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Avaya bets big on SIP with its vision for Aura Session Manager

At VoiceCon this week, Avaya unveiled Aura, its new SIP-based architecture aimed at fundamentally improving how enterprises deliver unified communications (UC). Avaya's vision is to connect users to the UC applications they need regardless of the devices they are using and the networks they connect through.

The future of voice and unified communications lies with sessions, not packets, according to Avaya. While competitors like Cisco Systems tout their deep integration with the network, Avaya plans to use Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) to tie business users directly to the communications applications they need, regardless of the devices they are using and the networks they are on.

At VoiceCon this week, Avaya unveiled Aura, its new architectural framework for unified communications (UC). Avaya's entire line of enterprise UC products, such as its Communication Manager, its Modular Messaging server and its presence server, has been rolled into the Aura architecture. At the heart of the architecture is a new product, Aura Session Manager, a SIP-based server that globally manages the interaction of users with Avaya's communications applications and the communications infrastructure of competitors such as Cisco and Nortel.

The basic premise of Aura is that IP voice and unified communications have become too complex. A company might have dozens of individual PBXs and other communications systems scattered across the globe. Rarely will a company get all of its communications from a single vendor. It might have Nortel in its North American branches and Siemens and Cisco overseas. There is no easy way to manage all of these systems centrally, creating tremendous management overhead for IT.

Zeus Kerravala, vice president at Yankee Group, said that until now the VoIP industry has been something of a disappointment. In general, IP networks have provided a very dynamic medium for distributing applications. With email, for instance, an enterprise can place its Exchange servers in a central location and distribute email messages over the wide-area network (WAN). This centralization of applications reduces overhead for IT organizations.

"It doesn't matter where you are, you have access to [the email]," Kerravala said. "VoIP has that same potential, where we take call control and treat it like a real client-server application and have it centrally located. But we haven't done that. We take an IP-based application [VoIP] and use old communications fundamentals to deploy it. Every branch has its own call control, its own PBX. So companies aren't getting any of the economies of scale by the fact that it is IP-based."

Lawrence Byrd, Avaya's director of unified communications architecture, echoed Kerravala's thought -- but took it a step further. Many of the unified communications applications that surround voice, such as instant messaging, voicemail and video, are also held back by this systems-based architecture. Avaya is trying to unlock that, Byrd said.

"The challenge is that the way we architect communications is not the way we architect other applications or the way the Web works," he said. "My capabilities and features and my applications are completely dependent on the system my phone is plugged into. Most of unified communications is systems-centric. That's not how other applications work. And there's a tremendous amount of IT overhead involved with that. Most companies have different systems for different locations and from different vendors."

Aura Session Manager's first job is to interact with these disparate, systems-based communications and connect them all together, Byrd said. Using SIP, it acts as a mediation layer that links systems together, consolidating dial plans and connectivity.

"It connects users, applications and systems together," Byrd said. "This is level 1. We're talking about trunking and dial plans, because that's where the money is being spent."

But Byrd said the Aura architecture also puts in place a foundation for the future by allowing customers to migrate incrementally. When an old IP PBX at a regional office reaches end of life, an enterprise can assign those users licenses on Avaya Communication Manager. They will get their communications applications from the Communication Manager in the nearest corporate data center. Aura Session Manager will control users' access to the various communications applications on Communication Manager no matter where they are.

"You can take out the old system and replace it with a new system, or you can start to move users to the core," Byrd said. "So instead of my applications being on my local system, I have a SIP device connected to the core, and the core delivers applications. I can have a single profile, and my applications will depend on who I am and not where I am. I have the same number of applications wherever I go, whether I'm working in New York or London. Log in and connect on a PC in London, and when you call that number in New York it should ring in London, and I will get the same features and functionality.

"This announcement puts [Avaya] on the map in the overall unified communications and collaboration space," said Vanessa Alvarez, analyst for Frost & Sullivan. "It has been done before. Hi-Path from Siemens kind of does the same thing, but Avaya has put a whole reference architecture behind it to support their vision. That brings it all together in a way that Siemens wasn't able to do."

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Aura could be a technology that finally drives adoption of SIP, Alvarez said, because people will finally start to see the value behind it. She said many vendors have used SIP to optimize VoIP, but vendors have not truly embraced it as an open standard and used it to deploy other applications via IP, independent of device or network connection.

"I think SIP should be adopted and vendors should really get together to move that adoption forward, but that's a challenge because a lot of vendors feel they are going to lose market share and visibility [if they become less proprietary]," Alvarez said. "They think, 'I'm going to lose customers,' and that kind of thinking is going to hinder us from moving forward in the communications space overall. We've seen so many business models change, and this is going to be the one area where we're going to see a lot of change. It's going to be a matter of who's going to move forward and who's not."

Byrd said Aura's value will be tied directly to the kinds of third-party applications Avaya's partners develop for this new architecture. With SIP, Aura will be able to enable a variety of new applications that enhance communications and collaboration across industries.

During his keynote address at VoiceCon this week, Avaya CEO Kevin Kennedy demonstrated a concept for a Facebook application that would allow Facebook users to connect directly with businesses. During the demo, Avaya marketing representatives showed how a retail company could start a video call through Facebook by using Aura Session Manager to manage the session between the caller and a contact center. The contact center agent was able to show the customer images of the product he wanted, a flat-screen TV. The customer was able to make the complete transaction through the Facebook application. The agent was also able to show him a video that instructed him on how to attach his camera to the TV.

Alvarez said Avaya has a partnership program in place for third-party developers, which is a good start. But she said that Avaya needs to make sure it has the right participants in that program.

"It was a bunch of equipment vendors in the beginning," she said. "But a lot of their efforts in the application development space are going toward trying to bring the right set of partners into that program. And that will ultimately allow them to build on that platform."

The grand vision Avaya is communicating to the market might not catch on right away, Alvarez said. Enterprises aren't really thinking about broad architectural issues right now. Instead, they are focused on cutting costs in a tough economy, where Aura can also help by integrating legacy systems and reducing management overhead.

"Avaya is taking a chance," she said. "Avaya hasn't been known to be that way. It comes from a traditional legacy vendor mentality, so it was quite refreshing to see them take this new approach."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor

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