Mitel Networks heats up the race for unified communications in SMBs

Mitel fueled the competition to push unified communications technology into the small and medium-sized business market with consolidated applications on one platform.

Mitel Networks Corp. became the fourth major networking company to release new or upgraded unified communications (UC) technology aimed at the small and medium-sized business (SMB) market in a little over a month.

Most of the new releases aim to give value-added resellers (VARs) an angle to get UC into SMBs by showing IT administrators, who are still wary of high cost and complexity, that the technology is not beyond their reach. Mitel's strategy is to offer simpler technology implementation and management.

Monday the company introduced the Mitel Applications Suite (MAS) 1.1, which consolidates multiple applications -- including some new applications in the portfolio -- onto one platform. Executives say the technology is easier for channel partners to sell to small businesses because SMBs won't need a dedicated IP-savvy IT staff to support it.

But Mitel partners may have their work cut out for them. While Mitel has historically been one of the few vendors with a heavy SMB core, now every major vendor -- including the Nortel/Microsoft duo and Cisco Systems -- has announced campaigns to get UC into SMBs. And companies including ShoreTel and Alcatel-Lucent have hyped technology releases aimed at getting UC into SMBs since late May.

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Mitel's platform incorporates applications like Web and audio conferencing, which the company snapped up as part of its $723 million acquisition of Inter-Tel last year, as well as unified messaging, auto attendant and single-identity mobile phone integration. The latter capability enables users to have one number and mailbox for wireless and landline phones. All of the applications are administered through one portal.

"It unifies mission-critical applications. It is easy to [configure and deploy] for channel partners and simple to use from the end-user point of view," said Asif Rehman, Mitel's director of solutions marketing. "It makes it easy to change up the mix in terms of how [users] are using their applications."

MAS now works with Mitel's PBX, the 3300 IP Communications Platform (ICP), but it will run with the Mitel 5000 Network Communications Solution by the end of 2008. The Mitel 5000 is actually the rebranded version of the Inter-Tel 5000 IP PBX, but now it supports Mitel's 5200 and 5300 series IP phones.

"This gives us the ability to go back to the classic Inter-Tel base and offer a wider variety of applications that we couldn't offer in the past," said Robert Handel, vice president of sales at Cortel, a New York City-based Mitel partner. "It blends the two worlds very well."

This week's release also includes two accessories -- the Mitel Gigabit Ethernet Stand and the Mitel Wireless LAN Stand -- that make the IP phones Gigabit Ethernet (GigE) or Wi-Fi ready. The wireless stand can also be configured to act as an on-the-fly access point. That means, for example, that a car dealership that typically doesn't use a wireless network in the office can set one up for an outdoor tent sale, Rehman explained. The accessories are expected to be an easy up-sell for partners, since they offer SMBs flexibility as they transition networks.

"These new capabilities enhance the competitiveness of the Mitel 5000 and allow partners to approach their installed base and new customers with enhanced offerings," said Scott Bussey, national director of sales for Portland, Ore.-based Integra Telecom, a Mitel partner.

As another option for SMBs that don't have the capital to invest in UC, Mitel is offering Total Solutions, a monthly financial plan that includes the cost of the technology, implementation and managed services from hardware to applications and network assessment. That deal will be sold through the channel as well.

"We have exclusive business partners that have access to the Total Solutions program," Rehman said. Of 500 Mitel partners, 100 are considered exclusive. For all the other partners there is a similar, though less inclusive, managed services plan.

Total Solutions can be compelling for small customers in tight times, Handel said, though Cortel will only offer it on an as-needed basis. Handel said other companies offer similar programs, but none are as inclusive or easy to work with.

Last week Nortel and Microsoft announced a hosted UC offering that avoids any on-premise hardware, is inexpensive and cuts partners out of the sale.

At the end of May, Alcatel-Lucent announced an offering similar to Mitel's with an all-in-one SMB platform that is open source, enabling outside developers to add applications. That package also included a new switch and IP phones. The same week, ShoreTel put its bets on video, announcing a UC platform that integrates voice and data with video for presence, IM and conference abilities.

Meanwhile, in recent weeks Cisco executives have stressed that they will push the channel to pick up hundreds of thousands of new SMB accounts, and both Nortel and Microsoft have made their SMB campaigns clear.

Handel expects Mitel to easily surpass its competitors since the company has long focused on SMBs. He said Mitel can offer the same unified communications capabilities to companies with five to 65,000 employees. Cisco and other companies, he said, have "deficiencies" as they push their UC products down for smaller companies.

"From a channel perspective and a marketing perspective, Microsoft and Cisco give a good talk, but I haven't seen them deliver," Handel said. On a daily basis, Handel said, he does not see Cisco and Microsoft as a real threat to picking up new SMB customers.

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