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IBM touts VoIP on System i for SMBs

VoIP isn't new, but it is new to System i. With many small companies just starting to get involved with IP telephony, IBM claims its the right time to bring its all-in-one machine onboard.

IBM recently announced plans to roll out voice over IP (VoIP) telephony software for its System i machines, drawing a warm reception from customers and experts. Big Blue partnered with 3Com Corp., a Marlborough, Mass.-based VoIP software firm, to build the offering.

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The IP telephony capabilities for System i will be pre-integrated with hardware, database software, storage and security. The software will run in a single Linux partition on the System i. This means shops will be able to run business and telephony applications simultaneously, managed by the System i's management tools.

"VoIP might not be the latest news these days -- but it is big news for System i customers," said Stanley Kritzik, a manager and owner of Metropolitan Associates, a Milwaukee, Wis.-based property management firm.

Kritzik has been looking into VoIP products for the 30 to 40 phones in his central office and other phones scattered throughout the region. He's very interested in the System i option and may be able to take advantage of it soon. He plans to buy a new System i this year with the hardware management console to run the Linux partition.

Kritzik said most of his locations have high speed internet and his only hesitation right now with VoIP is voice quality.

IBM and 3Com claim it's the right time to bring the product to market. According to IBM, 40 million users got on board with VoIP in 2005 -- and they expect the number to grow to160 million users by 2008. By 2009, IBM expects 40% of mid-market companies to have switched to VoIP.

But much of the VoIP infrastructure is running on gaggles of Windows servers. Honore LaBourdette, 3Com's vice president of global sales said "for VoIP, these solutions run on multiple servers and operating systems. For an SMB, typically we see 40 inexpensive servers installed to support an IP telephony application."

Today the VoIP investment is not going to the System i. It's going to the rack next to the System i -- so IBM has a strong consolidation play with the platform, according to IBM product manager Chip McClelland.

"The market has seen fairly good adoption of the appliance model. But the mid-market customer is looking for help to simplify IT. This is an example of how to do that," McClelland said. "Also, leveraging the unique position of the System i, if 400 people call in on a conference call, the System i can have the partition expand to cover the demand, then roll it back down. It's an approach you don't get if it's sitting in a rack next to a machine."

Another major benefit of the System i is reliability. "Businesses live and die by their ability to communicate. If a company needs consistent uptime, it's best to go with a highly reliable platform like the System i," said Charles King, principal analyst with Hayward, Calif.-based Pund-IT Research.

McClelland said there are more benefits to follow, including tighter integration between voice and other data, tying VoIP software into CRM data or pending voicemails showing up in e-mail inboxes.

IBM and 3Com can begin to offer this because of a standard called SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) which will allow voice, audio, chat and video to interoperate. McClelland said the widespread adoption of the SIP protocol had a lot to do with the timing of the launch.

"You look at the stars starting to align around a standard, now everything is in place. You have all of our collaboration, plus WebSphere, all of the telephony vendors supporting SIP," McClelland said. "We're probably a little ahead of our time on the application integrations."

But Kritzik doesn't think so. He said he likes the idea of voicemail and e-mail integration. He's also interested in other convergence, such as audio and video information with data. "We're a property management firm. If one of our employees was able to go to a site and show the managers a problem on a video screen, that would be really helpful."

Unfortunately, that might be a ways off. In fact, it's too early for beta testing even.

McClelland said beta testers need to do a lot of work beforehand, making sure that the network is up for the demand. "You have to make sure it's voice ready, make sure it handles the characteristics. We have a voice assessment you can run. Also, you need to make sure the System i has the availability and security," he said.

Even if a customer raises his hand today, it's going to be a 6-12 month sales cycle. IBM expects beta-tests this summer and hasn't disclosed specific pricing information.

"You hit it at the right time, you've got the adoption," McClelland said. "18 months ago, that mid-market customer wasn't quite ready to make the switch.".

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, News Editor

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