different in a few years, once the idea has taken off, he said. "If we look ahead to where the market is going, it may well be possible in a few years from now for a start-up company to log onto the internet and decide whose telephony package it wants to download. This hypothetical start-up company could also download soft phones and then it'd be on its way with a fully-configured telephony server," he said. However, things aren't happening like that. Enterprises want to buy classic, proprietary PBXs with all the proven reliability and functionality associated with these systems. They will look to migrate them to the Web, using IP trunking and dabbling with IP clients. From there, they can enter the world of IP telephony when they are more certain of the Quality of Service (QoS) capabilities in such a system, Owen-Price said. With this evolutionary theme in mind, Nortel is taking a different approach to vendors such as Cisco, whose approach he suggested equates to expecting the client to do a "forklift truck upgrade", throwing out the old proprietary kit and bringing in the new. The M10 will take enterprises rather more gently into the world of VoIP and integrated voice and data IP traffic, he claimed. "The M10 will let enterprises route voice across their data links for all internal comms. They can specify performance-related criteria, which means the system will test the data line for the required quality level before it sets up the IP call, and will divert the call to the PSTN if it does not meet the criteria," he said. (This automatic pre-testing of line quality is now virtually standard on soft PBX and card-based VoIP systems). Owen-Price said that Nortel is rightly cautious in its estimates about growth in this sector. "I remember how all the analysts were saying that ATM was going to kill off X.25, but what happened was that X.25 died very slowly. We still have a hefty volume of Meridian PBX sales to Cisco sites, despite Cisco's launch of CallManager, (its VoIP PBX), which tells you something about how reluctant enterprises are to move away from traditional PBXs," he said. Limited features Gavin McFayden, product marketing manager for Nortel, said that soft PBXs still have some way to go to achieve parity with the range of features provided by traditional PBXs. "The main point to grasp is that traditional PBXs have a 20 year development history and have evolved to the point where they offer a huge range of features. Our Meridian One PBX has 650 features, for example. If someone could put that on an NT PBX I'd probably buy it, but realistically, I don't see this happening for a long time to come," he said. "When you are talking about traditional PBXs and soft PBXs, the number 43 is significant. The mean time between failures on a conventional PBX is 43 years - the mean annual down time of a Lan works out at 43 hours. No one could tolerate that kind of performance from their PBX," he comments. However, Mitel, which also has an interest in soft PBXs, argued that the supposed fragility of NT servers has more to do with the applications that are layered on top of the core operating system than it does with any inherent weakness in NT. In fact, in its White Paper on IP telephony, it said that Windows NT now offers all the features that a call server needs. For example, NT's pre-emptive multitasking capabilities are an essential ingredient of a call server, since it means that the server can interrupt the cpu as required to deal with new I/O requests, such as a new incoming call, while maintaining existing conversation links. NT's support for exception handling and its protected subsystems minimises the impact of applications failures on other services taking place on the server. In addition the OS now has all the enterprise features of load balancing, failover clustering and high availability (HA) services. Working towards high availability Owen-Price said that Nortel is working closely with Microsoft to improve the availability of NT for telephony. In addition to the M10, the company will soon be releasing a number of IP telephony products aimed at aiding migration to IP telephony and soft PBXs. These include its enterprise M7500 Connection Manager system which provides fully scalable PBX and call handling capabilities for everything from small groups to 2,000 users per Connection Manager. Features will include call conferencing, call forwarding and redial, among others. Another product is Nortel's Enterprise Edge system, a Windows NT server pre-loaded with PBX and call management applications, which Owen-Price claims will be competitively priced against low end PBXs (though Nortel is not releasing pricing information yet). Patrick Bullen, product marketing manager at 3Com, however, says that vendors who expect SMEs to start deploying soft PBXs have not grasped how short of skilled NT networking engineers such organisations are. "The usual approach taken by soft PBX vendors is that you have to have a fully-configured NT server, with all the service packs loaded up before you can run their product. This already takes the thing out of the realm of most SMEs," he said. The 'black box' approach Because of this concern over approachability, 3Com is taking a different stance towards enabling Lan-based telephony. Instead of trying to turn an NT server into a PBX, 3Com prefers to give the user a 'black box' proprietary PBX, which it calls an NBX (Network Branch Exchange) plus a 24-port hub to take Ethernet phones. The ISDN lines go direct into the NBX chassis, and users get Lan telephony simply by plugging in their Ethernet phones. This configuration will scale to 100 users, he says, which makes it ideal for SMEs. 3Com provides its own proprietary Lan telephone sets to go with the NBX and sells it in the usual way, offering the client company a monthly lease that works out at around £3,000 a year. According to Bullen, the reception from 3Com's channel base, which will be moving this product into the UK and European markets, has been excellent. "Resellers love the product because it is easy to install. It gives users everything they need, including a unified messaging service, and it doesn't take up any space on their NT server," he said. Bullen admits that the current confusion in the soft PBX and VoIP markets is a problem for network managers trying to decide whether to risk consolidating on a single network infrastructure for voice and data. "Our message is that by treating the PBX as an NBX and running your voice traffic over the Lan, you still get all the advantages of a single infrastructure, with the reliability of a traditional PBX. With us you also get the advantage of having just one vendor for your voice and data," he said. Cisco takes an AVVID approach Cisco, on the other hand, has opted to make soft PBXs and voice telephony an integrated part of an overall architecture for voice, video and what it calls integrated data, or AVVID. Call Manager is simply the call processing software component of this. It consists of a suite of integrated voice applications with a Microsoft TAPI (Telephony API) interface for third-party development. Despite taking a totally different route from Nortel or 3Com, Cisco is also able to argue that its approach, being a pure server-based software implementation, allows users to take an evolutionary path to packet-based telephony. Additional features and functionality can be added through simple software upgrades, thereby avoiding expensive hardware upgrades, it claims. The software comes pre-installed to one or more NT or (in the near future) Windows 2000 servers and uses the H.323 standard in a multiserver configuration. Resilience can be added through a duplicate, hot standby Call Manager server, which can back up one or more standard servers. The system automatically executes a failover of gateways and phones to the hot standby server in the event of a primary server failure. In the US a number of vendors, ranging from IBM to companies unknown on this side of the Atlantic, have been offering server-based PBXs for 18 months. Most of these are targeted at the SME market in the 10-100 user range. IBM's offering - IBM Small Business Computer Telephony solution - is based on an NT NetFinity Server, on-board telephony switching adapters, advanced call control and voicemail software. Users have the option of adding Nortel/IBM analog phones. The California-based company, Altigen Communications, has had a server-based PBX offering since 1997 and has built up a solid reputation with an offering that starts at around $400 (£250) per user. There is no shortage of telephony start-up companies moving into this market in the US and many of these can be expected to follow the likes of 3Com, Nortel and Cisco, and look to Europe as a potential market over the next year or so. Expect this topic to gain considerable momentum as we move into 2000.
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