SBCs vs. PBXs
As core communications platforms evolve, incumbent relationships will be at least as important as incumbent technology.
For a while now, it's seemed to many of us that enterprise session border controllers (E-SBCs) could be positioned to be the next-generation call control platform, supplanting the PBX. E-SBCs sit at the crossroads of the next generation of enterprise communications--the edge where the enterprise and public networks meet. Logically, it sits a layer above the PBX, so it could serve to facilitate interoperation in multi-vendor IP-PBX environments, while also managing connections to an outside world that's increasingly, well, moved inside the enterprise: your teleworkers, your mobile workers, your contacts within partner/customer companies.
There's no reason that a next-generation PBX couldn't basically fill the same role--the PBX devours the SBC instead of the SBC devouring the PBX. And in fact the two largest legacy PBX players--Cisco and Avaya--have significant investments and businesses in SBC functionality, so for them (and their customers) the discussion may be somewhat academic. (Microsoft is a different case with Lync voice, since in their world the SBC, like many other elements, is deliberately farmed out to partners rather than being a Microsoft product.)
So how much the next-generation SBC disrupts the legacy communications market will likely have more to do with vendor relationships and enterprise strategies than with who's got the best technology. This came out when I talked with Carl Baptiste and Greg Zweig of Genband about that company's most recent release in this space, Smart Office 2.0 (see Sheila's writeup on the announcement here).
I posed this scenario to them: Suppose I'm an enterprise whose TDM or earlier-gen IP PBX is reaching End of Life/End of Support, and I really don't yet have the visibility into future communications needs at my enterprise--I don't know exactly how my users will be communicating and collaborating five years from now (what tools they'll want, what devices, how it all needs to mesh with whatever they're using by then in their consumer lives). But I know that in the meantime, we need a platform that carries forward from what we have now. Why wouldn't I just look to my incumbent PBX vendor, rather than thinking of a company like Genband? What does thinking outside the box offer me, today?
Carl and Greg responded that the new platform can deliver current-generation functionality as well as SIP-based compatibility with legacy gear--"We could go in and sell IP-PBX, but we don't need to tell them to get rid of their old Avaya. We don't have to disrupt their current environment," Greg Zweig told me.
But here's the thing: Genband isn't counting on changing the way enterprises think about PBX and SBC--in either their current or future incarnations. Instead, they're relying on something more tried-and-true: existing relationships and strategies. And here's where a move made five years ago starts to loom large: When Genband bought Nortel's carrier softswitching assets out of bankruptcy, they picked up not only a carrier play, but a large enterprise play.
"The biggest sales opportunity is the former Nortel base," Greg Zweig said. Genband is sitting on 320 installations of Nortel SL100 and CS2100 switches, at some very significant accounts--universities such as Stanford, Princeton, University of Texas, and Auburn; government agencies including the Social Security Administration; and medical installations such as the Cleveland Clinic.
Genband even added support for Nortel's proprietary Unistim call control protocol to Smart Office 2.0, ensuring that customers who don't see much future in desk phones can keep the old ones that they have now, rather than sinking a lot of money into new models.
We're starting to see some very interesting approaches to the market from SBC companies like Genband, Oracle (via the Acme Packet acquisition), Sonus, and AudioCodes. And at Enterprise Connect this year, we've got a session devoted to the evolving role of the SBC in the enterprise. The session will be led by Jim Allen, a consultant and former enterprise exec who's been working on these issues for years. Jim's also got a terrific in-depth piece here on No Jitter about architectures for high availability that blend legacy and next-gen technologies--a great read to sink your teeth into.