Resellers risk "missing the boat" if they fail to consider converged networking products such as virtual private networks (VPNs).
With companies such as Alcatel, Nortel and Ericsson, not to mention Cisco, Mitel and Avaya, looking to sell converged products offering combinations of voice, data and security, resellers may soon find themselves increasingly courted by firms which have traditionally used telecoms dealers.
Other players such as Hewlett Packard are also eyeing the sector, and Microsoft has included voice capabilities within Windows XP.
As well as being wooed by vendors, channel players will also soon be quizzed by customers on convergence and IP applications, distributors have warned.
Ian Morris, director at distributor EquIP, said: "Convergence is coming of age. IP has become more of an application architecture, of which voice is one application, and resellers need to bone up on this area of the market fast or risk missing the boat.
"Lots of end users are asking some tough questions in this area. Organisations such as Lloyd's of London have just put in IP-only infrastructures."
Provided the distrust of new partners can be overcome, opportunities exist for strong revenues, according to distributors, but resellers are finding it difficult to distinguish between the offerings from various vendors and how they can translate them for end users.
Bernie Dodwell, sales and marketing director at distributor Allasso, explained: "This is because a VPN is a VPN and they are all very similar in the way they operate. They use the same basic encryption technology and [the choice] all comes down to what the user needs.
"Everyone is talking about VPNs but the vendors are pitting functionality against functionality. They are saying: 'Look, mine goes faster than yours', but what does that mean to the customer?"
Lee Harrison, business development director at distributor E92plus, added: "The way [VPNs] work is pretty standard and there is little to distinguish between the market leading players.
"But what has changed is that the bigger distributors can incorporate other technologies to add value to the channel. VPNs are only the beginning with biometrics, authentication and access technology available with VPNs."
More than half of resellers asked believed that increases in remote working would be a major driving force behind VPN growth this year.
Tim Watson, managing director at reseller Granville Collyer, said: "We are doing quite a few on a site to site basis, but I think remote VPNs will be where the big take up is."
Harrison agreed. "This is for sure and it does not matter what space you are in because it is getting easier to log in remotely and this opens up a new can of worms [concerning security]," he explained.
Alcatel is one vendor that has reworked its range of VPN appliances, and will port the technology to its entire line including voice products such as PBXs.
The company's switch range, including high-end Gigabit Ethernet switches bought through the acquisition of Packet Engines, will also feature the VPN technology as a plug-in card.
"We think this is the best way to offer VPNs. If the VPN is sat outside the switch, there may well be complications, and our switch executes in hardware, which means less lag," said Hervé Chappe, security product manager at Alcatel's e-Business Networking Division.
"We also think that, with the move to IP telephony, VPNs are important to stop call eavesdropping," he added.
The IPSec compliant VPNs will be launched over the course of this year. The OmniAccess 210 is available at the end of March, and is capable of up to 2Mbps throughput and 15,000 tunnels. Two other Alcatel products, the OmniAccess 250 and 280, will be launched later in the year.
Although unimpressed by Alcatel's line up, Dodwell maintained that resellers have an important role in ensuring that businesses choose the right VPN.
"The key [for resellers] is first to sell a solution to the end user that fits their business, and secondly to sell a solution that can be integrated with other technologies," he said.
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