Products such as Internet Protocol (IP) PBXs, 'soft' IP phones, and other ancillary items such as hard disk-based telephone recording systems, neatly straddle the boundary between traditional telephone systems and the latest networking technology.
The converged IP/PBX product in particular has become a key driver in the combined voice and data market.
Many would argue that the IP/PBX solution is fast becoming a commodity channel product, and is an important catalyst for data players that want to get into voice products, and vice versa.
Now that the convergence between voice telephony and data communications has become established as a reality, the big question is who is best equipped to sell converged solutions?
Do the traditional voice system resellers have an advantage in view of their wealth of experience in the telephone market? Or are the data networking resellers better placed to capitalise on the opportunities to up-sell from their networking base?
According to Toni Fabbricini, marketing manager at convergence solutions seller Westell, and secretary for the Telecommunications Industry Association Group for Convergence, much depends on the specific situation.
"If a customer is taking a forklift truck and dumping its entire voice network, then the data resellers could have the advantage," she explained.
"But we are seeing increased demand for converged voice and data solutions and this is when you will see the data resellers scratching their heads. The voice resellers know their stuff. It's not just a case of plugging in a telephone and getting it to ring."
Edward Humpleman, senior systems consultant at Alcatel, agreed that data resellers face an uphill battle if they are to win business from the traditional voice resellers.
"While data resellers may find it easier to identify convergence revenue opportunities because they have an existing relationship with the customer, voice dealers are probably better at understanding the softer elements of implementing a voice solution, such as identifying what the customer wants," he said.
"Many feel that data resellers had an easier task because voice could be viewed as just another application to be added to the data network.
"However, data resellers are finding that the skills and expertise required to install a voice system is greater than they initially thought."
Chris Lee, national sales manager at telephony provider Inter-Tel, added: "When it comes to convergence, traditional data providers will find that voice is an entirely different marketplace, and that experience in voice systems will prove vital for differentiation during the sales process.
"Experience in converged networks is a rare commodity at present, and frequently data resellers do not appear to understand fully the voice feature-set requirements of their customers and prospects.
"Knowledge, not only of voice systems but of applications and solutions that are now available on voice platforms, is a winning asset."
As a result, we are seeing partnerships emerge in the channel where voice and data resellers join together and combine their expertise.
Many realise that they do not have sufficient knowledge of either voice or data to complete an installation in isolation.
The same is true when it comes to setting up voice communications on a green field site. Ian Boreham, marketing manager at Cisco reseller ONI, said: "Every sale of a PBX or Voice over IP requires a compelling event.
"Taking a green field site as an example, the voice specialist may possibly be called upon before the data specialist because having a phone system from day one is vital for most business communications.
"But the customer is now becoming very demanding and every penny they spend on infrastructure has to be justified to the board.
"So the data reseller will argue when faced with a green field site, why install a voice and data network when a single converged IP infrastructure can be installed instead?"
Graeme Simons, national sales manager at NEC (UK), added: "The whole point of a new location is that, with no legacy systems to consider, it is the ideal time to install a converged IP-based system; one set of cables for all your communications needs and the opportunity to ensure that quality of service and other core issues are handled properly from the beginning."
However, Fabbricini believes that there may be a stumbling block which can affect the sales process. "In today's economic climate many companies don't have the luxury of both an IT manager and a voice manager. One of them will have won the battle and whoever did will determine the advantage," she explained.
Another key factor is the target market. Until recently IP/PBXs were only really aimed at the corporate or enterprise level, where network infrastructures were well developed and companies were keen to capitalise on the potential cost savings on offer.
But that is starting to change and SMEs are becoming a more attractive proposition. Enterprise systems can be complex and are generally on a much bigger scale, as Simon Boyle, consultant at IT services company Dimension Data, explained.
"In larger companies the complexity comes in two forms: physical and political," he said. "Physically, the networks are bigger, more complex and carry a wide variety of traffic. Often they have key performance requirements.
"Adding voice to this mix takes careful planning. Politically, there is still often a separate manager for voice, reporting to a different directorate from the data networking team.
"It is no exaggeration to say that budgets and jobs are at stake when such an organisation contemplates a converged network."
Chris Key, sales and marketing director at network integrator Voyager Networks, said: "Size is not really the deciding factor when looking at implementing IP telephony. If the correct infrastructure isn't in place, then the set-up will be more complex.
"For example, if an SME with an old building and network infrastructure decides to have IP telephony installed, it may take longer to complete than a large national company, which has a modern network infrastructure in place."
He added that the complexity of IP installation depends on three main issues: the existing cabling and data infrastructure; the distribution of users and whether the network has to extend to different geographical locations; and the size and age of the building or buildings.
Modern buildings make for easier installations of IP solutions, although older buildings can still be IP compatible.
Boreham agreed that it is not always the larger customers that present the greatest challenge when it comes to implementing IP/PBX solutions.
"Some smaller networks can be a mish-mash of hubs, switches and routers from various manufacturers, while an enterprise network may well be all Cisco, 3Com or Nortel," he explained.
"A consistent environment is far easier to deal with than one with a variety of equipment. Every opportunity throws up its own variances and it is up to companies such as ours to iron these out while increasing the awareness of the customer to the benefits of deploying these solutions.
"Even by just installing a network with quality of service they will immediately benefit by having a better network that is ready and able to accept IP telephony when they decide to switch."
Obviously any data resellers wishing to break into the IP/PBX market will need a significant amount of support and help from vendors, especially if they have limited or no previous experience of voice systems.
Here the quality of support is vital, according to Boyle. "Despite the rapid commoditisation of IP telephony products there is still a great deal of skill required to design and implement an optimal converged network, particularly on the wide area network," he said.
"Configuring the routers, gateways and switches to appropriately prioritise and manage voice and data traffic takes skill and experience. You can often get away with throwing bandwidth at the problem in the local area network, but nobody can afford to adopt this approach in the wide area network."
Frabbicini agreed. "To establish a professional service to customers, resellers will have to commit and invest in convergence training and accreditation programmes from vendors," she insisted.
"Leading vendors including Avaya, Cisco, Nortel, Siemens and Mitel are working together through the TIA Convergence Group to establish a basic generic training scheme and reseller code for a converged industry."
Back to school
So what exactly are vendors doing to help data resellers? Ira Kucheck, director of product management, voice solutions division at 3Com, is convinced that everything is already in place to fully support the reseller.
"Training is a big issue for 3Com, especially in the voice division," he explained. "We have invested a great deal of time and money into training our channel partners on the NBX.
"Any reseller wishing to sell the NBX has to go through a comprehensive training course before they become an accredited voice reseller. This is then followed by periodic refresher courses when new products come to market.
"In addition to these training courses our voice partners are invited to Partners 3 and 3Com University events, where they are given up-to-date information on network telephony products, product demonstrations and sales training."
Finally, resellers need to bear in mind that convergence is not a 'get-rich-quick' sector. It takes considerable investment, is dependent on relatively rare skills and, while enjoying good growth, is still a comparatively small market.
As Humpleman concluded: "No reseller can afford to ignore convergence, or they risk marginalisation. Customers are demanding converged solutions and will go to resellers which can provide them."
- Voice resellers and data resellers are competing with one another to capture the IP telephony market.
- For many firms, adding VoIP to an existing data network is an obvious solution.
- Dealing with voice is a skill which many data resellers have yet to acquire.
- Company size is not an issue because adding voice to small networks can pose problems.
- The logical approach is partnerships between voice and data specialists.
- Vendors have invested heavily in training and support to bring resellers up to speed on the latest VoIP technologies.
AN OBJECT LESSON IN UPGRADING
With 25 all-girl schools throughout England and Wales, the Girls Day School Trust (GDST) is the largest group of independent schools in the UK. It educates 20,000 pupils, and employs 3,500 staff.
The Trust operates as a registered charity which owns its schools and allocates an annual operating budget to each. Annual turnover is currently more than £100m.
In 2001, the GDST made a significant investment in upgrading the existing network equipment to give pupils access to new, bandwidth-intensive media such as video, video conferencing (including distance learning), interactive software, and internet access to every desktop.
While reviewing its network capabilities, it took the opportunity to investigate the available telephony options and chose to conduct a thorough investigation of competitive products before deciding on a 3Com solution provided by Berkshire-based channel partner, Starwand.
The GDST has chosen to standardise on Voice over IP based on the 3Com NBX Communications System for all new telecoms requirements. Two of the schools, and the Trust's office in London, are already using the NBX system to support voice and data communications.
By late summer 2002 all 25 GDST schools will have a resilient infrastructure which combines fast Ethernet backbones and 10/100 switched media to the desktop.
The 3Com network is also designed to be inherently flexible enough to expand alongside the GDST's evolving technology requirements.
Andrea Kittle, ICT manager at the GDST, said: "The close relationship with Starwand and 3Com has ensured that each school has an efficient network with the emphasis placed on expandability and future requirements, rather than just a 'solution for the moment'.
"The NBX system has enhanced telephony communications for the GDST with its customers, i.e. parents and other GDST schools, and will ultimately save money which can be reinvested into the education of the pupils."
3Com 01442 438 000
Alcatel 0870 903 3600
Dimension Data 020 7651 7000
Inter-Tel 0116 290 3023
NEC (UK) 020 8752 2775
ONI 01442 239 999
Voyager 01344 420 420
Westell 01256 843 311
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