Enterprise Communications

We are a software company now.

by Michael Brandenburg 18 Oct 2012
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I have heard this statement made in one form or another by countless traditionally hardware-focused technology vendors over the years, most recently by the players in the unified communications market. It is a simple statement to make, but represents a significant challenge. The migration to a software-based existence has far reaching implications for the business models of the UC vendors as well as in terms of how customers deploy, maintain and ultimately grow their unified communications infrastructure.

So what was wrong with hardware?

Scaling up or down is particularly problematic when building dedicated hardware appliances or platforms. Developing hardware-based platforms has represented a compromise between having the embedded horsepower to meet the needs of the largest of enterprises and offering the price points that smaller businesses can tolerate. Combined with the limited number of hardware options that a company can reasonably maintain and support, vendors with a hardware focus are continually attempting to pound the square hardware peg into any hole, whether it really fits or not.

A software existence, on the other hand, takes the hardware largely out of the equation - or at least marginalizes it to generic off-the-shelf servers. Software platforms can be designed to scale for both the smallest of businesses and the largest of enterprises. Similarly, without a reliance on discrete hardware, software-based communications platforms no longer have to be deployed as customer premises equipment. Given the rising selection of hosted or cloud-based UC solutions hitting the market, many customers are clearly embracing UC without the physical boxes.

For UC vendors, a software existence offers the ability to cater to just about any scenario a customer dreams up, usually with a common application codebase. In a software-based architecture the deployment options for a single application or platform grow significantly without the need for additional R&D. For standalone server solutions, the vendor can either allow customers to bring their own servers or they can provide customers with certified servers. UC vendors can continue to offer all-in-one appliance-like devices to customers that want to maintain a PBX-style environment by simply bundling their software with generic server hardware. For larger businesses, the same base software can be deployed as virtual machines running in the customer’s data center. And finally, UC vendors and their partners can take the same software to offer cloud-based, hosted, or managed UC services to customers. Embracing a software existence ultimately gives UC vendors the agility to adapt to the technological changes going on in enterprises today, rather than simply being the sellers of phone boxes.

Likewise, for enterprise administrators that understand the fundamental changes going on in the enterprise communications market, a software existence ultimately means freedom. All of the rules for installing telecommunications hardware, including dedicated physical space, melt away when dealing with software. In essence, the customer can no longer be told how their communications infrastructure will be built, they have to be asked. The customer can choose among private cloud, public cloud, hosted, on-premises physical appliance, or virtual servers to deploy UC applications as the back end. Likewise, the move to software changes the customer-facing side as well. It gives businesses the choice of physical endpoints, softphones, mobile devices, and even virtual desktops running on thin clients. Unlike the PBX's of old, there is no one way to build a UC platform.

In a transition this dramatic, both UC vendors and their customers are going to reset their assumptions on business communications deployments. Given a full menu of options, many customers may let inertia guide them to choose a UC deployment eerily similar to their previous PBX solution. Likewise, vendor sales teams have to learn a new way of selling their wares. Pitching unified communications is no longer about how many boxes or phones a customer needs, but what UC applications and what deployment scenarios make the most sense for the organization. A software existence provides a perfect opportunity for both enterprise IT and their vendors to think outside the box to meet end-user

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