A Real Solution for Virtual Telephony
It took longer than expected, but true voice and data convergence is now possible.
Ten years ago, Mitel's telecom solutions were pigeon-holed in the hospitality industry. But the company embraced VoIP quicker than most of its TDM peers and worked to diversify its offerings. TEQConsult now ranks Mitel as the third largest North American telecom equipment supplier, and other reports rank Mitel as number one in SMB in the U.S. and U.K. During this period, Mitel did not experience any leadership changes or undertake any extraordinary marketing changes; instead it quietly focused on its products. Now the company is leading telephony into virtualization.Over the past decade, telecom moved under the purview of IT. VoIP caused the network to converge, and more recently, applications such as messaging and presence straddle both the voice and IT domains. But all this VoIP and its applications still largely rely on dedicated servers that just don't fit into the regimen of today's data center. Nearly every major telecom solution relies on dedicated or appliance-like mystery servers. These stand-alone servers are not able to leverage existing services and infrastructure such as storage solutions and capacity planning. Further exacerbating the problem was dedicated devices for traditional trunks (analog, T1, and PRI) that beg to challenge the notion of 'single point of failure'.
Meanwhile, two very important recent trends placed additional pressure on IT organizations: virtualization and SIP. The first can best be described as a revolution. Over just a few years since its emergence, server virtualization become a de facto standard in IT operations. Server virtualization is no longer the exception--and the market pioneer, VMware, continues to dominate the space (+74% according to IDC 2009). Its flagship product vSphere 4 and its management component vCenter sets the virtual bar.
Savings on hardware move from initial driver to a footnote when all the benefits of virtualization are considered. Administrators can add/remove resources without outages while simultaneously benefiting from increased reliability and decreased (capital and operating) expenses.
Concurrently, SIP (Session Initiated Protocol) trunks crossed into the mainstream. SIP trunks were also initially adopted for cost savings, but dynamic provisioning turns out to be a boon for scalability, speed to implement, and disaster recovery. Both virtualization and SIP trunks offer benefits around resilience, availability, and recovery.
The obvious opportunity is to put the phone system on a virtual server, but that just has not proved feasible--until now. There were multiple barriers, with the primary one being a technical wall that virtual servers and real time scalable voice processing were incompatible. There were other issues as well--namely, most phone systems are tightly coupled to propriety operating systems and hardware. Some of that hardware is for dedicated telephony ports.
Mitel is the first major telephony equipment maker to offer virtual call processing in a VMware environment. The accomplishment involved two years of research between Mitel and VMware. Mitel modified its real time requirements and VMware modified its approach to resource management. Intel offered-up performance improvements with its Xeon Nehalem chipset, and virtualized telephony became a reality.
Mitel took two prior critical steps; MAS and MCD. The Mitel Application Server (MAS) was Mitel's solution to application server inflation. As UC applications for VoIP increased (messaging, presence, teleworking, mobility, conferencing, etc.) so did the servers. The number of servers for a comprehensive VoIP solution were simply getting out of hand with Mitel and many other brands.
MAS combines all the popular Mitel applications into a single server. However, some applications need to live on the network edge (conferencing, teleworker), so some applications are better suited to reside on a Mitel Border Gateway (MBG) to protect core services.
The second change was the birth of Mitel Call Director or MCD. Prior to it, the Mitel 3300 was a bundled (hardware and software) telephony solution. The 3300 remains available as hardware only. MCD, sold independently, can be loaded on a 3300 platform, or an increasing selection of servers from Sun, HP, IBM, and Dell. In other words, Mitel separated the call control software from the hardware. The 3300 can also be configured as a gateway to connect analog, T1, and/or PRI circuits over IP to the MCD server (in non-pure-SIP implementations).
Now the other (virtual) foot drops as MCD can be virtualized on VMware. Mitel now offers (at no charge) a VM wrapper for MCD. New or existing customers can freely migrate their licensing to (or from) a VMware environment. Additionally, MAS and MBG servers will be released with virtual wrappers in the next few months. Factor in a migration to SIP trunks (not required), and the entire Mitel infrastructure becomes virtualized and eligible to receive all of its associated benefits.
The entire telecom infrastructure can live within VMware--all call processing, applications, and trunking. It can be a single implementation or made resilient with additional virtual (or real) machines at the same or different locations. VMware presented Mitel a Technology Innovator Award just last week at its partner conference.
Virtualization means a big reduction in physical servers--their costs, their heat, their security; and leverages existing investments (human and physical) in a virtualized infrastructure. Plus the virtual environment can be centralized and/or portable--particularly with SIP trunks. Telecom infrastructure can remain in the data center, a co-lo facility, or potentially a public cloud service.
Since MCD is multi-tenant capable, the solution also lends itself well for customers that desire to centralize telecom across locations. Extensions can be physical or soft, MiNet or SIP. All Mitel services, phones, and trunk types are supported.
Virtualization and cloud are strong draws by themselves, but the solution is also green. The power savings associated with virtual data environments can be applied to the voice environment. A virtualized infrastructure consumes significantly less power with less hardware. Additionally, Tolly Group found Mitel's VoIP phones to be industry leading in terms of power consumption and minimal environmental impact.
But the far biggest advantage will come in the form of availability. Call processing and UC applications won't be subject to downtime for maintenance. Disaster recovery and HA best practices can be applied equally to voice and data services. Capacity adjustments (server, storage, even trunks) can be accomplished quickly and without downtime. It took longer than expected, but true voice and data convergence is now possible.
Mitel launched the news very comprehensively--Mitel and VMware jointly took credit for the accomplishment and customers confirmed that it works. However, there are a few concerns--for one, this unusual partnership. Mitel is not particularly strong in the enterprise space, and VMware is not particularly strong in the SMB market. Both companies have aspirations to change that. Thus the partnership may be more strategic than its technical implications. SMB adopting private clouds and the enterprise embracing Mitel seem like equal reasonable bets, but note neither company agreed to an exclusive partnership.
Secondly, a few customer testimonials will not erase years of fear associated with virtualizing real time applications. Cautious CIOs will likely wait for more evidence. Part of that evidence will be competitors following suit, but Mitel will enjoy an immense head start as its Call Director was already separated from hardware and its applications already consolidated.
Dave Michels is a regular contributor and blogs about telecom at PinDropSoup.com. It took longer than expected, but true voice and data convergence is now possible.