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The All-Software IP Telephony System Has Arrived

In my recent No Jitter article reviewing the VoiceCon Orlando RFP workshop IP telephony system proposals, one immediately takes notice that the hardware-centric designs of yesteryear have been replaced by software-centric solutions. But the design trend doesn't stop there. The next step in the evolutionary process is replacement of all proprietary hardware elements as evidenced by the Microsoft Communications Server "14" solution, exclusively utilizing third party servers, media gateways, and SIP telephone instruments for its configuration. The proposed Digium solution was similarly configured with all third party equipment, except for a PCI-based PRI gateway interface.One should not be surprised that software developers like Microsoft or Digium would side-step requirements for proprietary hardware equipment, but when a more traditional system supplier such as Siemens Enterprise Communications minimizes use of its own proprietary hardware equipment you know the game has changed, The supplier's OpenScape UC Server common control nodes are based on cluster controllers from IBM, supporting third party industry standard SIP media gateways. The new software release will enable operation on industry standard off-the-shelf virtualized servers for optimal deployment in data centers. This would leave the Siemens family of OpenStage telephone instruments as the system's only proprietary hardware equipment, though a customer could ostensibly elect to use third party SIP telephones (or soft phones). It should be noted that the Siemens system was not the only solution from a traditional system supplier using third party hardware as a core element of their design: the Alcatel-Lucent, Aastra, and Mitel Networks proposals each included off-the-shelf servers for call control.

The gradual replacement of embedded circuit switched networks by external LAN Ethernet switches for IP call connections more than a decade ago was the first major step in the elimination of proprietary system hardware. Another major step was the system design trend from fully integrated common control/port carrier cabinets to standalone call servers and distributed media gateways. First generation call servers were based on proprietary hardware; third party off-the-shelf servers are now used by many current generation systems.

Use of proprietary media gateways for analog station and PSTN trunk connections is also beginning to fade in favor of industry standard equipment from third parties such as AudioCodes and Mediatrix. Though some systems must continue to use proprietary media gateway equipment for a variety of reasons, e.g., support of old generation digital telephone instruments, the requirement for such equipment is declining with increased customer deployment of SIP endpoints (voice terminals and trunk circuits) and fewer traditional TDM endpoints. Conformance to industry standards such as SIP is greatly helping drive down system costs and enhancing design choice flexibility through the use of third party equipment.

Proprietary PBX cabinets and circuit cards were phased out during the past decade and the next decade will see a phasing out of proprietary call servers and most proprietary media gateway equipment, but there remains a strong case for system suppliers to continue development and marketing of their own desktop telephone instruments. More than a few system suppliers are continuing to develop new generations of advanced telephones. For example, Cisco recently brought out its 8900/9900 series and Alcatel-Lucent unveiled its smartphone My IC Phone model at VoiceCon.

The new instruments were designed to greatly enhance overall system performance capabilities, including unified and video communications applications. They will also be used to support competitive market positioning, because a desktop telephone remains a strong system differentiator. Another important reason suppliers have for selling their own desktop telephones is financial: high end instruments usually have attractive profit margins, even at discount. Despite this, the future of system-specific telephone instruments is not rosy, because customer purchases of these types of terminals are likely to decline this decade. There are increasing shipments of soft phones and use of mobile extensions and more customers may choose the option of using low priced third party SIP telephones if only basic voice services are required. A growing number of today's customers are becoming hesitant to invest hundreds of dollars per instrument when there are alternatives.

It will take many more years for the existing installed base of proprietary equipment to be replaced, despite the best marketing efforts of a company such as Microsoft. It is easy, however, to envision the day when the enterprise communications system is just another software application running in a centralized data center (premises or hosted) and additional hardware equipment of any kind will be minimal and off-the-shelf. For a very few customers the day has already arrived, though we still have more than a few years wait for the rest of the market to follow along.