More Business Disruption: Telecom’s Move to IP

In the late Nineties, the Telecom business was dominated by big companies who had built their phone network over many years using switching technology. But a massive storm was on the horizon as the same IP technology which helped revolutionize commerce on the world wide web started to be applied to phone-based voice communications. Early attempts at Voice over IP were primarily targeted to the long distance market. International long distance calling was expensive, so a number of startups began to bypass the traditional long distance network with a much lower cost IP network. The quality wasn’t great, but the price per call over international routes dropped dramatically and IP infrastructure and solutions gathered momentum.

The early leader in IP protocols for voice was the H.323 protocol developed within the traditional standards group for phone networks, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). But competitive protocol models were also on the rise. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) developed a new IP communications protocol, the Session Identification Protocol (SIP) and both the IETF and ITU worked on a softswitch protocol called Megaco (later standardized by the ITU as H.248).

Around 2001, two important organizations endorsed SIP and the train which would ultimately displace much of the traditional switched phone network was set in motion. Microsoft had been an early user of H.323 and had added it to their instant messaging client support and included multi-point data sharing using T series protocols from the ITU. But Microsoft decided their future communications would be SIP-based and quickly phased out use of H.323. Then, the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), a standards group which had specified the very popular second generation wireless protocol GSM, said that they would be using SIP to build their next generation network and shift both data and voice services over to IP.

But first, the core SIP protocol needed to be finished. IETF participants likely spent millions of manhours and devised an updated version of SIP which got standardized in June, 2002 as RFC 3261, along with 4 other RFCs for related methods and operations. But this was just the beginning. In the time since, the IETF has produced at least 100 SIP-related documents which are either standards track or informational to guide SIP developers.

On the business side, it took quite a while, but the current public phone networks have largely cut over to IP, although there are still elements of the switched network in place.  In the world of mobile communications, the fourth generation network specified by 3GPP was the first to use SIP in its core. The related Long Term Evolution (LTE) network has been deployed throughout the world, although the voice portion of the network (Voice over LTE) has lagged behind. The move to LTE and SIP has required a massive investment in new capital equipment and software by mobile service providers and most of that deployment dates from about 2012. On the business side the industry has experienced lots of turmoil during the period between 2001 and 2012.  One of the biggest equipment vendors, Nortel, declared Chapter 11 and chunks were sold off to other companies before the company went out of business. Many of the remaining vendors have gone through multiple mergers and acquisitions, greatly reducing both the number of telecom related companies and the number of employees.

The other major SIP endorser from 2001, Microsoft, has shifted its IP voice communications strategy numerous times, but one of it’s flagship offerings,  Skype for Business, is predominately based on SIP.  Microsoft’s use of SIP is primarily within enterprises, though they have also been a strong advocate of SIP Trunking, which enables enterprises to connect to the service provider IP phone network. In the meantime, Microsoft has many competitors in the enterprise voice and communications space, but SIP remains a dominant technology. Vestiges of circuit-based phone systems remain, but all of the major players have long since switched their current product and service offers to be IP-based.

IP and SIP are doing well, but voice is now a much smaller portion of the communications business and service providers make much of their money from data services. The era of premise-based equipment is also winding down, as the shift to IP has enabled companies to move both service provider and enterprise applications to the massive conglomeration of servers known as The Cloud. I’ll be writing more in future posts about lessons learned from the Telecom move to IP and on how the move to the Cloud is also causing major business disruptions.

If you or your company participated in the Telecom move to IP, feel free to weigh in with comments. If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your application solutions or other products and services to in the face of rapid business and technical change, you can reach me on LinkedIn or on our web site.

 

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Business Disruption in Document Communications – What Happened?

In the late 1990s, the Internet and the World Wide Web created massive technical disruption for the worlds of document communications and messaging. Now, nearly twenty years later, business communications looks much different than it did going into the Millennium and once major businesses such as the marketing of enterprise fax machines are deep into their long tail phase. In my last post, I noted several trends in both fax and email as the related standards communities pushed to transform these technologies for the new IP world. Let’s look at what happened.

One major driver of the success of fax in the Nineties was the classic network effect as postulated by Ethernet inventor Robert Metcalfe. In essence, Metcalfe had stated that a network became much more compelling as the number of connected devices increased.  In the Nineties, the fax machine vendors and computer fax companies were often on opposing sides in technical battles, but all of these companies benefited from Metcalfe’s network effect as it applied to the overall fax network. But as we crossed into the 21st century, fax machines designed to run on the circuit-switched phone network (aka the Public Switched Telephone Network or PSTN) had much less utility in an increasingly IP network connected world. As a result, physical fax machines began to disappear from larger enterprise offices and in smaller offices, they were often replaced by less expensive multi-function peripherals (MFPs), which were basically printers that also included fax and scanning features. This meant that the number of Group 3 fax devices in total at first plateaued and then began a decline. In essence, Metcalfe’s network effect played out in reverse. The fax machines and MFPs of the Nineties did not evolve to use the new IP fax standards, so as document communications moved to IP, these physical fax or MFP devices still only sent faxes over the PSTN and were less connected as IP communications became more prevalent.

If we consider the trends in computer-based fax, they played out differently. Companies like Brooktrout sold fax boards to independent software developers and the boards were incorporated in local area network solutions. These solutions also typically included tight integration with email.  By 2004, Fax over IP enabling technology started to be commercialized, using the ITU-T T.38 IP fax standards. T.38 had some technical issues, but it could use the same call control protocols — SIP, H.323 and H.248 — that were being adopted by the new Voice over IP networks, so T.38 became a popular choice for conveying fax over these VoIP networks. By contrast, the T.37 approach of Internet Fax over Email did not get much adoption, most likely because it didn’t mesh very well with Voice over IP.  The computer-based fax solutions that ran on Local Area Networks continued to have healthy growth in the first decade of the 2000s in large part due to the continued validity of fax as a legal document, perceived security compared to use of email over the Internet, a slow rampup in the use of digital signatures on other electronic documents and regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) which meshed well with receiving fax documents in electronic form (rather than on a paper tray).

During the same period, email use continued to grow, but rising issues such as lack of security and massive amounts of spam made the use of email outside of corporate subject to a number of hassles. As noted above, electronic signatures started to become available as a legal alternative to fax signatures, but didn’t gain widespread use until the past few years. As a result, enterprises tended to standardize on a particular commercial email package and communicate whenever possible over secured private IP networks and by making use of security tools such as Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).

Now, in 2018, the messaging world is highly fragmented. Large enterprises have tended to choose unified communications eco-systems from large players like Microsoft, Cisco and Avaya, but even these solutions are rapidly evolving as the momentum is shifting toward pushing enterprise communications into the Cloud.  Hence, Microsoft is shifting its emphasis from Lync to Skype for Business and now onto Teams and other vendors such as Cisco are doing much the same.  Upstarts such as Slack have started by offering cloud-based team communications and have forced reactions from the traditional Unified Communications players.  As messaging has evolved, voice is now becoming less important and fax is now more of a niche play.  One thing I don’t see too much of is the use of business communications that can effectively cross the boundaries between organizations. In theory, Cloud-based communications could get us there, but the vision of the late Nineties of being able to communicate documents and other types of media effectively across the entire Internet has been hobbled by security, privacy and spam issues. We’ll have to see if the Cloud and better cross-network security mechanisms could form the foundation for approaches that will be superior to today’s highly balkanized communications landscape.

If you or your company have participated in the massive changes to the communications eco-system since the 1990s, feel free to weigh in with comments. If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your application solutions or other communications products and services to better address the rapidly changing business environment, you can reach me on LinkedIn or on our web site.

A Tale of Business Disruption in Document Communications

In the middle of the 1990s, the Internet and its associated IP protocols were like a huge wave that was off the shore of the business world, but poised to come in and cause massive disruption. At that time, I ran a consulting business for telecom clients (Human Communications) and was active on several fronts to be proactive on the topic.  In the TR-29 fax standards committee, we started work on how fax communications could take place over the Internet. A small group began work on an initiative called Group 5 Messaging, whose goal was to take the best ideas of fax, email and telex and spin up the next generation of business communications. In late 1996, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) held an informal Birds of a Feather (BOF) on Internet Fax.  In meetings of Study Group 8 of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), discussions began on how to extend fax protocols to work over the Internet or on private IP networks.

On the business side, fax was very hot and even very small businesses such as pizza parlors had purchased fax machines. Corporations had been adopting fax over Local Area Networks, and companies like Rightfax, Omtool, Optus and Biscom had  very healthy businesses selling into this space. Brooktrout Technology had introduced multi-channel fax boards and drivers for Windows NT, and had built up market momentum that enabled the company to go public. But all of this fax technology was based on sending faxes over circuit-switched networks. What would be the impact of the Internet and its technology on fax and business communications?

By 1999, the business communications landscape had changed dramatically. On the standards front, the IETF had created several standards for providing a fax services via email and the ITU had referenced these standards in the T.37 standard. The ITU had also independently created a new T.38 standard which essentially extended the T.30 Group 3 fax protocol into the IP packet world. The Group 5 initiative had lost momentum, as the fax and other communications players lined up to support the new IP-based standards from the IETF and ITU which appeared to solve the problem of how to send faxes over IP.  Related standards work continued and I was active in making sure that the new T.38 fax protocol was supported under both the current H.323 call control and under the new SIP and Megaco (later H.248) protocols.

On the business side, fax was still doing well, but now had new competition. The advent of the World Wide Web had totally wiped out the Fax on Demand business that had done well in the early Nineties. Various pundits were saying that email was the future of business communications and that new portable document formats like the PDF from Adobe would be used in place of fax.  Curiously, the email experts who participated in the IETF Internet Fax work weren’t so sure. Fax had business quality of service elements which were hard to duplicate in email — notably instant confirmation of delivery at the end of a session, negotiations between the endpoints on what document formats were acceptable and the legal status of fax, where fax messages over the circuit network were accepted as legal documents for business purposes.  The IETF work group tried to upgrade email protocols to address the technical elements, but the work was hard and the path to adoption slow.

I also shifted my career and suspended my consulting business to join Brooktrout Technology and help them participate in the new Voice over IP business. But just before I left my business, I advised my fax clients and newsletter subscribers to get diversified and not put all of their eggs in the fax communications basket.  I saw both challenges and opportunities ahead. There had been a large number of new startups that had attempted to ride IP fax to success in the late Nineties, but most of them crashed and burned within a couple of years. E-Fax had introduced “free” IP fax mailboxes and that approach was quickly emulated by competitors, but the business model for “free” wasn’t obvious.  I’d helped form a new industry association called the Internet Fax and Business Communications Association in early 1999, but we had difficulty getting fax and other communications industry vendors to sign on. The times were turbulent and the way forward was less than obvious.

In my next post, I’ll talk about how the trends toward IP Fax and its communications competitors played out and which related business communications issues still need to be addressed.

If your organization has participated in the evolution of fax or other business communications during this evolution from the circuit-switched phone network to IP, please feel free to comment. If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your application solutions or other communications products and services in this rapidly changing business environment, you can reach me on LinkedIn or on our web site.

Virtual Software: Changing Business Models

One of the best texts I’ve ever read about business models was written by Cory Doctorow, a famous writer and entrepreneur. His novel Makers was not only a great story, but virtually a doctoral thesis on how business models can change and have a radical impact on everything they touch.

A couple years ago, I helped launch a new virtualized software product line for Dialogic. The PowerVille™ Load Balancer was different in many ways from other products I’d managed. The software was totally agnostic to the underlying hardware, courtesy of a Java code base which was highly portable to multiple topologies. As a result, it fit nicely into a variety of virtual environments and also was poised to make the leap into emerging Cloud architectures, in line with trends like the emerging Virtualized Network Function (VNF) and approaches like the use of HEAT templates for configuration.

A few months into the launch, my manager and I talked about how to take this product to the next level and realized that we needed different business models for this kind of product. The traditional load balancer provided by industry leaders such as F5 was built on top of proprietary hardware platforms, and the business model followed suit. Pricing was typically based on a purchase, where all of the hardware (and software) was purchased upfront, accompanied by a service agreement which was renewed year by year.  This approach is often called the perpetual model.

But with the Cloud taking over, customers were looking for different answers. Cloud Services such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) and lots of industry software had moved to subscription or usage based business models. For example, if you buy a subscription to to a software product like Adobe Acrobat, you get the right to use the product so long as you keep paying the monthly subscription fees. Amazon went further. You can buy rights to AWS services and only pay for the usage of the Cloud infrastructure you have purchased. In the world of virtual services, this permits customers to scale up for high usage events—think of the capacity need to support online voting via text for a television program like American Idol—and then scale back down as needed, perhaps even to zero.

We considered these kinds of changes for the Dialogic load balancer, but other virtual software products at the company ended up taking the lead in becoming available under subscription or usage based models. The implications were huge. Salesreps loved the perpetual model, since they’d get a big chunk of commissions every time they sold a big box.  In a subscription or usage based model, the revenue—and the commissions—move to a “pay as you go” model. Hence, no big upfront commissions payout and you need to keep the customer happy to get that recurring revenue stream. By contrast, finance executives now had a revenue stream which was less bumpy, since there was somewhat less incentive for Sales to go out and close those end of quarter deals. Customers also like the flexibility of subscription models. Typically, they may pay more over the long haul vs. the perpetual model, but they also have the option to change to a new product or service mid-stream. In summary, the move to virtual software and related technical innovations such as Software as a Service (SaaS), Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) or by extension Anything as a Service is likely to drag in new business models.  These new business models change the finances both on the customer and vendor side and not everybody will be pleased with the results, but momentum for these trends continues to grow.

If your organization has participated in the evolution from perpetual to subscription or usage based business models, please  weigh in with your comments. If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your application solutions or other communications products in this rapidly changing business environment, you can reach me on LinkedIn or on our web site.

 

Paradigm Shift: Virtual to the Cloud

We live in a world where communication solutions can be hardware-based, run in a virtual machine on a local server or be situated in the Cloud. The paradigm for communications solutions has been shifting from hardware to software to virtualization as I’ve discussed in my recent posts. Once a solution is virtual, in principle, customers have the flexibility to control their own destiny. They can run solutions on their own premises, in the Cloud, or with a hybrid model that uses both approaches.

Let’s consider an example. Dialogic has traced this type of evolution in its SBC products.  In 2013, the company positioned two products as SBCs. The BorderNet™ 2020 IMG provided both SBC and media gateway capabilities and found an audience that wanted an IP gateway between different networks or an enterprise edge device. The BorderNet™ 4000 was a new product which focused on SBC interconnect functions and ran on an internally-managed COTS platform. Five years later, both products have changed significantly.  The IMG 2020 continues to run its core functions on a purpose-built platform, but its management can be either virtual or web-based.  The BorderNet™ 4000 has morphed into a re-branded BorderNet™ SBC product offering. The product has evolved from its initial hardware focus to being a more portable software offering.  Customers can now run the software on a hardware server, in a choice of virtual machines or by deploying on the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud. Whereas the original BorderNet 4000 only supported signaling, the BorderNet SBC can optionally also support transcoding of media, either in hardware (using a COTS platform) or in software. The journey of these products has offered customers more choices. The original concepts of both products are still supported, but the products now have elements of virtualization which have enhanced their portability. So as a result, the full functionality of the BorderNet SBC can run in the Amazon cloud and in the other business models.

Once a product has been virtualized, it can be deployed numerous ways and can be deployed using a variety of business models. As customers want to move solutions to the Cloud, being able to run one or more instances of software in virtual machines is essential. The term Cloud tends to be used generically, but in telecom, there are multiple ways the evolution to the cloud is playing out. One example is the OpenStack movement, where open source has helped drive what is sometimes called the Public Cloud. The various forms of private clouds have also been popular, with variations being offered   by Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Oracle, IBM and others.

In my next post, we’ll consider how the technical changes we’ve been describing here have also been coupled with changes to business models.

If you participated in the evolution described here, please feel free to weigh in with your comments. If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your application solutions or other communications products / services in this rapidly changing technical and business environment, you can reach me on LinkedIn.

Following the Path to Virtualization

A number of years back, my product team engaged with a Tier 1 solution provider. They wanted to use our IMG media gateway as part of their solution, but with a condition.  They had limited rack space, so they wanted to use an existing server to manage our device. Up until then, we required customers to load our element management system (EMS) software onto a dedicated Linux server.  Instead, our customer asked us to take our EMS software and package it to run on a virtual machine. Our team investigated and were able to port both the underlying Linux layer and the EMS application for use on a Xen virtual machine. Voila! Our software was now virtualized and our customer was able to re-use their existing server to manage the IMG gateway.

That was my introduction to virtualization, but this approach quickly became much more important.  Just a few months later, other customers asked us to port our EMS software to work within the VMWare virtual machine environment. There were immediate benefits. The EMS running directly on server hardware required qualification of new servers roughly every two years, an arduous process which became more difficult over time. By contrast, the virtual EMS (which we shortened to call the VEC), would run on a VMWare virtual machine and we were isolated from any server changes the customer might make. The VEC was also a software based product, so we offered it for much less than $1000 retail price vs. the $3000+ price point of a server based version.  Over the next several years, more and more customers moved to the virtualized version of software and the demand for the server version declined.

A couple of years ago, I was asked to take over a new software-based load balancer (LB) product developed by a Dialogic software team in the United Kingdom. The back story here had some similarities to my earlier experience. The team was working with a major customer who really liked their software-based media resource broker (MRB), but had issues with the LB product offered by a major market player. The team built the software load balancer so that it could run either directly on a server or on a virtual machine. When we launched the product for use by all customers, our Sales Engineering team loaded the software onto their laptops using a commonly available virtual software program and were immediately able to set up prototype sessions and adjust configurations via the software’s graphical user interface. So the LB software was virtualized from the beginning.  This was part of an overall trend within Dialogic, as more and more of the software-based components of products were converted for use in virtual environments.

In the early days, virtualization in telecom was mainly for software tools like user interfaces and configuration, but that is now changing in a major way. The LB product from Dialogic runs in a totally virtual mode, so that operations as diverse as configuration and balancing streams of protocols as diverse as HTTP and SIP all are supported, along with very robust security. In the telecom industry, virtualization is being used in several different ways as part of a sea change where the new approach to scalability involves building additional capability and resiliency by adding new instances of software. In turn, this drives the need for new types of orchestration software, which can manage operations in a world where the new paradigm requires creating, managing and deleting instances based on real time needs.

In my next post, I’ll talk about other ways that virtualization is being used as a key principle for building out telecom operations in a variety of Cloud environments. Virtualization is still a relatively young technological movement, but it has already helped spawn some surprising developments.

If you participated in the evolution described here, please feel free to weigh in with your comments. If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your application solutions or other communications products in this rapidly changing business environment, you can reach me on LinkedIn.

 

Reshaping Enterprise Communications: A Tale of Two Companies

In my last few posts, I’ve described several factors which have encouraged communications solution providers to transition away from hardware and focus on software-based application solutions.

Let’s consider two companies and how they adjusted the path of their technical and business models to address these directions. Avaya is an example of a company whose solutions had a substantial amount of proprietary hardware around the time they split off from Lucent in the year 2000. Avaya had a leading market share in multiple markets targeted to enterprises, including PBXs, which provided telephone infrastructure for enterprises, and Call Centers, which used Avaya components to meet customer needs for highly scalable inbound and outbound communications. But the advent of IP-based technology and new protocols such as SIP began to change all of that. The mantra of IP-based communications was that voice was just another application that ran on an IP stack. This massive technical change was a major challenge for Avaya, since they’d built their business based on selling PBX and call center solutions based on their own hardware, but the cost of sustaining this business model was high. So starting around 2002, they executed a pivot to adjust to the new situation. First, they introduced new IP-based versions of their PBX technology ranging from IP phones to an IP-based PBX and a suite called IP Office for small to medium sized businesses. In parallel, they told potential partners that they wanted to move out of the hardware business and focus on value provided by their software. Third, they created a partner program, the Avaya DeveloperConnection program (later shortened to DevConnect), and encouraged partners to either build on or connect to Avaya solutions. As a result, Avaya was able to cultivate relationships with hardware appliance companies for products like media gateways and focus more on building out their application software. The DevConnect program also fit well with Avaya’s increased role as an integrator. Solutions for customers could be built using not only Avaya technology, but also DevConnect certified products. So Avaya had an approach to building out software-based solutions using IP, but they also had a large installed-base of hardware-based solutions, so they were not as nimble as some of their competitors.

The advent of SIP helped to encourage new market entrants into the communications software space. A prominent example was Microsoft. Starting around 2007, Microsoft introduced it’s new communication solution, Office Communication Server 2007 or OCS.  OCS used SIP as its backbone protocol and touted the ability for enterprises to eliminate the cost of a PBX and replace it by software running on Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) servers. Enterprises still needed to connect to the telephone networks run by service providers, which were heavily based on circuit-switched technologies, so Microsoft started its own partner and certification program to qualify 3rd party products such as media gateways. Microsoft also had a lot of marketing muscle, since their applications such as Microsoft Office were widely used within enterprises, so they had a ready audience among the information technology managers at customers. In 2010, Microsoft -re-branded their offer and called it Microsoft Lync. Microsoft quickly became a big player in the new Unified Communications market and began to take market share away from traditional PBX vendors such as Avaya. Microsoft also continued to be aggressive in cultivating relationships with 3rd party hardware partners, who added support for Lync compatible IP phones and newer IP-based products such as Session Border Controllers (SBCs). Microsoft has since re-branded Lync to be Skype for Business, but the underlying technology and business model is an evolution of Lync.

The market battle for leadership in communications for enterprises continues, but the momentum has shifted heavily to software-based solutions and most hardware components are provided by other vendors. One exception to this direction is Cisco. They have maintained a strong presence in the hardware side of communications by virtue of their leading market position in routers and have incorporated additional functions such as media gateways and SBCs upon their routers. However, Cisco also has built their own software-based Unified Communications suites and Contact Center solutions, so they use the software-based applications model, but pair it up with Cisco network components to create their solutions.

In summary, the advent of SIP is one of several factors which have radically changed the landscape for communications solutions. In this post, we’ve considered how Avaya and Microsoft built their business strategies based on the strong move to IP-based software solutions over the last decade. In my next post, I’ll talk about another important technology development, virtualization, which is in the process of re-shaping how both application software and communications infrastructure products are being developed and brought to market today.

If you participated in the evolution described here, please feel free to weigh in with your comments. If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your application solutions or other communications products, you can reach me on LinkedIn.