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Avaya caves to virtualization for IP phone systems

Some virtualization pros laud Avaya's embrace of virtualization support in its unified communications server. But skeptics say the Xen-based platform is a nonstarter without VMware support.

Virtualization pros lauded Avaya's delayed embrace of virtualizaion in its new Aura System Platform. This Xen-based server can be equipped with several Avaya applications running in virtual machines.

Avaya's announcement Monday marks the beginning of the end for dedicated servers running unified communications (UC) applications. Historically, Avaya and competitors such as Cisco and Microsoft have not supported their applications running on a virtual machine either because the apps rely on specialized hardware or because the vendor wanted to ensure adequate performance to latency-sensitive voice and messaging services.

IT managers at larger shops said Avaya has not gone far enough.

Midsized enterprises with 100 to 2,400 users can now buy a single server that runs Avaya Communication Manager, Voice Messaging, SIP Enablement Services, Application Enablement Services, Utility Services and Media Services.

Some IT managers welcome Avaya's move toward virtualization with enthusiasm. "Virtualization is the reason I liked the system so much," said Todd Yelland, an IT manager at MECCA Services, a nonprofit substance abuse and behavioral health service provider in Des Moines, Iowa. Yelland has used VMware to virtualize MECCA's applications onto Dell servers for about a year.

IT managers' mixed response

For small shops, Avaya's embrace of Xen-based virtualization may be appealing. According to Yelland, the Avaya System Platform is cheaper and more flexible than the hosted PBX his company used previously. And he praised Avaya for minimizing its hardware requirements with virtualization. "When I first talked to them, they gave me a quote with all the hardware, and I said to them, 'I don't want all this hardware.'"

But IT managers at larger shops said Avaya has not gone far enough; they wanted the vendor to package its applications as pure software appliances and to support VMware, not Xen.

Avaya's traditional insistence on selling the hardware alongside its applications is overkill, said Rick Vanover, an IT infrastructure manager for Alliance Data Systems Inc. in Columbus, Ohio.

"The apps are very timing-sensitive – I agree – and it's critical that it works the way they want it to work," he said. But, approximately 70% of the apps in an Avaya environment are what Vanover dubbed "supporting components" such as voice recognition, call flow and call tree systems. "I know I could virtualize that 70%, no problem."

Likewise, basing the platform on Xen is a nonstarter for Unisource Energy Corp. in Tuscon, Ariz., said Chris Rima, supervisor for infrastructure systems who oversees an Avaya-based call center environment. "We wouldn't put Xen into the mix, but if they brought it out as a VMware appliance – you betcha!" he said.

Rima said the problem with the System Platform wasn't Xen per se. "If it was just about Xen, it wouldn't be a problem. It's more about our year-over-year growth without any additional head count," he said. "We're tightly constrained on labor, and very wary of bringing in any new technologies."

MECCA's Yelland agreed that basing the Avaya platform on VMware would have been better but added that his company is not big enough for it to matter.

Tentative steps toward virtualization

Jonathan Edwards, an IDC research analyst for enterprise communications infrastructure, said that Avaya's new product is in keeping with telecommunication industry's preference for dedicated hardware appliances.

"When you look at shipments and market share, 80% to 85% are hardware appliances," he said. "Avaya didn't revolutionize that model; they just added the benefits of virtualization to it," namely saving on hardware and power and cooling costs.

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He said Avaya made a calculated decision to ship a virtualization black box. By offering a hardware appliance, albeit a virtualized one, "Avaya chose not to open up their platform to the masses and avoid brand-damaging results."

Indeed, Avaya's decision to go with Xen "allowed us to harden the hypervisor and ensure that we don't get any degradation of communications," said Steve Hardy, Avaya's director for unified communications solutions marketing.

This is but the first in a series of virtualization-related announcements for Avaya, Hardy added. Avaya is talking to partners about certifying third-party applications for System Platform, and that will extend capabilities for organizations with more than 2,400 users, he said.

Last but not least, the company is packaging its applications using the Open Virtualization Format (OVF) from the Distributed Management Task Force. OVF is an open standard for packaging virtual appliances to ensure portability between different hypervisor platforms. That may lay the groundwork for broader platform support going forward. Thus far, some of the virtualization platforms that support OVF include Sun VirtualBox, Citrix XenServer and VMware.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Alex Barrett, News Director.

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