SIP trunks are simply another way of saying VoIP Provider for your phone system. A SIP trunk is a connection from a PBX (phone system) using SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) to an ITSP (Internet Telephony Service Provider).
It might sound complicated but it’s really quite simple, SIP trunks take the place of your legacy telephone company. Most phone systems out there today are more than a couple of years old and are likely based on circuit switched technology. Newer IP-PBXs use packet switching technology, which means they leverage the Internet to deliver the same features you have now, and then some. The difference could be minor or major depending on what your PBX is capable of and what your ITSP can deliver in terms of features and functionality.
Since the PSTN (public switch telephone network) is tied to aging circuit switched technology it has limitations in terms of what media it can support. Essentially, it can deliver low quality voice, that’s it.
SIP Trunks replace older PRI and POTS interfaces that we are used to and bring to the table a wide variety of communications options. Depending on your IP-PBX and your ITSP you could potentially look forward to HD (High Defenition) Voice and potentially HD Video.
HD voice (and video) for small business in Canada will happen, it’s only a matter of time. As broadband providers increase upstream bandwidth and dual WAN link-failover devices become common place, SIP trunking will accellerate in growth and on-net (calls made on the ITSP network) HD Voice will become common place.
Unfortunately, HD communication off-net (eg. PSTN) is not going anywhere at any great speed. Jeff Pulver is back as he reboots the communications industry with his new HD Communication Summit. I welcome Jeff back with open arms, if anyone can convince operators to increase speed towards wide-band/HD adoption it would Jeff Pulver.
Today we can see SIP trunking providers and hosted pbx providers supporting wideband codecs and devices on their networks. This will allow user to communicate in high definition with other users that have devices that support it, in brief you could have better calls between you and your colleagues in the office and remote office workers connected to the same PBX, and that is a step in the right direction.
As we tried to (re)define SaaS and evaluate how different enterprise applications fit into this model, we assessed the different UC platforms from a SaaS point of view.
As I have previosuly stated, given the interoperability challenges when integrating disparate applications into an end-to-end unified communications solution, a pre-integrated service package offered on a hosted/SaaS basis provides great value to business users. But how flexible are service provider application platforms for a SaaS model given that most businesses have some existing premise-based infrastructure? And is SaaS really a panacea for the ailing communications market?
Let’s start by saying that, according to my colleague Melanie Turek (please see her post on SaaS – Enterprise 2.0 Blog » Melanie Turek, as well as Software as a Service: Everything Old is New Again), the SaaS story actually dates back to the dot.com era and the hype around the ASP model. In the old days, most hosted platforms were as monolithic as premise-based solutions which gave little chance to service providers to add more value to the service or differentiate. Today, it is still difficult to figure out to what extent different hosted IP services can also be considered SaaS. SaaS and hosted services bear a lot of similarities; yet, SaaS implies Web-based applications and also the ability of the service provider to manipulate, manage, upgrade, etc. the applications and fully control the back end of the platform in order to provide flexible services to its customers.
Open (understandably, somewhat of an arbitrary term), SIP-based platforms are opening up new opportunities for service providers today. Looking at the IP hosted telephony space, we can see that several of the service providers deploying a BroadSoft platform (including former General Bandwidth/Tekelec/VocalData and Sylantro solutions) have enhanced their service offerings by adding their own applications and improving the backend capabilities for faster and easier quotes, provisioning and service management. Some of the hosted IP telephony providers such as CallTower, Cypress Communications, Engage Incorporated, M5, Smoothstone, Vantage Communications and others have sought to deliver various communication and business applications (telephony, call control/contact center applications, chat/presence, etc., CRM) packaged in a SaaS/CaaS (Communications as a Service) manner.
BroadSoft is opening up its APIs for mashups and the potential integration of its voice communication platform with other applications for the delivery of more comprehensive service packages from the “cloud”. Not long ago it enabled the integration of services delivered on the BroadWorks platfrom with salesforce.com. More recently, LightEdge introduced a hosted UC package based on BroadSoft’s telephony platform and OCS, which shows that there exists a viable opportunity for service providers deploying BroadSoft solutions to expand their offerings with UC capabilities.
As mentioned in a previous post, UC platforms such as OCS and MCS currently used by CallTower and Cypress Communications, the two hosted UC leaders today, do not scale easily to multi-vendor PBX environments, which has pre-determined these providers’ business models whereby they offer a full package of telephony, VM/UM + chat/presence/UC + conferencing capabilities to their customers. This model certainly has its value and benefits to both the providers and their customers, however, it limits the overall target audience to those customers that do not have PBXs.
Cypress Communications, well ahead of everyone else with over 10,000 hosted UC seats today, claims that its Nortel infrastructure – MCS5200 and CS2000 – is one of the best solutions for delivering hosted communications to businesses. CS2000 is a scalable, robust, feature-rich platform that provides all the enterprise telephony capabilities required by business users. MCS52000, on the other hand, is one of the leading UC platforms available on the market today. I would like to point out, however, that Cypress Communications has been able to successfully leverage the capabilities of these platforms to grow its hosted UC base because of its ability to support the service all the way to the desktop including the router and the LAN switch.
CallTower, on the other hand, has experienced slower growth with its hosted telephony offering based on a Cisco UC Manager, but is looking to accelerate sales with a more comprehensive hosted UC package including network-based OCS. Going forward, CallTower is planning to leverage OCS for telephony as well.
There is a third company offering hosted UC and it’s probably the very first company that tapped into this opportunity four years ago – Engage Incorporated. Engage uses Siemens’ OpenScape to deliver voice as well as a number of other communication applications to its customers on a SaaS basis. Engage has had somewhat of a limited success as it has so far tried to bundle communications with other business applications – CRM, ERP, etc. – delivered as SaaS. OpenScape provides it with a unique competitive advantage, however, as it integrates with any PBX, any IM/chat client and any other vendor’s applications. It is one of the most open technologies available on the market today and is uniquely positioned as it does not seek to replace existing telephony or IM solutions but rather acts as the glue that converts disparate applications into a comprehensive unified communications environment.
While most service providers currently involved or considering hosted UC options already have some hosted/SaaS offerings – some started with email, others with telephony, yet others with CRM, etc. – going forward, hosted UC will provide an attractive revenue opportunity for telcos, VARs, etc., that do not yet have any hosted apps in their portfolio. Such providers may wish to consider OpenScape UC as it can enable them to integrate with multiple different premise-based infrastructure environments. Further, HiPath 8000 (OpenScape Voice) can enhance such service provider offerings with a telephony option as well. Developed from a softswitch and providing a robust PBX feature set, it provides a competitive alternative to existing hosted telephony platforms.
Siemens has long claimed to be striving to become a services company and with its open communications approach it seems well positioned to become one of the leading CaaS providers. Partnerships are going to be critical for its success in that space.
SaaS, and communications as a service, in particular, is not a panacea, neither today in the economic downturn, nor in the long term. It does offer a growth opportunity for service providers, however, and a viable option for businesses to test and trial new technologies and applications. Selecting the right platform from the start is going to determine each provider’s success in this space. Therefore, decision makers need to evaluate not only the existing platforms and their capabilities, but also each vendor’s vision and roadmap in order to make the right choice.
With all the hype about Unified Communications and its productivity benefits, it is imperative we remind end users of the tremendous integration challenges they are bound to face when looking to integrate a large set of disparate applications. While vendors claim they have ensured interoperability with various partners and competitors, the market is still so nascent that the hassles may very well exceed the benefits for many businesses seeking to deploy a complete unified communications solution (IM/chat+telephony+VM/UM+conferencing, etc.).
Therefore a hosted UC service seems to offer a major benefit – a service provider has already dealt with all integration challenges and can deliver a package of applications that it also continues to manage, upgrade and enhance as the technologies evolve. Add to this the flexibility of a hosted offering (the ability to drop or add users as the business downsizes or grows) and a hosted UC solution seems perfect for the current economic climate.
It is not so simple, however. In a scenario where all applications are hosted, the assumption is that the customer has no or limited premise-based infrastructure. Otherwise, the service provider and the business face the same old interoperability/integration challenge. That holds particularly true if the IM/chat/UC platform is hosted. Most UC platforms (MCS, OCS, Sametime, etc.) do not scale to multiple premise-based PBXs. Which basically makes hosted UC highly correlated with customer demand for hosted telephony.
So far, the North American hosted IP telephony service market has experienced slow growth due to multiple factors including greater customer familiarity with premise-based platforms and a large installed PBX base, fragmented competitive landscape with limited involvement of established service providers, and lack of aggressive marketing resulting in low awareness of the value of hosted IP telephony. Frost & Sullivan estimates less than one million installed hosted IP telephony lines as of the end of 2008, which is fairly insignificant compared to a total of over 100 million business telephony lines (hosted and PBX) in North America.
Over the past couple of years, equipment vendors made significant efforts to enable the integration of their premise-based platforms with other communication and business applications in complex unified communications (UC) and communication-enabled business process (CEBP) environments. These technology advancements and the respective marketing efforts have greatly popularized the benefits of premise-based IP telephony and have driven high adoption rates. Hosted IP telephony providers, on the other hand, continue to market their services primarily as cost-effective voice communications, which has limited their value proposition for business customers. Therefore, hosted IP telephony penetration remains limited to small businesses of less than 50 users.
Going forward, hosted IP telephony services will continue to offer a somewhat limited value proposition until integration with hosted or premise-based communication and business applications becomes more common across providers. In the meantime, premise-based IP telephony offerings will make a significant progress in terms of features, integration with UC platforms, CEBP, and cost-efficient branch-office integration. Combined with customers’ historical preference for premise-based solutions and familiarity with PBX vendors and their VARs, as well as with vendor and VAR creative leasing and financing programs, this trend is likely to determine a general preference for IP PBXs versus hosted IP telephony among business customers (the few that may choose to make an investment in this climate).
In North America, hosted UC accounted for about 20K lines at the end of 2008. As I mentioned earlier, hosted UC will be highly correlated with hosted telephony. I do, however, expect some service providers to choose to host only OCS or another IM/presence/UC client and integrate with either hosted telephony services delivered by other service providers or with premise-based telephony as interoperability improves. There could be other scenarios, where the telephony is hosted and OCS is premise-based. I believe such hybrid implementations will be rare in the near future, but the latter kind will gain traction more rapidly.
I can only make an intelligent guess about the size of hosted UC (combined pure network-based implementations and hybrid ones) going forward since there is no historical evidence of adoption rates. I believe, it is reasonable to expect hosted UC to penetrate one million users in North America within the next five years. Based on my forecast for North American hosted telephony, hosted UC will then account for about 30% of total North American hosted telephony and a negligible percentage of total UC users.