Smooth Path to Unified Communications

Distributed organizations—at least traditional ones—typically have a lot of redundancy in their telephony equipment. As communications modes have proliferated over the past decade or so, with the increasing ubiquity of e-mail and voicemail and advent of instant messaging and presence applications, that redundancy has only increased.

We talked recently with Kevin Isacks and Jay Haines, respectively marketing communications manager and director of product management for Fremont, Calif.-based Network Equipment Technologies, Inc., maker of a line of SIP-based communications gateways—the VX Series Voice Exchange—whose aim is to eliminate redundancy, improve efficiency and reliability, and lower communications costs.

The most recent member of the family, the VX1200, is being groomed, specifically, to integrate Microsoft’s forthcoming unified communications solution—consisting of Office Communications Server 2007 and Exchange 2007, operating in concert with Office Communicator 2.0—with an organization’s existing phone infrastructure.

(Readers of Enterprise can have hardly failed to notice Microsoft’s “VoIP AS YOU ARE” promotional campaign, which has been running on the site for months now.)

“Where we come in,” Isacks explained, “is we allow the interconnection between the Microsoft unified communications and the PBX—or the PSTN, or whatever external communications you would need.”

The architecture of the Microsoft solution is pretty complex; we’ll explain it, but it helps to illustrate with simpler examples.

Take a typical, traditional organization with headquarters and one or more remote offices. Each site has its own PBX and voicemail services, and these connect across the public switched telephone network (PSTN). E-mail is routed over the IP network that handles the rest of the organization’s data applications.

Placing an NET VX gateway at each office location allows all the organization’s internal phone activity to now travel between/among offices over the wide area IP network—resulting in substantial cost savings. At each remote location where SIP phones are then added, the PBX/voicemail can simply go away, reducing the number of pieces of equipment to be maintained and upgraded .

However it’s a rare organization that uses voice exclusively for internal communications. The VX clears that hurdle by allowing connections from the gateway to the PSTN for external calling—or to an IP Telephone Service Provider (ITSP), if the company chooses to go the IP route (again, likely with substantial savings)

The VX also provides what the industry calls “remote survivability,” in situations where communication across the wide area IP network are disrupted, for whatever reasons. Phone service, both internal and external is simply routed over the PSTN or ITSP connection.

The MS solution, as alluded to briefly above, brings several new elements into the architectural picture: e-mail, as provided by the Exchange Server, internal SIP-based IM and phone service, as provided by the Office Communications Server, and a multimedia client application, Office Communicator, that incorporates a SIP-based softphone. (Oh, yes, there’s another server, the Mediation Server that must be present in each remote location.)

In terms of telephony, the Microsoft components provide internal connections only, to reach beyond the LAN or WAN—and to connect calls through that existing PBX that Microsoft doesn’t want you to discard—gateway functionality is needed. And that’s where the VX1200 comes in.

“We provide the connection between this new unified communications network and the existing PBX,” Isacks reiterated. “That’s very much the line on Microsoft’s strategy: ‘Don’t rip and replace to get unified communications; just add it as an adjunct to your PBX.’ So we do the interconnection between the UC and the PBX.”

The VX1200 can provide that essential linkage today, but development is not complete on this device. For one thing, NET is in the process of implementing Microsoft’s Advanced Gateway Specification, which will eliminate the requirement for Mediation Servers at each remote location.

“We’re building it into the box,” Jay Haines explained, “so it requires one less server in the infrastructure, which is very attractive for a lot of enterprise-class customers, because they don’t want to have servers at remote locations. They don’t have IT personnel out there and it’s not secure. So we can be the only device at their remote sites.”

According to Isacks, NET “won Microsoft as a customer for an IP rollout late in 2004. They have worked closely with Microsoft’s IT department in the intervening time, “and because their IT department was going toward their own internal UC, that pretty much landed us in line with their roadmap,” he said.

Despite the close working relationship, the VX1200 does not yet have full Microsoft certification for UC deployment. “We have a certification project that’s going to be run later on this year,” Haines said. So that will change soon.

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