3Com, IBM Are Porting VoIP Suite to the System i5
Published: April 3, 2006
by Timothy Prickett Morgan
What's the one thing other than a PC or thin client or twinax workstation that most end users have on their desks? A telephone. And wouldn't it be ironic, after all of the religious wars and arguments about how to modernize the screens of hundreds of thousands of business applications running in OS/400 shops, if the next killer app to come to the OS/400 platform was a telephone? And that is just what IBM and 3Com, a networking specialist that has transformed itself into a commercial-grade supplier of Voice over IP (VoIP) solutions for enterprises, has in mind.
At the COMMON midrange user group last week, IBM and 3Com previewed an integrated VoIP solution that they plan to bring natively to the System i platform some time in the third quarter of this year. Both companies are hoping to not only surf on the rising wave of VoIP among corporations and individuals, who are trying to lower their phone bills by moving away from fixed line services from a local phone company and a long distance provider and toward phone companies and independents like Vonage and Skype, now part of eBay after that company shelled out $2.6 billion last September to acquire it. While Vonage and Skype want, in essence, to become your phone company and to use your IP network to deliver the service, what 3Com wants to do is let you be your own phone company and replace that private branch exchange (PBX) in your offices and departments with a System i5 server running 3Com software. Think of it as server and PBX consolidation, yet another kind of convergence that companies are being compelled by economics and a desire for simplicity to contemplate.
While AS/400 and iSeries servers have long since been used by telecom companies and other call center operations to run the databases and back office operations associated with the call centers--and therefore needed tight integration with phone systems--what 3Com is talking about is making your System i5 your PBX and using your IP network to give employees access to it. And there are some significant benefits to be gained from such an approach, including tighter integration of telecom and back office applications.
If your company hasn't tried VoIP service yet, you probably have personally and your company is probably getting ready to try it or buy it. In his presentation at COMMON last week, Mark Shearer, general manager of the System i division, showed a chart that came from IBM's internal report, called the Global Technology Outlook, that Big Blue puts together each year to predict technology trends for the next decade. According to that report, there were 7 million VoIP customers in 2003, and 40 million in 2005, and IBM's prognosticators predict that 160 million customers will be using VoIP phones instead of normal land lines. "I personally think that these numbers are conservative," explained Shearer. "I think that everyone is heading there, but they are usually implementing VoIP in gaggles of Wintel servers that are not really connected to back office applications."
With the System i5, IBM and 3Com want to change that. Honore LaBourdette, vice president of global sales for system integrators and service providers at 3Com, took the stage after Shearer at COMMON and explained that in 2005, the revenue from IP telephony among businesses surpassed $8 billion last year, surpassing traditional phone lines for the first time, and that the IP-based PBX business was expected to grow at a 25 percent compound annual growth rate between 2005 and 2008. She said that the typical business using IP PBX services had around 40 servers running their phones, which means there is a big server consolidation play to chase with the System i. Among companies who have OS/400 platforms running their back office applications and who have not yet installed their own VoIP gear, there is obviously a big chance to keep them from deploying Wintel and Lintel servers in the first place, since VoIP is still relatively new to business. LaBourdette said that 3Com entered this business early in 1998, and was an early adopter of the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) standard that was created for VoIP services> because of its early lead and its delivery of a SIP-compliant product that runs on Linux, 3Com's VoIP solutions have been deployed in over 28,000 companies and that, she said, gave 3Com the dominant position in the SMB part of the corporate market. This is exactly where the System i plays.
As part of the partnership between the two companies, IBM and 3Com will work together to port 3Com's VCX software to a Linux partition on the System i5 server. This software already runs on X86 and X64 servers, and IBM was keen to point out it was popular on its own xSeries (soon to be System x?) machines. There's more to it than porting the VCX software to Linux-on-Power, though. According to Muhammad Razam product manager for IP voice applications at 3Com, the two are working on putting together a basic software developer kit so software vendors who want to tap into the telephony features of the VCX software will be able to do so. The resulting product will be called the System i IP Telephony solution, and it will initially run in a single Linux partition on a System i5 box that is capable of supporting hundreds of IP phones, as well as sophisticated conference calling and integration with applications. (Just the savings in conference calls alone is probably enough to justify the solution, and VoIP solutions like VCX can have dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people participate in a private company conference call.)
Eventually, IBM and 3Com will support multiple partitions, and scale to thousands of phones and lots of conference call participants. The offering, said Razam, will also include an assessment by IBM Global Services to see if the corporate network among prospective customers can handle the traffic and deliver good VoIP service. "Bandwidth is not an issue most of the time, since voice doesn't need much bandwidth," explained Raza. "But signal delays and quality of service for IP networks is an issue, so we need to check it out."
Once again demonstrating that this is an IBM that listens and learns, Shearer said that he tasked his marketing and development team to check out VoIP, and they initially said there was not much of a market for it. He joked that this was not the right answer, and then asked Chip McClelland, manager of System i Product Marketing for the Systems and Technology Group at IBM, to take a second look. McClelland was convinced after doing more research that maybe there was a market here after all. After culling down the vendors and options, he hooked up with 3Com last summer and in October they began in earnest to try to hammer out a partnership. "The thing to remember is that this is very different from Vonage, Skype, and other services," said McClelland. "Companies are not running their phones on the Internet, but on more reliable corporate networks that they control." McClelland said that he was "pleasantly surprised" at the level of understanding and interest in the ISV and reseller community for the VoIP solution.
This kind of thinking outside of the box is exactly how you get more workloads into the box. Now, do it again and again and again . . .
IBM and 3Com were not ready to give out pricing for the complete solution using the i5 server partition running the VCX software and the IP phones needed for company desktops, but VoIP pricing is anything but uniform now. It can cost anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars per seat, depending on software features, the sophistication of the IP phones, how much server capacity you need, and how good your network is.
One last thing: it would have been funnier if IBM cut a deal with NEC, which sells a line of IP telephones called--you guessed it--the i Series. But it sounds like the 3Com package is the right one.