Michael Brandenburg's Blog


Goodbye Siemens Enterprise Communications, Hello Unify

16 Oct 2013

October 15th was the day that Siemens Enterprise Communications retired and Unify was unleashed. The name “Unify” conveys the mission of the company to truly unify communications and collaboration among enterprise users. In a time where tech companies make up words and use mixed capitalizations in their logos with sheer abandon, it is actually refreshing to see a company adopt a simple brand that actually represents what they are about. It’s easy to see why Chris Hummel, Unify’s Chief Commercial Officer, fought so hard to get all of the trademarks and domain registrations to secure the Unify brand. That effort also explains why it took so long to shed the Siemens brand. For most companies a rebranding effort becomes the single most important effort they undertake. But for Unify, the rebranding and re-launch is actually just the next step in a whirlwind year, to put it mildly.

Leading up the rebranding, Unify has notched some significant achievements:

  • Project Ansible, the company’s next generation communications platform, has single handedly compelled the industry to talk about what many of us see as one of the bigger problems with UC: the user experience. In that regard, Project Ansible is already a winner for Unify before it even ships.

 

  • Most of the buzz around Project Ansible is almost directly attributable to arguably one of the most successful social media campaigns the UC industry has ever seen. As I mentioned on Twitter, anytime your competitors are trying to hijack your hashtag, you’re winning the social media war. The #ProjectAnsible mystery, combined with an amazing engagement throughout the Unify management team and employees, highlighted not only the company, but the thought processes that went into Project Ansible and now the rebranding.

 

  • A quick divorce in its forced marriage with networking vendor Enterasys. The Gores Group, parent of both companies, no doubt had high aspirations for the combined company, joining the likes of Cisco and Avaya as end-to-end networking and UC providers, but that kind of synergy is not something that can be forced. Divesting Enterasys to Extreme Networks, aptly timed to clear the books for Unify, is ultimately the best outcome for everyone involved. Unify can focus all of its energy on its core UC applications business.

All of this has generated a lot of attention for the former Siemens Enterprise Communications, now simply Unify, but all of the thought leadership, social media conquests, and a new name simply reintroduces the company to customers and the market. Now that the webcasts and celebrations have wrapped up, it is time for Unify to execute on its vision and the promises made to the market.

Unify also needs to deliver on what will be its new flagship product, Project Ansible. What started as a redesign of the user interface has the entire market talking about the overall user experience. To capitalize on that conversation, Ansible has to ship and ship soon. The management team clearly understands that, and a ramped up schedule for Project Ansible was announced alongside the new name. Now slated for beta testing in January 2014 and general availability in July, the success of Ansible will ultimately prove if all of the effort to re-launch was worth it.

Avaya Messaging Service Fills a Gap in the UC&C Application Stack

15 Oct 2013

“Kids these days, they would rather text than talk on their phones.”


As a member of Generation X, I can attest that this sentiment is becoming our generation’s equivalent to “Get off my lawn”. Nonetheless, it’s clear that the rules of personal and business communications are changing. We’ve all seen the stories that have been written about the Millennials, the generation of kids born between 1982 and 2004. As they enter the workforce, pundits say, business communications will have to adapt to these children of the Information Age. Avaya has seen to it that text messaging, which has been largely ignored or relegated to niche verticals, is now a solid communications avenue for businesses of all sizes. More importantly, Avaya is offering it in a way that businesses can actually manage.

In simplest terms, the cloud-based Avaya Messaging Service (AMS) enables short message services (SMS) to be associated with corporate direct-in-dial (DID) numbers. At launch, Avaya’s new text and picture message service will work with North American carrier partners to support the +1 country code. Users can receive notifications via dedicated apps on their smartphone, tablet, or PC, which will no doubt be a relief for those that are still struggling to type on smartphone or tablet virtual keyboards.. In many ways, the functionality is an enterprise version of Apple’s iMessage service available to iOS and Mac users.

Simple terms, however, understate the capabilities of this service. By text-enabling enterprise DIDs, AMS reestablishes the traditional separation between work and personal communications, and re-enforces the users’ professional and personal personas. By design, messages related to work exist in a dedicated Avaya app, rather the device’s built-in SMS app. At present, given the popularity of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy and users, enterprise users who want to engage colleagues, suppliers, or even customers via text messages have to give out their personal cell numbers. AMS essentially updates one-number reach for the smartphone era, rolling text messages into a single number on your business card, as well as removing the pain associated with phone number changes that can occur on a user’s mobile device.

The separation of work/personal communications is an important consideration for businesses. As the clearinghouse of mobile messaging, AMS puts the enterprise in control of the conversation. Businesses can set retention and archive policies to adhere to corporate or regulatory compliance. Equally important, however, is the fact that customer interaction is maintained within the organization. For example, by associating text messaging with a salesperson’s DID number, the business can retain that conversion with the customer if the salesperson leaves the company.

Ultimately, AMS addresses a gap in the unified communications stack that most of us even didn’t recognize was there, and does so in an elegant over-the-top approach. There are competing offerings available from hosted UC providers and independent developers for specific verticals, but Avaya’s approach with AMS offers significantly less friction to deploy. With Avaya Messaging Service, businesses can tell Millenials to text to their heart’s content, but do so on the organization’s terms.

Sonus and the SBC Market Embrace Their Virtual Future

09 Oct 2013

After talking to the folks at Sonus about today’s announcement of their SBC SWe (Software edition), I couldn’t help but see that session border controllers are following the same historical path as other technologies that lived on dedicated hardware. Session border controllers, like PBXs and application delivery controllers before them, are examples of technologies that no one honestly expected to be virtualized, but are now ready for production in virtualized communications environments. These platforms have all achieved a software existence. The path that each of these technologies took to becoming virtual, however, feels analogous to the five stages of grief or loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Denial. The first reaction to the premise of virtualization by most of the dedicated appliance makers was pure denial. By using code phrases such as “specialized hardware” or “hardware optimizations”, hardware-based appliance makers signaled that, in their view, there is truly something special inside their sheet metal boxes and that customers would just keep buying next new and bigger box that they shipped.

Anger. Disruptive technologies like virtualization, by their very nature, wreak havoc on existing business models and even whole industries. Fear, resentment, and even anger would no doubt be a common response from those on the wrong end of the disruption. Companies that can quickly shake off the fear and anger, roll up their sleeves and adapt to the changing environment are the ones that will find new opportunities in the face of a shake-up.

Bargaining. Many of the early steps into virtual versions of appliance vendors’ products involved bargaining with customers that were caught up in the wave of virtualization. Some of these first virtual appliances were never actually meant for production environments, instead only offered for testing or training purposes. Even those early virtualized appliances destined for real deployments lacked some of the features or the scalability of their hardware based counterparts. (Unfortunately, some of that bargaining actually never goes away. Rob Arnold’s market insight, Who is Doing What in UC Virtualization: Cutting through the Hype, shows some of the compromises and trade-offs made in unified communications platforms by various vendors to support virtualization.)

Depression. Beyond the likely depressed revenues while some customers waited for a virtual option, realigning a product and company focus to accommodate disruptive technology can take a toll on teams. Again, while never stated publicly, I can only begin to imagine the amount of investment and the sheer man hours required to transition a product purpose-built to run on dedicated hardware to one that thrives in a virtualized environment built with general-purpose servers. It would be a daunting task for any engineer or supporting product manager. I am certain there were more than a few sleepless nights along the line.

Acceptance. Acceptance in this case can be summed up in one sentence: “We are a software company now.” That one statement, uttered countless times across the entire technology spectrum, is more than a throwaway marketing phrase. Rather, it is a fundamental change in how a company looks at its products and more importantly, its customers. The leadership of software companies doesn’t think about the number of boxes they sell, but about the best fit for their products in a customers’ infrastructure.

Ultimately, for Sonus and the entire SBC market, acceptance of a virtualized future is a powerful force. The team at Sonus spoke confidently about their SBC SWe solution and its ability to match the scale and performance of their traditional hardware-based portfolio, but then went even further. The shift to a software focus is actually an enablement for their hardware platforms as well, allowing other applications and solutions to more efficiently co-reside with the core SBC functionality. In essence, software and virtualization has not only enabled Sonus to deploy in more places and environments than they could with their hardware alone, but also expanded the capabilities of their hardware as well. Virtualization is not about abandoning hardware solutions, but about removing deployment roadblocks and enabling the customer to use solutions in ways that makes the most sense for their needs.

Siemens' Project Ansible: Science Fiction Becomes a New Enterprise Reality

20 Jun 2013

I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days with the folks from Siemens Enterprise Communications as part of their Analyst Summit. The two day event focused on both where Siemens is today, as well as throwing back the curtain a bit on their vision for the future of enterprise communications.

An initiative code named “Project Ansible” was ultimately revealed to the analyst community in attendance on the second day. While many of the details of Project Ansible are under wraps until Siemens shares them with the public in mid-July, you can learn a lot from the chosen internal code name. To paraphrase the Wikipedia entry, an ansible is a plot device used heavily throughout science fiction to enable communication without getting too caught up on how it works. Put another way, Star Trek’s Captain Kirk never needs to know the IP address of the starship Enterprise, it just works. At first blush, Project Ansible is Siemens’ way of providing an “it just works” experience to the user, delivering a full aggregation of the traditional UC stack, social software, and business applications in an easily consumable interface on the desktop as well as mobile devices.

From the slick, well produced introduction video all the way up to the live demo, it became immediately clear to me that Siemens has not wasted their two years of research and development effort. While terms like “single pane of glass” and “frictionless” usually come off as marketing speak, in Ansible these concepts are built into the DNA of the solution.

Ironically, Siemens employed another common plot device, the MacGuffin, in their first day of presentations. The executive team carefully reviewed all of their current UC portfolios and go-to-market strategies, while teasing the next generation platform that would come the following day. As it turns out, Project Ansible is not about ripping and replacing existing back-end UC platforms, but instead, focuses on making user consumption of these platforms a much more engaging experience.

While the first taste of the product generated more questions than answers in my mind, Project Ansible is a solid representation of what the promise of unified communications was, or is, supposed to deliver to the end-user. By the end of reveal, it became clear that the Ansible user experience is a great example of how enterprise communications should work and how we as users want it to work. For me at least, it redefines how I want to interact, communicate, and collaborate as part of daily work.

Social Media Analytics: Big Data, Big Voices, and Big Brother?

15 Feb 2013

In my research around the convergence of social media and Big Data techniques that defines social media analytics, I initially deemed this notion of social media data mining both “amazing and frightening”.

The amount and types of actionable information that could be divined from social media are actually quite staggering and can serve more than just enterprise marketing or social media departments. Actionable information can work its way throughout the organization to provide real value. However, the prospect of Big Data turning into Big Brother was a lingering thought throughout my conversations with certain vendors that are at the cutting edge of this new business intelligence opportunity.

My nagging feeling that we are being watched on social media actually went away for two reasons. First and foremost, those that I spoke with who are involved in this nascent market are highly cognizant of the very thin line between insightful and creepy, and take it as a responsibility to maintain that line.

The second reason, as it turns out, has more to do with my own perceptions of social media. It is easy to forget that when posting to Twitter or a public blog, we are broadcasting our sentiment - the Internet equivalent of shouting your message through a bullhorn in the town square. While other forms of electronic communication, like email, represent whispers to a small audience, social media is meant for shouting and sharing information.

In that sense, social media analytics is ultimately an automated way for organizations to listen and filter through all of the shouting. Given the public context of social media, the onus is not on organizations to decide whether they should listen. Rather, the onus is on users to decide whether they truly want their voice to be heard.

(Read more about social media data mining here: "Big Data and Social Media: The Perfect Storm")

The Decline of Voicemail and the Changing Rules of Communications Etiquette

06 Feb 2013

If there was one general theme that presided over my recent research on the voice and unified messaging market, it was that while voicemail usage has been fading over the years, there is still a requirement by most businesses to have a voicemail box associated with every user. In trying to understand the decline, conventional wisdom suggests that other applications in the unified communications and collaboration stack, namely e-mail and instant or text messaging, are proving to be more popular than voicemail. Based on my own in-box, the continued popularity of e-mail is certainly having an effect on voice calling, but there is actually another, less obvious change that is causing voicemail’s decline: we don’t make unsolicited phone calls anymore.

In my role here at Frost & Sullivan, I talk on the phone to a lot of people during my workday: my boss and teammates, other colleagues within the organization, as well as clients, vendor teams, journalists, and countless others. Yet, with rare exception, I always know who I am going to be talking to before I pick up the phone. That is because there is almost always a prior notification. A phone conversation with my colleagues is almost always preceded by an instant message; conference calls with vendors are always pre-arranged via e-mail or a calendar invitation; social networks or commercial instant messaging might get involved before having a phone call with other contacts. With other elements of the UC&C stack serving as preludes to a voice conversation, there is little reason to not expect a caller on the other end, and even less reason to leave a voicemail message.

This expectation that all wanted and anticipated calls will be preceded by some form of notification is making me even more suspicious of the unsolicited calls that still do come in. This suspicion is only amplified by the constant robo-callers that seem to show up each election cycle or credit card offers that still get through despite state and federal do-not-call lists.

Obviously, there are always going to be roles within the organization, such as customer service or helpdesk services that will continue to receive unsolicited voice calls. However, for many knowledge workers, voice communications, while not completely outmoded, have been escalated one tier higher in the overall communications stack. Voice communications are now reserved for the most meaningful part of the conversation while minor details, trivial matters, as well as the logistics of more in-depth interactions are handled via other communications modes such as e-mail, chat, text messaging, and others.

We are a software company now.

18 Oct 2012

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

Interop 2012: Networking Still Matters

17 May 2012

Sometimes it takes a fire hose event like a trade show to remind those of us that follow the UC&C space where all of these wonderful productivity tools (VoIP, video and web conferencing) live: the enterprise network. All of those rich media streams of audio, video, and data content ride along the same network that carries everything else that keeps the business running. If the network isn’t up to the task, the best communications and collaboration tools will fall down with it. That is why is it is heartening to see renewed interest and new energy going into the network, which featured prominently at Interop 2012 Las Vegas.

Software-Defined Networking

The biggest buzz at the show was around the concept of software-defined network (SDN). The premise of SDN is simple: separating the data plane, the parts of the network switch that move packets from point A to point B, and the control plane, the supervisory components that define what the makeup of that network. These two planes today exist as dedicated hardware within the modern network switch.

In software-defined networks the data plane in either hardware or virtual switches becomes subservient not to its on-board supervisor, but to an external controller application running on physical or virtual servers. In the case of OpenFlow, a small piece of software, an agent, is embedded within the firmware of the network switch, directing it to take commands from the external application.

In theory, software-defined networks make a lot of sense. The controller server is not bound to a single network switch to supervise, yet it can deliver command and control capabilities across every network switch in the enterprise. The controller software can be just another rack of physical servers or run as multiple virtual machine instances to provide redundancy and high availability capabilities. This architecture can be significantly less costly than paying for redundant hardware supervisors in every single network switch. With a high level of visibility, the SDN controller can direct individual network ports, no matter where on the enterprise network they physically exist to join together as a logical switch, presenting itself like a local switch to the servers and devices. And because it is driven by software, all of the network designs and configurations can be changed instantly and dynamically, with or without human intervention.

These capabilities can make your unified communications applications appear like they are running side-by-side on the same local network. SDN can make it happen, even if the individual applications are in separate server racks or even in disparate data centers. Move the applications around in the virtual environment and an SDN will track those movements and automatically adjust the network to maintain the logical network, both on-premises and, in theory, cloud-based infrastructure. Better yet, more sophisticated applications could actually request changes to be made to the network on the fly. A call controller, for example, could programmatically adjust the QoS settings to all ports or shut down access to other applications, to ensure that an emergency call goes through.

However, theory and practical implementations are two separate things. The Open Networking Foundation (ONF) is leading the charge to standardize how network equipment and controller applications communicate and interact with each other, based on the OpenFlow protocol. The ONF has a number of the networking vendors in the fold and they are working to deliver OpenFlow to the market. However, some of the biggest networking vendors have accepted the premise of SDN, but have not yet embraced the specific OpenFlow standards. Instead they are finding their own ways to deliver on the promise of software-defined networking.

In other words, the networking market is responding to SDN, at least initially, like it has with any other disruptive shift in networking technology—proprietary if they can, adopt standards if they must.

The software-defined networking concept is a dynamic, ever-malleable enterprise network. It is ultimately the shape of things to come and an ideal response to the challenges that enterprises face in the age of server virtualization and the convergence of data, unified communications, and storage on a single IP network. Network administrators and their command line configurations simply cannot keep up with this dynamic environment, and their networks will have to become as virtual and automated as the applications that are running on top of it. It remains to seen whether OpenFlow, proprietary standards, or something else brings us to this panacea, but one thing is clear: Everyone in the networking market knows it has to get there. The network still matters and it is time for it to catch up with the technologies that are developing around it.

Consumer-Grade Stops Being a Bad Word for the Enterprise

29 Mar 2012

In a recent conversation with Alcatel-Lucent about their new OpenTouch Conversation app for the iPad, a simple comment was made in passing that has stuck with me for the last several days. The suggestion was made that the iPad was the right platform for their application, providing a “consumer-quality user experience, rather than the typical enterprise one”.

It was not that long ago when “consumer-grade” was a derogatory term around professionals. Most photographers still scoff at the notion of anything other than a high-end Nikon or Canon for their work and you likely never see an auto mechanic buying tools from a discount store. Likewise, the notion of running down to the nearest big box store to purchase a network switch, router, or access point for use in the office would send shivers down the spine of most IT practitioners.

The aversion to consumer devices within many enterprises carried over into mobile devices. “Enterprise-grade” mobile devices, both smart phones and tablets, tend to focus heavily on the qualities that IT professionals care about most, management and security, at times relegating the end-user experience as a second-tier feature. Back in the days when Blackberry was at the top of the heap, its devices were highly praised for its strong management and security features, but one would be hard pressed to ever consider the user experience it delivered as anything other than utilitarian. Consumers, also known as enterprise end users, ultimately tolerated these mobile devices, largely because it was the only way to get connected to enterprise systems.

Then came the iPhone, bringing with it a user-friendly user interface backed with solid hardware. Unlike their corporate issued Blackberries, consumers were actually willing to spring for one out of their own pocket. Enterprise management and security features were literally an afterthought for Apple, pushed to make their decidedly consumer device integrate with the corporate systems. Consumers continue to buy Apple devices by the millions, while the enterprise stalwarts Microsoft and RIM have both gone back to the drawing board to make their devices more user-friendly.

So to hear an enterprise UC vendor like Alcatel-Lucent flip the argument about consumer devices strikes a chord. The company’s iPad-first approach is a testament to the disappearing distinction between the consumer and enterprise grades.

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