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Cisco vs. Microsoft and Nortel for VoIP supremacy: Why it matters to you

Microsoft teams with Nortel in the VoIP market and now they're taking on Cisco. The VoIP arena hasn't been this exciting since it came into being! Find out what all these changes mean to you and what it means to have Microsoft in the voice space.

Zeus Kerravala, vice president for enterprise infrastructure, Yankee Group

In this corner, weighing in at 800 pounds, the networking gorilla and current VoIP champion, Cisco Systems! In the other corner, also weighing in at 800 pounds, the desktop gorilla and VoIP challenger, Microsoft, accompanied by its sidekick Nortel!

Earlier this month Microsoft and Nortel announced a strategic alliance that follows on the heels of Microsoft's late June Unified Communications (UC) launch and related party. This puts Cisco, the current VoIP market leader, in an interesting battle with a traditional competitor (Nortel) and a traditional partner (Microsoft). There's obviously a lot of market interest in these moves by Microsoft because it will cause Cisco and the other traditional vendors such as Avaya, NEC and 3Com to alter their strategies -- continuing to cooperate with Microsoft but also competing more.

But what does this mean to you, the network or IT manager? First of all, despite Microsoft's history of late products that are of substandard quality, this is a good thing for you and the industry as a whole. Much of the future value from VoIP and related UC tools will be the third-party applications that will be integrated into the vendors' platforms. This requires the formation of some sort of developer community, such as the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN), to drive the third-party software integration, and there is no organization out there better at attracting developers than Microsoft. This will accelerate programs such as Avaya's DevConnect program and Cisco's Technology Developer Program (CTDP), which are ahead of the rest of the field but currently well behind Microsoft. Also, software vendors that historically may not have thought of adding voice to enhance their software may do so now as a result of Microsoft's entry into VoIP. This means you'll have more features, sooner, than if Microsoft had not entered the market.

The software enablement and enhanced application story is still a few years away, however -- so what about right now? Who should take notice of all the Microsoft hoopla over the last month? It depends on who your preferred vendor is and where you are in deployment.


  • If you have an immediate business need or are in the process of upgrading to VoIP and/or rolling out UC -- don't wait. Microsoft's products aren't due out for another year or so, and they're notorious for having timeline slips, so it may be longer than that. If you choose to wait, there's no guarantee you'll get the functionality you're looking for.

  • If you're predominantly a customer of one of the major brands such as Cisco or Avaya -- stay the course, but push Microsoft into better interoperability with these vendors. The one area for concern in this customer segment is whether Microsoft will continue to provide the same level of support to the major brands after the Nortel alliance starts. Because of the market share of the major incumbent vendors such as Cisco, Avaya, Siemens and NEC, Microsoft will have to continue to work with them. It's the smaller-market-share vendors such as InterTel and ShoreTel that may have problems in the future.

  • If you're a Microsoft-everywhere shop, you haven't yet made a decision on VoIP or UC, and you can afford to wait until the product is released -- wait to evaluate the Microsoft products. Understand, though, that the initial release from Microsoft is not going to be at the same level of quality that you can get from the traditional vendors, so you'll probably need to use Microsoft for some of the desktop elements and other vendors to round out the application. Also, go into it knowing that you're likely to need to upgrade many servers and desktops to get full functionality. This is even more reason to push Microsoft into true federation of information. The Nortel partnership will help fill the gap in call control and software quality, but that's a long way off. The other area I would push Microsoft on, as a customer of theirs, is to find out whether the alliance has changed Microsoft's strategy regarding IP PBXs. In the past, I've heard Microsoft take shots at the legacy IP PBX vendors, including Nortel, claiming the IP PBX is dead as more functionality moves to the desktop. You may find yourself being pressured into an upgrade before you're ready.

  • If you're a Nortel voice customer, you're in the segment of the market that is most affected. You're likely to be one of the first groups that Microsoft targets as "low hanging fruit" to convince to upgrade to the Microsoft UC products. Anyone who's ever dealt with the Microsoft salesforce knows how aggressive this bunch is regarding upgrades, and this should be no different. Don't be bullied into an upgrade, and definitely ask about the roadmap for products such as the Nortel 5100 (the SIP server). These can be considered threatening to Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007, and it's critical that you understand the roadmap for both. How will a joint product affect the development of the traditional Nortel products? If you've already made an investment in some of the Nortel UC products, such as Call Pilot, will you need to keep the Microsoft products upgraded to continue to receive product updates? These are all points you should press your Nortel representative on. Partnerships and alliances can be great but they can also lead to a lack of choice on your part.

Overall, Microsoft's entry into the UC market and subsequent alliance with Nortel is a good thing for the market and most IT and network managers. You should see the rivalry between Microsoft and Cisco push both companies into a level of competition they never had before, pulling the rest of the industry along. For Microsoft, there will be many hiccups along the way, so if you're seriously considering using Microsoft for part or all of your UC and VoIP functionality, be realistic as to what you'll get next year. I do think the Microsoft alliance is a short-term win for both Microsoft and Nortel. Microsoft's history clearly indicates that without the alliance it would be many years before it could deliver quality VoIP. Nortel will help Microsoft get there much faster than it could on its own. For Nortel, the alliance adds a level of credibility that's been lacking over the past couple of years as it's gone through major restructuring and financial problems.

So does the Cisco vs. Microsoft battle matter to you? In the next year or so, it won't have any material impact because Microsoft won't have any products available for production environments. Long term, though, the independent software vendor (ISV) community will be more involved -- meaning that you'll see more products and features faster -- creating more bang for the buck you've already spent and will spend as you roll out UC to your organization.

Now that all these vendors have enhanced collaboration tools, let's hope they use them to collaborate with one another!


Zeus Kerravala manages Yankee Group's infrastructure research and consulting. His areas of expertise involve working with customers to solve their business issues through the deployment of infrastructure technology solutions, including switching, routing, network management, voice solutions and VPNs.

Before joining Yankee Group, Kerravala was a senior engineer and technical project manager for Greenwich Technology Partners, a leading network infrastructure and engineering consulting firm. Prior to that, he was a vice president of IT for Ferris, Baker Watts, a mid-Atlantic based brokerage firm, acting as both a lead engineer and project manager deploying corporate-wide technical solutions to support the firm's business units. Kerravala's first task at FBW was to roll out a new frame relay infrastructure with connections to branch offices, service providers, vendors and the stock exchange. Kerravala was also an engineer and technical project manager for Alex. Brown & Sons, responsible for the technology related to the equity trading desks.

Kerravala obtained a B.S. degree in physics and mathematics from the University of Victoria (Canada). He is also certified by Citrix and NetScout. 


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