Phone System: Just Another Windows Server?

Windows-based IP telephony is not exactly unheard of. The immensely popular Cisco CallManager, for example, runs on Windows. But Ottawa-based Objectworld Communications Corp. feels its soon-to-be-released Unified Communication Server is in a category by itself.

In a nutshell, UC Server will allow an enterprise to operate and manage all of its business communications functionality from a single server capable of interoperating with a broad range of Microsoft applications, that integrates with Active Directory for a single login to all network services, has built-in integration with existing legacy phone switches, and works with generic phone and gateway hardware.

“The days of separate administration, policy, and user identity for IT, PBX, voice mail, fax server, and mail server are over,” said Objectworld CTO, David Schenkel, in a press release. “With UC Server, IT administrators are now able to manage their entire business communications system using the IT tools with which IT administrators already configure user accounts and security policies in the Microsoft Windows Server System,” he said.

Smart communications core
UC Server is the descendant of Objectworld’s mature telephony software application, CallAttendant Office, which forms the core of its communications functionality. Unified messaging—the bringing together of e-mail, voice mail, and fax into a single visual interface—offers some powerful benefits, Objectworld vice president of sales and marketing Nick Matejuk told “You’re able to prioritize communications,”.Matejuk said. “It’s all visual; you can pick the most important communications out of the dozens or hundreds of messages that come in.”

Matejuk went into some detail about “Personal Call Control,” a feature of CallAttendant Office and UC Server that “is essentially corporate auto attendant technology pushed down to the extension level.” Matejuk further described it as “a self-service interactive voice response system,” with which end-users can build custom, personalized call flows to suit their needs and the requirements of their jobs. A drag-and-drop user interface makes it quick and easy to create basic applications, and the application functionality can be quite sophisticated, including such options as data lookups via ODBC.

“Unified Communications,” Matejuk told VoIPplanet, “is where you can access and manipulate communications wherever you are. The system can forward communications to reach me anywhere, via pass-through to my cell phone,” he said. The controls specifying what messages and which senders are to be forwarded are quite sophisticated. UC Server converts e-mails speech when forwarding to a phone. Verbal replies become WAVE files attached to answering e-mails.

Grown-up version
To the features and communications capabilities of CallAttendant Office, Objectworld has added two crucial components: a SIP soft switch and support for legacy PBXs—which means any company can begin the transition to IP telephony (or IT telephony, as the company calls it in its promotional literature) without having to replace any functioning equipment.

UC Server runs on Windows XP Professional, Server 2003, and Small Business Server 2003. As mentioned, versions are available that integrate with Microsoft application servers, such as Exchange, SQL Server, Live Communications Server, and Microsoft CRM. And, also mentioned above, it integrates with—but does not require—Active Directory.

The product—which comes on “a single, easy-to-install CD” according to the company—will support from five up to several thousand users, depending on the robustness of the network. “We designed it primarily for the 10 to 2,000 market,” Nick Matejuk told VoIPplanet. But then that’s 90 percent of the total market.”

All this comes at a bargain price, according to Matejuk. “Whereas IP PBXs from major players carry price tags of $800 to $1,200 per extension to start up, UC Server can be implemented more in the range of $200 to $500 per extension—including phone,” he said. Pricing for the product—which is due for final release in 45 to 60 days, according to Matejuk—has not been finalized, but will be based on configuration and the number of extensions implemented.

Tele transformation
UC Server constitutes a big, big bet that the so-called Microsoft Axiom is valid: Unless there is a compelling reason for it not to happen, everything will eventually become part of the Microsoft IT domain. “This will extend into the telephony world,” Matejuk said.

But, the vision goes much further: “All that proprietary phone stuff—customer premise equipment: trunks, ports, switches—just goes away,” he predicted. “That whole $10 billion market just disappears. It all becomes part of the IT domain. That’s why we call it IT telephony.”

Objectworld plans to market UC Server both through the telephony reseller channel and—much more significantly—the IT distributor channel.

“Telecom dealers who understand this [disappearance of the CPE market] is happening are positioning themselves for the transition. They can keep their existing customers and sell them the new solution,” Matejuk stated. “But the IT guys are ecstatic; they can now sell telephony to their customers. They’ll need to acquire some new skill sets, but they’ll also be able to go in and sell other value added applications.”

Indeed, according to the company, demonstrations of UC Server at CompTIA earlier this month not only garnered the event’s ‘Best Product-Software’ award, it touched off a firestorm of interest among IT distribution firms. According to Nick Matejuk, “150 to 200 IT VARs are lining up to sell this.” If true, this does seem to portend a significant shift in how phone systems are marketed.

What do the analysts think? Well, they haven’t seen it yet, according to Matejuk. Nonetheless, EnterpriseVoIPplanet was able to gather some general observations. For example, given Windows’s reputation for instability—at least in comparison to Linux and Unix—is it a good idea to run your enterprise phone system on the Microsoft platform?

Craig Mathias, principal of the Ashland, Mass.-based consultancy Farpoint Group said: “We don’t recommend it—but lots of people do it.” “Plenty of people feel that Microsoft servers are stable enough for running a phone system,” he went on. “And with the appliance approach, it just doesn’t get any easier.”

ABI Research analyst Michael Arden told VoIPplanet “There’s huge interest in this [Windows] side of the market. We expect to see growth, and expect it to be a significant revenue generator.”

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