Converged networking still distressing to IT

Can Microsoft make gains in enterprise unified communications when the prospect of Windows-based VoIP still makes IT nervous?

Wayne Hainsworth finished rolling out a Cisco Systems VoIP system at his company's manufacturing plant this week. The next step is to move his company's corporate headquarters over to the same system.

Hainsworth, who is a network systems engineer at Tidland Corp., a Camas, Wash.-based manufacturer of industrial building products, had the option of moving to Microsoft's new unified communications platform, which the software company made available this week. Tidland is a Windows shop, but with Cisco's longer track record in IP telephony, Hainsworth opted to bypass Microsoft's Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007.

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Regardless of which vendor is behind the offering, Hainsworth said the prospect of converging voice and data bothers him on many levels. For one thing, he is fearful of potential downtime. Sure enough, as his company tested the Cisco installation at the facility, the system crashed for four hours.

"Luckily we were off hours, but if it had gone down during business hours, that would have been thousands of dollars in lost productivity," Hainsworth said. The fix was simple once the problem was diagnosed but the installation itself was "horribly complex".

A leap of faith

Barker Implement in Creston, Iowa, is swapping out a phone system so old it has no messaging or call forwarding and plans to move to OCS. Brian Campbell, technology manager at the farm equipment provider, said he's curious to see how employees handle so much change at once.

To say the least. OCS is a VoIP and unified communication server, as well as the client side Office Communicator. Barker Implement will get more than just integrated voice and data; it will gain tools that tie in instant messaging, email, presence and conferencing into Microsoft applications.

Many of Barker Implement's employees travel between the company's five locations, so the OCS feature that allows laptops to function as phones will also come in handy, Campbell said.

Had Barker Implement not been a member of Microsoft's early adopter program -- Technology Adoption Program -- or not had a systems integration partner experienced in such rollouts, this drastic leap would have been unthinkable.

"This [implementation] would have been too difficult to do on our own," Campbell said. "We're doing much of the legwork as far as set-up and making sure we have the right equipment, but Microsoft and Heartland Technology Solutions [its systems integration partner] are making sure everything is connected correctly."

The company will first test the software with about 30 employees. Eventually it will be rolled out to about 100 more.

Campbell has spent about five years studying unified communications products from traditional IP telephony vendors such as Cisco, Avaya Inc., Nortel Networks and now from Microsoft. If he's learned one thing, it's that pricing is all over the place.

"I got quotes ranging from $30,000 to $120,000 and, really, all the products do the same thing," Campbell said. "So for us it was a matter of being in the TAP program and Microsoft saying get your feet wet with VoIP and go from there."

For its part, Microsoft lists its OCS enterprise license as $3,999 per server. The standard edition is $699 per server. An enterprise client access license (CAL) is $139. A standard CAL is $31.

Having Exchange Server 2007 also helped make the decision to go with OCS easier, Campbell said. With other vendor products, his team would have had to manually put in contacts, while that capability is built into Exchange Server 2007. Exchange Server 2007 must be in place for an enterprise to take full advantage of the features in OCS.

Banking on what customers already have

Which platform an IT manager chooses for enterprise VoIP may largely come down to what else is in place, said Robert Mahowald, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass. If the IT shop already has Exchange Server 2007, it can be a stepping off point to expand into other areas of unified communications developed by Microsoft. Cisco, on the other hand, has a long track record of offering IP PBXes.

Nearly 40% of enterprises have a traditional PBX that Cisco and other PBX providers can use as a jumping off point to expand their presence in that organization.

In the next four years, the overall unified communications market, combining software, services and equipment, is expected to quadruple, jumping from $4.8 billion this year to more than $17.46 billion by 2011, according to IDC.

Even though it has a lot of potential, Microsoft today has no credentials in IP telephony yet. As Martin Mash, network administrator with swimming pool and spa product distributor Horner Express, out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., put it. "[Microsoft] never even crossed my mind," when asked who he looked at two years ago before going with Cisco for VoIP.

Although Microsoft is making a broad entrance into unified communications today, Mash said he would still go with Cisco. In fact, his company will do just that when it upgrades its remote locations in the next six months. One reason is the long-time perception by IT managers that Microsoft is not reliable for real-time applications.

"Just look at the reliability of the desktop: applications crashing and having to reboot," Mash said. "It's just not reliable enough for this type of environment."

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