Implementing unified communications in virtual environments has long been considered a no-no. But thanks to maturing technologies and support from major vendors, unified communications systems may finally be ready for virtualization prime time.
Last month, Avaya Inc. announced its Aura System Platform, which runs several unified communications (UC) applications in virtual machines. Cisco Systems Inc. has also leapt into the fray, promising virtualization support for its core unified communications systems by April. Meanwhile, Microsoft supports some UC virtualization features in Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007 but remains coy about future plans.
"I would expect this to be a trend that you'll see the others follow in fairly rapid fashion, just as Cisco's announcement came roughly within a month of Avaya's announcement," said Mark Cortner, an analyst at Midvale, Utah-based Burton Group.
The first major news of virtualized unified communications came from Mitel Networks Corp. more than a year ago, but Avaya's recent announcement was particularly significant because it's a well-known enterprise-class vendor, Cortner said.
The challenges of implementing unified communications virtually
Historically, users have been reluctant to implement unified communications virtually -- and vendors have been equally reluctant to support UC -- because of the unique technical issues inherent in making these applications work on virtual servers. UC applications require high-performance, high-speed infrastructures to ensure excellent voice and video quality without feedback and lags, which require a virtualization system that is up to the task.
Putting unified communications systems on virtual servers has been a "fairly thorny technical problem" because performance suffers when running high-demand video and audio applications, said Allan Carscaddon, Microsoft's senior technical product manager for OCS.
These performance problems are the main reason why customers should take a cautious approach to implementing unified communications in virtual environments, Cortner said."My gut feeling would be to wait a bit," he said. "None of these platforms really have actual customer implementations yet. … Let the early adopters go first and flush it out. In terms of the masses, I would think that mid-2010 would be a reasonable expectation."
Right now, large organizations that run UC must maintain multiple physical servers or multiple clusters of servers to keep it all operating, Cortner said.
"That becomes problematic to customers, including the cost of management and the cost of the servers themselves," he said. "There is interest from customers on cutting these costs [by using virtualized servers]. Now customers are connecting the dots here and are asking, 'Why are we operating these applications on servers when we can run them on virtualized environments?' "
The benefits of implementing virtual unified communications systems
Jonathan Eunice, an analyst at Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata Inc., said the slow arrival of virtual unified communications systems shouldn't be a shock.
"Communications was clearly not the logical first thing to virtualize," he said, because of its significant I/O, bandwidth and latency requirements, as well as its use of many specialized physical cards for various services.
"Customers aren't screaming for virtualized UC," he added. "But the smaller systems, fewer boxes, lower prices and more flexibility … that a UC vendor can offer by virtualizing their engine? Those outcomes are appealing to customers."
Michael D. Osterman, a principal analyst at Black Diamond, Wash.-based Osterman Research Inc., agreed that the time is ripe for unified communications and virtualization to work together to deliver better services to users.
"I definitely think that UC in a virtualized environment is a winner and will help to speed adoption of UC, largely because organizations want to migrate to virtualized servers," he said. "I expect the Avaya announcement will certainly spur [Cisco and Microsoft] to push harder on their UC virtualization plans."
Customers will be looking at how vendors have solved the past performance issues that have kept them from implementing unified communications virtually, Osterman added.
"I think that demonstrating good performance through trials would probably be key, particularly for the voice component," he said. "Quality of service would be a critical issue for voice, much less so for real-time communications through an IM interface. Latency in an IM conversation or application-sharing tool, for example, would be more tolerable than it would be for voice."
Unified communications vendors take different approaches
One area where Avaya, Cisco and Microsoft differ is in the virtualization hypervisors they'll support, Osterman said. Avaya uses Xen, Cisco will use VMware and Microsoft will support its own Hyper-V.
Charles King, a principal analyst at Hayward, Calif.-based Pund-IT Inc., said Avaya's hypervisor choice could put the company at a bit of a disadvantage.
"Avaya may have made a blunder in utilizing Xen virtualization technology rather than VMware," King said. "VMware is a virtualization technology enterprises know, understand and trust. … This is no knock on the Xen platform, but the fact is that VMware is the platform to beat."
Brian Dal Bello, senior director of Cisco's Voice Technology Group, said the company's relationship with VMware helped bring about its push for virtual UC.
"It's one of those things where the timing is just right," he said. "We think the technology is mature enough now that it's very viable."
Carscaddon said he couldn't discuss Microsoft's specific plans for supporting virtualization capabilities across all of its UC applications, but he did hint that the company is moving in that direction.
"When our customers want something, that tends to make something happen," he said. "Our customers do ask us about increased server support for virtualization in these roles."
Todd R. Weiss is an award-winning technology journalist and freelance writer who worked as a staff reporter for Computer world.com from 2000 to 2008. He spends his spare time working on a book about an unheralded member of the 1957 Milwaukee Braves and watching classic Humphrey Bogart movies. Follow him on Twitter@TechManTalking.