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It's A Mad Mad Virtual World

To paraphrase Stephen Colbert, the word of the day is "virtualization." Virtualization, which lets you consolidate applications and run them on a single (virtual) machine or server, is all the rage, and the UC vendors are getting into the act. Several have or will be announcing virtualization strategies that enable customers to leverage standard servers to minimize space, be more energy efficient and improve business continuity options.The top reason why enterprises are moving to virtualization is the potential for cost savings. In the past, a company would buy a license for a telephony application, and also buy the application vendor's hardware or a dedicated server to run the application.

In a virtualized world, the application licenses are still purchased and the applications themselves are still administered separately just as before, but several different applications can run on one virtual server, using packages such as a VMWare server or Microsoft HyperV server, which can also run other business applications. You wind up buying fewer servers and realize lower costs for server maintenance and power. Moreover, apps can be turned up as needed and in slightly less time--no need to install another physical server--resulting in implementation savings.

The virtual machine software layers consume some portion of the processing capacity for layer management. And the savings from virtualization generally only come from low-usage applications that do not consume an entire processor; for large-scale applications dedicated processors will still be the choice for the primary services, though business continuity services may stand-by on virtual servers.

Another set of challenges revolve around latency, quality of service and scalability. While we generally tolerate and expect latency issues for data applications, latency is not acceptable for real-time communications and voice applications.

That's why most vendors have moved slowly to virtualize their telephony and UC capabilities. For example, even though Microsoft supports OCS R2 functionality such as presence, IM and Group Chat on a virtual server, it does not enable voice, call control, video, Live Meeting and desktop sharing workloads as part of the virtualized deployment. Microsoft states that this is due to possible quality-of-service issues with real-time media, and instead requires dedicated servers for these applications.

As another example, Cisco supports the deployment of its Unity messaging on VMware servers to extend the benefits of their virtualization and storage data center investments to Cisco Unity messaging, but notes that Cisco Unity messaging is a real-time application, which makes it more difficult to virtualize than traditional data-centric applications, such as database and email servers.

Mitel was the first to announce virtualizing real-time voice applications to leverage industry standard servers, based on its relationship with VMWare. Mitel customers will be able to run the Mitel Communications Director software and Mitel real-time voice applications in a virtualized data center environment, so that applications can be moved to standard enterprise environments and be managed like other data applications.

Aspect's UC applications for the contact center offer virtualization capabilities through VMware, allowing multiple UC applications to run in parallel as virtual machines, enabling more applications to run on a smaller footprint.

The most recent announcement came from Avaya, about its Aura System Platform Technology, supporting up to 2,500 users. Avaya stated that virtualization will be the de facto method for deploying its applications in the mid-market going forward. Aura offers multiple Virtualized Real Time Communications applications on a single Avaya Aura System Platform server, comprising Avaya Communication Manager, Voice Messaging, SIP Enablement Services, Application Enablement Services, Utility Services and Media Services.

Clearly we're at the beginning of the evolution toward real-time communications capabilities and virtualization, and I expect to hear more announcements in the near future. Getting over the latency, quality of service and scalability issues will be a challenge, but one that the UC vendors are beginning to overcome.