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Unified communications sprouts in the SMB market

Alcatel-Lucent and ShoreTel target the SMB market with new unified communications packages.

This week Alcatel-Lucent and ShoreTel Inc. both launched upgraded unified communications (UC) platforms aimed at small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs).

Alcatel-Lucent offers a tiered channel program that will add 80 to 90 new partners to support Office Communications Solutions (OCS) 2008 in North America over the next year.

While vendors are still trying desperately to get unified communications -- which integrates voice, data and sometimes video through a common interface -- into larger enterprises, uptake in the SMB market may not be quite as stalled.

'The smaller and midsized companies want all the features so they can sound like they are more like the big boys," said Glenn Conley, CEO of Metropark Communications, an Alcatel-Lucent partner in St. Louis, Mo. "They like being able to have a call locating a guy on his cell phone or bringing it back to another location like a phone at his house. The technology is doing more for less."

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Alcatel-Lucent is pushing the idea of a "total unified solution" for SMBs, which would obviate the need for companies to have to patch together multiple systems from various vendors to include data, voice and phone access. The upgraded OCS includes a new switch -- the Omniswitch 6400 -- which enables IP networking, along with SIP trunking and IP touch phones. SIP compatibility allows users to interoperate with multiple service providers and handsets.

But the most notable change to Alcatel-Lucent's solution is a Red Hat open source platform that allows third-party development and includes availability of a host of existing customizable applications, one of which is SugarCRM, an open source customer relationship management tool known to be more flexible and much cheaper than alternatives.

"Alcatel-Lucent's commitment to open standards gives our small and medium customers real flexibility in terms of which operating system, carrier and applications they utilize as they move to the dynamic communications," said Tom Burns, chief operating officer of Alcatel Lucent's enterprise activities.

The vendor also added Wi-Fi bridging that offers secure access to email, instant messaging and other shared data through smart phones. That includes push technology, which sends calendars, email, contacts and other data out to mobile handsets. The system interacts with Nokia ICC client and the Alcatel Cellular Client for Windows.

Conley affectionately refers to Alcatel-Lucent's Office Communications Solution 2008 as "the sexy little box that we always wanted."

"We're excited to find an all-inclusive box that can do more than voice," Conley said, adding that the company is marketing OCS 2008 to enterprises with 20 to 80 handsets. Conley added that Metropark wanted to avoid "grabbing little bits of everybody's solution" to offer UC. "It's just more difficult trying to support multiple brands as they try to communication with each other."

Alcatel-Lucent's partner program will have three tiers. An expert level will require partners to offer 24/7 customer support. Authorized and certified tiers require partners to offer eight hours of support five days a week. The company will also work with master distributors, as well as direct and indirect resellers.

ShoreTel, which is known for its focus on unified communications for SMBs, released ShoreTel 8.0. The upgrade adds integrated video, voice and data with new presence and IM capabilities through one desktop interface. The package includes the updated desktop interface, UC platform and two new switches.

ShoreTel is trumpeting the use of the H.264 protocol that enables video to be delivered to the desktop and remote workers, as well as integrated with voice and data delivery applications.

The updated unified communications platform enables point-to-point video conferencing and the integration of soft phones. It can be integrated with Microsoft's Live Communications Server (LCS). This turned heads in the industry, since the LCS is being displaced by Microsoft's Office Communications Server. ShoreTel said it would support Office Communications Server in a subsequent release.

Yankee Group analyst Vanessa Alvarez said ShoreTel likely figured LCS is already in many companies so it could be immediately integrated with the new UC offering. Then ShoreTel will segue into newer Microsoft release.

ShoreTel's new switches support SIP trunking, so UC systems can interface with many handsets. One of ShoreTel's new switches -- the ShoreGear 30 -- is targeted at branch locations with 10 users but can stretch to 30 IP phones or SIP devices. The ShoreGear 24A switch supports larger-scale analog deployment and can support multi-party conference calls.

"This is ShoreTel's sweet spot," Alvarez said, explaining that the company has focused on the SMB space from the beginning. This new offering will also ultimately enable the company to push into larger enterprises, she said. Thus far, she added, not many other companies have done a great job of penetrating the SMB market, although the opportunity is clearly there.

"Even though the concept of UC is overwhelming for SMBs, when you break it down for them, collaboration tools will help them to increase productivity. Then it's easier to digest," Alvarez said, adding that SMBs see a much quicker return on investment from their UC solutions than larger enterprises.

Other companies pushing unified communications into the SMB market include Nortel, Siemens and Cisco Systems.

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