Wednesday, April 10, 2013

EC13 Part 4: Redefining The Conference Room Experience

The new conference room experience is still a work in progress, and the focus is shifting from video to content sharing and annotation.

This is the last in a four-part series covering some of the major trends I saw at Enterprise Connect Orlando. Friday I covered Virtualization, Monday was Cloud Services, and yesterday Mobility

Redefining the conference room experience

Video conferencing vendors have been trying to extend the video conference room experience to desktop and mobile devices for a while, and competed in this realm on video quality. Now Microsoft is taking the opposite approach: extending the desktop/mobile Lync experience to conference room. The user experience in the room is driven by the capabilities of desktop and mobile video, not the other way around.

The new approach changes the implementation priorities: ease of use is the king (the main goal is to eliminate the 5-10-minute delay of the typical video meeting due to technical issues); content sharing and whiteboarding/annotation are the most important parts of the meeting, while video quality is far lower on the requirement list. For the first time, Microsoft does not depend on third-parties for providing multipoint video: Lync 2013 supports H.264 SVC, and the Microsoft AVMCU enables multipoint video calls.

By releasing its Lync Room specification to 4 partners--Crestron, LifeSize, Polycom, and SMART--Microsoft is essentially doing a trial of its Lync Room concept. The specification is not publically available but the key requirements can be recognized in the first demos--by SMART and Crestron--at Enterprise Connect.  Addressing the trends towards smaller conference rooms, wide angle cameras are required to capture people sitting close to screen/whiteboard. Based on the notion that mechanical noises distract meeting participants, Lync Rooms use digital (not mechanical) Pan/Tilt/Zoom (PTZ) cameras. Audio elements--speakers, microphones, and stereo/mono modes--are also defined, and so is the user interface for starting a meeting. The logical split of the control functions is that meeting controls are on a small control tablet while whiteboarding/annotation actions are on the large touch screen.

From the pack, SMART came to EC best prepared with its own 109-degree camera design, multiple models--small for 6 people, medium for 12, and large for 16--and support of one or two screens. SMART leveraged its experience with whiteboarding technology to differentiate. Although the video quality was not impressive (network issues, as usual), the collaboration capabilities were superb.

Crestron opted for using an off-the-shelf Logitech camera and focused on the room control experience to differentiate its Lync Room solution--a logical approach based on Crestron's background in room control. One touch of the Crestron control unit lets users switch seamlessly between "Room Control" mode and "Lync Room Collaboration" mode.

Polycom has invested a lot in interoperability with Microsoft, including support of the Microsoft RTV video codec that enables best possible quality between older Lync clients and video endpoints. Polycom also licensed its H.264 SVC implementation to Microsoft and all other UCIF members willing to use it, a move designed to create a critical mass behind one SVC flavor. But while having the best video quality between your portfolio and Lync is a tangible competitive advantage, the concern is about the overall lower importance of video in the Lync world, where content is truly the king.

While the Lync room designs are pragmatic and will improve the conferencing room experience, the cost for building rooms is still an issue, and many small companies are looking for solutions that are a little less perfect for a lot less money. Start-up Tely Labs is trying to make video collaboration more affordable and demonstrated telyHD Business Edition, which works with Tely's own simple infrastructure supporting up to 6-way video. Their telyHD Enterprise Edition was built in partnership with BlueJeans Network, and therefore allows connecting the majority of video endpoints out there. Trying to find a market segment between free clients and $10-20K rooms, Tely has very attractive price point of $550 for the enterprise or business edition; this include camera and audio but not the cost of the video monitor.

Revolabs has developed a new generation of wideband wearable and on-table wireless microphones that improve the audio capture in conference rooms. The importance for audio in collaboration cannot be overstated, and Revolabs provides an excellent alternative to wired microphones.


The new conference room experience is still a work in progress, and the focus is shifting from video to content sharing and annotation. The cost of equipping conference room with video is also going down. Combined with cloud services, this will democratize video.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

EC13 Report Part 3: Mobility

Mobility for UC comes in many shapes. A soft client on iOS and Android is the entry ticket, but the sky is the limit after that.

This is the third in a four-part series covering some of the major trends I saw at Enterprise Connect Orlando. Friday I covered Virtualization, and yesterday Cloud Services; tomorrow's topic will be the Conference Room Experience.


UC clients on mobile devices have quickly become the entry ticket to mobility. Every vendor I talked to--voice, video, or other--has soft client(s). iOS and Android are the preferred OS for smart phones and tablets, followed by Windows for laptops and a mention or two of BlackBerry. However, a good mobility story rarely stops at just mobility.

Extensions to the call processing software allow switching (or shifting) sessions across any number of devices associated with a user. Alcatel-Lucent's "rapid session shift" switches between mobile phone, wired phone, soft client, or a video endpoint from partner LifeSize. There is no auto detection, and the changeover is initiated by a push of a key or tap on a screen.

Thrupoint takes session management to an entirely different level. Their Session Broker--which originates from Ubiquity--allows applications to execute during session setup, and for example, to check permissions, apply policies, and re-route sessions to another location/device. Thrupoint therefore provides a scalable platform for mobility applications.

I came across several mobility servers that allow additional automation of the call handoff process and focus on the Wi-Fi/3G/4G/GSM roaming scenario. The idea is that when the user leaves Wi-Fi coverage, the call automatically switches to VoIP over 3G/4G. If the 3G/4G service deteriorates, the call automatically switches to basic TDM GSM voice.

Aastra demonstrated the Aastra Mobility Controller (AMC) from the acquisition of Munich-based Comdasys. The mobility server is offered with the Aastra's MX-1 system (acquired from Ericsson) or as as standalone product with third-party systems.

ShoreTel has fully integrated the mobility server from the Agito acquisition, and offers it with ShoreTel IP Phone System or as a standalone product in third-party environments.


Mobility comes in many shapes. A soft client on iOS and Android is the entry ticket, but the sky is the limit after that. Advanced mobility functions such as session shifting and session/call handoff may become important differentiators for vendors. Reliability is still an issue, since mobility touches on several networks, and network timers do not always work exactly as expected.

Monday, April 8, 2013

EC13 Report Part 2: Cloud Services

EC13 Report: Cloud ServicesVendors are rushing into creating cloud services to reach new customers--but there are concerns to address.
Vendors are rushing into creating cloud services to reach new customers--but there are concerns to address.

This is the second in a four-part series covering some of the major trends I saw at Enterprise Connect Orlando. On Friday I covered Virtualization; tomorrow's topic will be Mobility, and Wednesday's will be the Conference Room Experience.

Cloud Services

Cloud services are popping up everywhere, reflecting the lower barrier to entry for those who want to become a service provider. There are currently several hundred Managed Service Providers (MSPs) that provide voice and video conferencing services. The market is very fragmented and the barrier to entry is relatively low, so players are trying to differentiate themselves by supporting multiple vendors, solving interoperability issues, and gaining critical mass, In addition to AVI-SPL, I met with AGT, which differentiates itself through offering software-based MCU in the cloud and offering management of video endpoints.

More and more vendors across the industry are trying to make it even easier to become an MSP--by building infrastructure for running their applications in the cloud, and by encouraging their distributors to become MSPs and resell the service. As bonus, the vendors provide management tools so that the freshly baked MSPs can measure usage and charge end users for services month by month.

The cloud allows some traditional on-premise vendors to address very small customers that cannot really afford an on-premise solution. Interactive Intelligence announced its Communications as a Service (CaaS) offering called Small Center, targeting 10-50 agents--and promising unrestricted growth up to 5,000 agents without platform change. This is adding fresh competition to Five 9, a pure-play cloud call center offering.

On the video side, Magor is repositioning itself away from telepresence and towards being a visual communication infrastructure vendor. Its new Aerus cloud service leverages sophisticated routing algorithms to enable new collaboration models, away from the traditional "endpoints calling into the bridge" model.

Since these offerings rely on Internet best effort service, some industry analysts warn against it, while others embrace the Internet quality. Unified Office is taking a different approach, focusing on engineered quality for customers (small businesses with 5-75 employees) that need more than best-effort. Unified Office installs a TCN (Total Connect Now service) box on customer premise to measure QOS and analyze IP networking problems; then works with IP networking service providers to resolve issues. Unified Office also uses an open source SBC based on Asterisk that connects to multiple SIP trunking providers and routes calls based on network quality. This reminds me of the Least Cost Routing function in PBXs; however, Unified Office does not look at cost, just network quality.

The big question is "Why do vendors roll out their own cloud services?" One school of thought is that vendors waited for service providers to develop scalable services and since this did not happen, decided to try it themselves (although it is clear that running a service is very different from making products). Another school of thought is that it is just everyone in the industry looking for room for growth by experimenting with new business models, even risking competition with SP customers.

Finally, the term "hybrid cloud" was often used in conversations at Enterprise Connect, always with different meaning. Some picture "hybrid" as a media server on premise with application server in the cloud. Other imagine some services implemented in private cloud (essentially a hosted outsourced data center) while other come from the public cloud. BroadSoft's definition, for example, is having BroadWorks system in the SP data center while getting UC services from the BroadCloud.


Vendors are rushing into creating cloud services to reach new customers. Small enterprise companies will benefit the most, as cloud services would allow them to use platforms they cannot afford to install on premise. One concern is the best effort quality of the Internet that most cloud services rely on. The second concern is how well vendors will perform as service providers. The third concern is about vendors competing with their service provider customers.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

EC13 Report Part 1: Virtualization

Most of the core call control vendors are virtualizing at least someof their systems; now virtualization is spreading to video elements, contact centers, SBCs and more.

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 their portfolios. Media processing functions are the most challenging, since they require dedicated resources--going against the fundamentals of virtualization.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Controlling the Borders

After Oracle announced the acquisition of Acme Packet, a lot of people asked me about the role Acme Packet plays in the network. I started piecing together bits of information to understand the tumultuous history of session border controllers that led to the acquisition. The result is this article that hopefully explains the value of Session Border Controllers (SBCs) in the network and Acme Packet’s role in this market segment.

SBC Origin

SBCs have been around since the early days of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and have always been in the center of heated debates in the industry. The VoIP purists believed that the VoIP client should communicate directly with the VoIP proxy, so that the session can be established end-to-end, that is, between the two communication parties (clients). The model first broke when telecom-style soft switches started terminating sessions to clients and messing with the session parameters; they became so-called Back to Back User Agents (B2BUA). The benefit of B2BUAs is that they can implement telephony style features like forwarding, transfer, conference, and the “holy grail” of enterprise telephony - multiple line appearance.

Once the end-to-end session was broken however, folks decided that it can be broken several times, and put another type of session breakers – session border controllers – between VoIP clients and soft switches. VoIP purists were enraged but, as time passed, the practicality of SBCs won over the argument for clean architecture. At the end of the day, SBCs solved the most difficult problem for VoIP, firewall/NAT traversal, and the choice was really between successful call based on “bad” architecture vs. failed call following the “good” VoIP blueprint.

Over the years, I have attended a lot of IETF meetings and the issue of bad SBCs messing up the clean VoIP architecture was frequently discussed. Since IETF created SIP as a signaling standard for VoIP, the discussions there were always about SIP clients, SIP SBCs, and SIP servers. In the parallel universe of video conferencing, the ITU standard H.323 was in use long before SIP emerged. Firewall traversal was as much an issue in the H.323 world as it was in SIP; therefore, H.323 SBCs started appearing in product portfolios, mostly based on the ITU-T H.460 standard. 

SBC Functionality

The original firewall traversal function in SBCs was later enhanced with other connectivity services such as manipulation of SIP messages (for example to hide the senders address), IPv4 to IPv6 interworking (for connecting VoIP clients on IPv4 networks with VoIP clients in IPv6 networks), and SIP - H.323 translation (for example, to connect H.323 video systems with SIP video clients). Additional security services were introduced to protect the network from Denial-of-Service (DoS) and other attacks and from malformed IP packets.

More powerful SBCs could also encrypt/decrypt signaling (via TLS and IPSec) and media (SRTP). SBCs gradually evolved to enforce Quality of Service (QoS) policies (for example, to limit bandwidth or limit number of calls), perform regulatory compliance functions (emergency calls prioritization, lawful interception, etc.)

Many of the new generation of SBCs also provide built-in digital signal processors (DSPs) to provide media services, such as media transcoding. The bottom line is that SBCs started as firewall traversal tools and ended up as complex elements of the VoIP network doing pretty much everything but call control (that was prerogative of the soft switch/application server).

SBC Market Dynamic

Acme Packet was at the forefront of the SBC market, some may say they defined the market segment. In the early 2000s, service providers started offering hosted VoIP services and needed reliable and scalable SBCs for their new networks. Since tier 1 service providers usually buy from a small group of vetted vendors, Acme Packet built partnerships with Ericsson and others, and became very successful selling through such channels to service providers. Two other SBC vendors - Kagoor Networks and Jasomi Networks – were less successful. I remember meeting with these companies in the early 2000. At the time I was leading the Product Management team for Devices at Siemens, and our SIP phones always went through some kind of SBCs before connecting to SIP servers / soft switches; we therefore tested interoperability. Around 2005, the SBC market became very hot and big players started buying SBC startups. Juniper Networks acquired Kagoor in 2005. Ditech Communications acquired Jasomi in 2005 (Nuance Communications acquired Ditech in 2012). Nextone was swallowed by Nextpoint which Genband acquired in 2008. AudioCodes acquired Netrake in 2006.

Big VOIP vendors took various approaches to adding SBC functionality to their portfolios. Cisco developed its own Cisco Unified Border Element (CUBE) while Avaya acquired Sipera in 2011. In the service provider market, BroadSoft relied on Acme Packet (in fact that is how I first came across Acme Packet years ago) while others like 8x8 developed their own SBC technology.

The SBC market attracted competition. In 2010, Sonus Networks newly hired CEO Ray Dolan set the goal to make Sonus “strong #2 in the SBC space”. Sonus quickly transitioned from making soft switches to making high-end SBCs but needed medium and small sized models to complete its portfolio. In August 2012, Sonus acquired Network Equipment Technologies (NET) of Fremont, CA and – with now complete line of SBC products – is positioning itself to directly compete with Acme Packet in both the enterprise and SP markets. Sansay, the #3 in SBC market, emerged from the former Nuera Communications team in San Diego in 2002. At ITexpo 2013, Sansay won the “Best Service Provider Solution” award for their transcoding technology, integrated into the SBC product.

Through the years, I got to know two other players in the SBC market. Edgewater Networks focuses on SIP SBCs for service providers and H.323 SBCs for Polycom (Video Border Proxy = VBP portfolio), although recent version of the Polycom branded product support SIP as well. Ingate Systems focuses on SIP trunking and hosts its SIP Trunking Summit / Workshop at every IT Expo event; this event evolved into the SIP Trunking - UC Seminars. I had the pleasure to present at several Ingate events, and can say that they are very well-organized, well-attended, and very educational.

SBC’ Role in the Enterprise

While many speculate about Oracle using Acme Packet to build a stronger position in the service provider market, I see a lot of applications for SBCs in the enterprise environment.

Enterprises increasingly use services from the cloud, including cloud-based voice/video services, and need tools to control the traffic to and from the cloud. SBCs provide this session control functionality. In the new architecture, enterprise users do not access the cloud services directly but through the enterprise SBC which provides security, accounting, etc. services and, if necessary, protocol translation and media transcoding. The SBC therefore becomes the official entrance for real-time communication to the enterprise. 

In addition, SBCs are critical for enterprise VoIP deployments that require connections among existing IP-PBX systems, new deployments (such as Microsoft Lync), and other enterprise applications (such as Contact Centers). When I think about it, SBCs with H.323 support can also connect the installed base of H.323 video conferencing equipment in the enterprise. In this scenario, the SBC becomes the universal connector, the glue that connects all parts of the currently disparate enterprise communication infrastructure.