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EC13 Report: Virtualization

I have been attending Enterprise Connect and its predecessors since 1998, and my focus gradually shifted from PBXs to IP-PBXs to call centers to video conferencing and most recently to cloud services. Enterprise Connect 2013 was a unique opportunity to meet with vendors from across these communications industry segments and search for commonalities and trends.

The sheer number of vendors participating in EC requires discipline and excellent planning before the event. To get a comprehensive view of the industry developments, I met with 28 vendors in back-to-back briefings, visited the exhibits, and attended a few targeted conference sessions. The most powerful trends I discovered during the event are virtualization, cloud services, mobility, and redefining of the conference room experience. I have written a post on each of these topics, and these will run on No Jitter over the next 4 days, beginning with virtualization.

Virtualization--once the exclusive domain of non-real-time applications--is now becoming a cornerstone for scalable and redundant deployments in voice and video communications. Here are some of the vendors' strategies:

* Trailblazer Mitel developed a strategic relationship with VMware early on, and systematically virtualized its entire portfolio. For them, virtualization is not a feature but rather a strategy for developing new channels and reaching new customers.

* Avaya has virtualized its Avaya Communications Manager and Contact Center application as well as several other elements of the Aura architecture.

* ShoreTel has virtualized its IP Phone System and Contact Center application, but their approach to virtualization is less radical: virtual machines are positioned as a solution for larger offices, while appliances continue to be the preferred option for branch offices.

* Alcatel-Lucent OpenTouch has been virtualized and is used by partners to offer cloud services. Its release included a new licensing model and a new tool to monitor licenses.

* Siemens Enterprise Communications is in the process of certifying its OpenScape portfolio with VMware.

* NEC has already virtualized UNIVERGE 3C, its Windows-based UC system from the Sphere acquisition.

So virtualization is becoming a part of most vendors' strategies for pure-IP systems. When it comes to hybrid TDM/IP, Avaya, Alcatel-Lucent, Siemens, and NEC have such hybrid systems in their portfolio but are not rushing into virtualizing them.

Virtualizing hybrid systems is not easy, and even if part of the system is virtualized, there must be a TDM/IP gateway somewhere in the network to support TDM extensions and trunks, which negates some of the virtualization benefits. Aastra MX-ONE has been virtualized, although the virtual edition is only offered on the European market for now. Aastra's mobility server (Aastra Mobility Controller = AMC) is also virtualized.

In the video conferencing world, Polycom is preparing its RMX (now RealPresence Collaboration Server) platform for deployment in virtual environments. Since server virtualization is based on x86 CPU architecture, Polycom's first step is moving from Digital Signaling Processor (DSP) to x86 CPU hardware; the result is Polycom RealPresence Collaboration Server 800s, Virtual Edition, a physical server that runs the conferencing application on x86 CPU. The resulting scalability decrease (20 transcoded HD video ports, as compared to 80 in the DSP version) is compensated by offering 60 Scalable Video Coding HD ports that require no transcoding.

While the commercial success of such a solution may be limited, it is a necessary step towards running the Polycom media processing engine on generic hypervisor. Eventually, this is the architecture required to power Polycom's Cloud Axis service.

Radvision (now part of Avaya) took a different approach with Scopia Elite 6000. While the conferencing application in the appliance runs on x86 CPU, an accelerator board handles some of the video processing. That allows the scalability to be kept up to 80 transcoded HD calls and is a small step towards the cloud future. Other solution elements such as Scopia Desktop are fully virtualized.

AVI-SPL deploys Cisco video infrastructure in virtualized environments, including applications such as VCS. It would be interesting to track if Cisco will take the Polycom or Radvision approach in getting its Codian MCUs from purpose-built DSP hardware to virtual environments.

Looking across the contact center industry to test the hypothesis that virtualization is an universal trend, I came across Five9, a cloud call center provider that uses virtualization in its network of leased data centers, and Calabrio, whose Calabrio ONE suite of contact center workforce optimization software includes call recording, quality assurance, workforce management, speech analytics, and performance-based management. For Calabrio, the only real technology challenge is virtualizing the call recording part, which requires consistent high performance and dedicated HW resources.

This was a consistent theme in all conversations around virtualization: functions/applications that require dedicated resources are hard to virtualize.

In the voice networking segment, Session Border Controller (SBC) vendors are beginning to think about virtualization, with Sonus having specific plans to virtualize its SBC products before the end of 2013. They recognize the virtualization trend but want to avoid performance limitations, especially with transcoding in SBCs.

I was not sure I would find virtualization in Adtran's portfolio but it turns out Adtran Wireless Access Controller is fully virtualized on VMware. Replacing controller hardware every time the Wi-Fi standard gets updated (remember 802.11 a, b, g, n) is not efficient and the company moved to a software-only controller that they later virtualized.

Virtualization also found its way in Extreme Networks' management application, which now runs on VMware. Extreme's policy management engine retrieves user information from the enterprise directory (Active Directory) and applies policies to each user, no matter where and how the user is connected to the network. With virtualization, Extreme has carried this concept over to virtual machines: the management application retrieves information about VMs from the VMware hypervisor and allows the administrator to create profiles per VM. As the VM moves from one server to another or from one data center to another (using the vMotion feature, for example), Extreme tracks the VM and keeps applying the same policy to it no matter the location.

Virtualization is not a religion, and vendors have to pick and choose which elements to virtualize in your portfolio. Media processing functions are the most challenging, since they require dedicated resources--going against the fundamentals of virtualization.