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The Aastra Operation

Nortel continues to dominate headlines (yawn). Objectively, it really is a huge story. The telecom industry has never seen a bankruptcy like this, and the huge Nortel base of affected users makes it truly newsworthy. But the only way Nortel's media conversations could increase is if the Michael Jackson estate was the leading buyer. It isn't just Nortel either, Avaya and Siemens are receiving more than their share of fame as well.I went back to Allan Sulkin's mid year North American market share report to remind myself if there are any other manufacturers to talk about.

The vendor that jumped out at me was Aastra.

Aastra? Aastra just doesn't come up in a lot of conversations - what are they doing on the Top 10 list? Recessions are strange things, the old saying goes something like "When it's darkest you can really see the stars." Walmart and Amazon are emerging from the cesspool of retail and the Economist is emerging from the great publishing debacle. Meanwhile,

Aastra is a Canadian company focused on business communications. Consider the following: Aastra holds a slot on the top 10 list of just about every market share list published; North America, EMEA, worldwide, SMB, enterprise, and all line sizes. The company is growing, and actually making money. The result of their growth, largely through acquisitions, is an exceedingly broad platform of modern telecom products and services. Their headquarters is in Toronto, with US major offices in Frisco, TX; Boston, MA; and Pittsburgh, PA.

For example, they currently offer four PBX platforms in North America spanning from the smallest of the SMB to carrier class 1500+ line systems. They offer a virtual contact center solution chosen by IBM's disaster recovery service. They have a variety of IP/SIP phones used on their own and many other branded phone systems, and they have a strong wireless portfolio in the high growth area of DECT. Additionally, they offer a range of emerging UC technologies--including presence, mobility, and video.

Aastra actually started in aerospace and defense, but began switching to telecom in 1992. Since about 2000, the company has been quietly buying-up technologies, divisions, and companies. Aastra purchased three divisions from Nortel, one division from Lucent, Ascom, EADS, and DeTeWe each. Probably two of the most significant acquitisions were Intecom (originally funded by Exxon, large enterprise PBX systems) and just last year (at a fire sale price), Aastra purchased Ericsson's PBX division, contributing to their European market leader position.

I've shared my frustration regarding the poor selection of wireless IP phones. I don't think Wi-Fi makes sense any more, but DECT does. The challenge is finding the right combination of features at a reasonable price. Aastra appears to be solidly on the right track. They have a large selection of DECT phones, and virtually own the concept of partnering a DECT cordless phone to a corded phone. Next month they are introducing several new models which look very promising. For example, I can't find a DECT SIP phone with a transfer button (usually a menu option instead). The new series called the 600d (right) will offer programmable keys, speaker phones, POE bases, phonebook support, lighted keypads, and a headset jack all reportedly at a decent price.

Of their four phone system platforms, the bottom one (or regrettable one) is likely the Aastralink RP--RP stands for Response Point--which is the abandoned Microsoft offering. Though probably an end of life product, it was the only Response Point solution I know of with a DECT phone.

The next level up is the Astralink Pro 160 Asterisk based phone system. Once again, the Aastra phones strengthen the offering. Very few Asterisk based appliances offer like branded, supported phones. Digium, the owner of the Asterisk brand does not make any phones. The broad Asterisk community largely relies on Polycom, Snom, and Aastra for phones, but only Aastra offers multiple and complete single branded systems.

The MX-ONE is the IP platform Aastra acquired from Ericsson. It is a very robust IP PBX with an array of hardware and software options. Ericsson has a long telecom history. I toured their Stockholm headquaters years ago which included a trip through time in their museum-like lobby. Ericsson is very proud to be the first manufacturer to put the earpiece and mouthpiece together into a single handset. When Aastra acquired Ericsson's PBX business unit in 2008, they got a lot of history, a strong UC capability, ViPr video technology, a new multi-media contact center capability, about 600 employees, and about 100,000 customers. The MX-ONE never got the same penetration in the US (though is available) as it did in Europe, but Aastra is slowly strengthening its offering by integrating it with their complementary technologies.

For even larger (North American) customers there is their carrier-grade offering of Clearspan. This is their enterprise VoIP offering and target destination for remaining Intecom (TDM) customers via Pointspan (Hybrid) migration path. Clearspan implementations tend to be fairly large systems, particularly in higher education.

Aastra announced a new Clearspan promotion for Nortel customers. Nothing new here as most vendors are circling Nortel accounts, but Aastra is taking a slightly different approach. Rather than shoot for immediate replacement, Aastra wants to prove their capabilities. They are offering free SIP trunks for integration between Clearspan and Nortel systems along with discounted phones and potentially most importantly, free instructor led administrative training.

Clearspan is based on Broadsoft's call processing software. Broadsoft is known for their underlying technology predominately used in hosted PBX offerings (Broadsoft does not directly offer hosting services). To my knowledge, this is the first (and only?) premise based offering of Broadsoft's technology. That means that even though the product is relatively young from an Aastra perspective--it actually has a ton of experience under its belt. Not just call processing experience, but hosted experience, which becomes more critical as the industry moves toward virtualizing hardware in the cloud.

Currently, Aastra only offers Clearspan bundled with IBM servers, but it makes an interesting twist on cloud telephony should Aastra allow this product to be purchased and implemented on virtual cloud based services. It could offer a unique blend of experience and maturity along with the benefits associated with the cloud.

With the exception of Response Point, Aastra seems to be fairly good at market timing. The company is solidly involved in several growth areas including disaster recovery, DECT and SIP, managed services, and unified communications (UC).This is topped off with some strong vertical penetration in healthcare and education sectors. I believe they have some name recognition challenges, and presumably some channel challenges with such a diverse portfolio. Of course, the general industry isn't exactly rosy either. But despite my concerns, Aastra seems to be quietly and profitably growing.