Hewlett-Packard will finally announce end-of-sale for the VCX VoIP system it acquired with 3Com -- something longtime VCX solution providers maintain is a big mistake given the product's loyal channel following and potential to make HP a truer end-to-end networking competitor against Cisco Systems.
HP representatives told CRN the forthcoming move would affect most VCX products, including servers and gateways. HP, Palo Alto, Calif., will send the formal end-of-sale notice later this month, with the actual end-sale date expected to be in December 2012.
HP will sell phones and software licenses into 2013 and will continue to support VCX customers for the HP-standard five years. It also already is assisting larger VCX customers with migration strategies. But for all intents and purposes, 2012 will be VCX's swan song, and HP will exit the voice market, pointing partners and customers toward VoIP and unified communications solutions from strategic allies such as Microsoft, ShoreTel and Aastra.
"It is in our best interest to focus on those partnerships and de-emphasize our development of products like the VCX," Mark Hilton, HP Networking product line manager, LAN Edge Solutions, told CRN. "We're not going to cut this off at the knees. But this is the right time to transition off of that platform."
[Related: HP Hangs Up On 3Com VoIP VARs]
HP's decision bookends the long decline of a once-proud set of VoIP products many partners say got lost in the shuffle following 3Com's implosion in the latter part of the last decade, and then were largely ignored by HP following its $2.7 billion acquisition of 3Com in 2010.
Solution providers initially were hopeful HP would focus on the platform and make the necessary R&D investments to keep it competitive with Cisco, Avaya and other VoIP players. But HP in January 2011 told CRN it had shifted VCX into "maintenance mode," meaning it would see only basic platform updates and support.
The handling of that process -- including persistent rumors that HP had considered selling the VoIP unit -- was much criticized by members of the former 3Com voice reseller community, who said an in-house HP VoIP solution would benefit the whole HP Networking ecosystem because of how voice solutions create demand for data infrastructure.
Solution providers said HP hasn't communicated much about VCX's future, save for a vaguely worded email sent to partners about six months ago saying that VCX's current software release, 9.8, would be its last update and that an end-of-sale announcement was on the horizon.
"They've told us zero," said Glenn Conley, president and CEO of Metropark Communications, a St. Louis-based solution provider and longtime VCX partner. "I've reached out a multitude of times. They don't want to talk about it."
Demand for the product has continued to decline in the past two years, HP's Hilton said, and it no longer makes sense for the company to invest in it. HP's global PBX system market share as of 2011, according to the Dell'Oro Group, already was less than 1 percent of a market heavily dominated by Avaya and Cisco and choked with challengers including Microsoft, ShoreTel, Mitel, Alcatel-Lucent and Siemens Enterprise Communications.
But solution providers said that if interest in VCX is dwindling, it's partly because HP did not put any marketing muscle behind it and failed to nurture the still-passionate community of former 3Com VoIP dealers.
"They're willing to buy Palm and get rid of it, and spend how many billion on Autonomy?" said Mark Essayian, president of KME Systems, a Lake Forest, Calif.-based solution provider. "I get that it is a small product and that it's half a percent of the voice networking [market] for them. But you could spend $100 million on it and make it a [killer] product. You have a community that supports it already."
"I really think that they missed the boat on this," said Robert Betzel, president of Infinity Network Solutions, a Macon, Ga.-based solution provider. "They were going to be another player next to Cisco that can give you end-to-end. Now it's a piecemeal deal with different manufacturers. When it's a piecemeal deal, who really cares if it's an HP router or switch? You lose that seamless integration and seamless continuity you get from end to end."
NEXT: HP Directs Partners To Lync, ShoreTel, Aastra
As HP winds down VCX, the company will be directing customers and channel partners toward VoIP and UC solutions from a handful of strategic partners.
Specifically, HP is steering UC customers with 250 seats and above toward Microsoft's fast-growing Lync platform, HP's Hilton said. For smaller customers, HP will focus on partnerships with ShoreTel and Aastra, the former predominantly in North America and parts of Asia, and the latter mostly in the EMEA region.
"You can't have a strong relationship with your partners if you're competing with them," Hilton said. "Routing, switching, management -- these things are our business. From a business perspective, it makes more sense to partner."
HP also partners with Avaya, though primarily for its direct and enterprise services engagements, and Hilton said HP is also fine with solutions using other vendors' products that can interoperate with HP's, including Cisco.
Not surprisingly, HP's Microsoft Lync relationship has blossomed. Having been strategic allies for decades, the two tech giants in May 2009 unveiled a $180 million, four-year global initiative to partner on integrated UC solutions that extended to Microsoft's Office Communications Server (OCS), the forerunner of Lync. In September 2011, HP released a Lync-optimized desk phone.
That relationship has continued, and earlier this week HP unveiled an SMB channel initiative at Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Conference in Toronto. It's the first time HP and Microsoft have jointly come out with a specific UC channel program, and it includes tested and validated reference architectures for customers of 250 to 2,500 employees, customizable demand-generation campaigns, a range of sales and technical training resources, inclusion in Microsoft's Solution Incentives Program, and marketing collateral.
"With the HP UC&C with Microsoft Lync solution, you have access to the most comprehensive Lync portfolio in the marketplace from two Gartner Magic Quadrant leaders," wrote Terry Ann Fitzgerald, SMB solutions marketing manager for HP Networking, in a Monday post to the HP Networking corporate blog. "The channel toolkit will help you start new conversations, expand your revenue opportunities and shorten your sales cycle."
"We know Lync is taking off; we work with some [partners] who we think are strong partners with a good future in UC, and we think it's in the best interest of our customer base," Hilton told CRN. "Looking at something like VCX, it's a good, solid product. But investment is prohibitive, and it's crowding and confusing the market. A few of our partners are excited at the opportunity and are jumping in with both feet with Microsoft. If they don't want to change, it'll be more difficult for them to be competitive longer term."
"We have been consistent in executing on our [UC and collaboration] strategy with choice and flexibility," said Kash Shaikh, director of marketing for HP Networking. "All of these partners we are working with are best-in-class and have been innovating in this area."
NEXT: Former 3Com Channel Felt Left Behind
The VCX channel is admittedly a small community -- about 50 or so active VCX resellers in the U.S. (and another 400 who focused on 3Com's former NBX voice line). But the acquisition of 3Com signaled to the channel that HP would become an end-to-end networking provider to take on Cisco, with a comparable breadth of data center, networking and infrastructure wares.
VCX's sweet spot remained customers between 100 and 1,000 users, but it could comfortably scale north of 60,000 if needed. Deal sizes varied widely, according to solution providers, but $250,000 sales to midmarket customers weren't far-fetched.
But even as HP Networking has grown and HP has focused on a converged infrastructure strategy, it has instead opted for a strategic partnering strategy for UC, having sold its video telepresence business to Polycom in 2011 and begun phasing out the major 3Com VoIP wares, including the NBX family in 2010 and now the VCX.
Solution providers that support VCX customers said HP is making a big mistake in dumping the platform. To do so means marginalizing a VoIP channel that's already in place and is familiar with the product's engineering, and that, with the corporate support of HP's sales and marketing breadth, could have aggressively pushed it into customer opportunities, they said.
"You've got an established dealer community, and going best-of-breed is not what that community wants," Metropark's Conley said. "VCX is a good product. There's been no R&D in the VCX for years, but I can still compete every day with ShoreTel and beat them."
Most VCX dealers already have moved to focus on other platforms -- "HP essentially killed it when they said [maintenance mode]," Infinity's Betzel said -- but their passion remains. Earlier this year, for example, a website called "Long Live the VCX" went live, promoted by a LinkedIn group formed around HP Networking-related issues.
It includes a prompt for site visitors to leave opinions on the future of the VCX.
"HP the manufacturer of the VCX needs to be enlightened," reads the site's mission statement. "They are ending the life of a great product right before your eyes. Customers, partners, 3rd party vendors WANT this product!!! It is our responsibility to let HP know what a huge mistake this is. We want HP to put its full force behind the VCX and make it the 'Voice' product for the future. We will not accept 3rd party solutions ... we want a product manufactured and supported by HP. By providing a complete portfolio, we can compete and win against other solutions."
Solution providers agreed that HP is missing out on end-to-end networking potential.
"I sell an end-to-end solution. I don't sell best-of-breed," Conley said. "If you buy a phone from me, that phone is going to plug into an HP switch, and into an HP router and, all in all, an HP solution. I do that because I sell a lot of those. I want an HP solution."
Conley said he has enough VCX product to support customers in the short term and is looking at other platform options. KME's Essayian promotes Microsoft Lync and ShoreTel, and sells VoIP platforms such as Digium Switchvox. Infinity's Betzel is now emphasizing Cisco for voice.
"They're making what they think is the best business decision for the company, so I don't fault HP for that," Betzel said. "But we really believe in end-to-end computing, so Cisco is our option. We believe, from SMB to enterprise, that when you can get one manufacturer that has integrated all of the features you need, you get the best outcome. Cisco has that fit."
"If they really knew the direction of VoIP and understood it, they wouldn't be making this decision," said the CEO of an HP solution provider who's been selling 3Com voice systems and their forerunners for decades. "When it comes to voice, especially, customers want one throat to choke. ShoreTel, for example, doesn't own the network, and in that case, if there are problems with a Cisco network or an HP network, ShoreTel can point its finger at that network and say, 'It's not our product; we don't care if it works or not.'"
Most IT buyers prefer end-to-end solutions for the less-hassle factor alone, the solution provider argued. He said he would move his business to Cisco when HP's official VCX announcement comes out.
"Cisco won this market because they could be 'one throat to choke, ' " he said. "HP is making a huge mistake here."
NEXT: What HP Should Have Communicated To VARsSolution providers fault HP on its communication around VCX above all. With so much speculation about the death of the product, the channel has had little to no air cover for helping customers make decisions.
"This is a credibility issue. I'm not going to sell and my customer's not going to buy something if I think you're going to get out of that market in a month or two," Metropark's Conley said. "If you'd give us some stability, tell us there's a future for this, I'm out there waving the flag for you today. You're dumping what is still a thriving business for a lot of dealers."
"We have a lot of clients that still have 3Com voice in place," Infinity's Betzel said. "A lot of clients buy these things thinking they're going to be running them for eight to 10 years. I have one VCX client that's got it running at 22 sites. I have to tell my clients to get prepared for something that's going to come sooner than they're prepared for, so I need a clear message from HP on how they're going to support these platforms for people that want them."
KME's Essayian said that by pursuing a best-of-breed, multivendor approach instead of an end-to-end sale, HP is opening itself up to losing deals.
"I will sell HP servers and switches, but if a customer comes to me and says, 'We want to put this on a Dell,' and/or I can virtualize it anyway, I'll do that," he said. "HP doesn't seem to get telephony, and they have a middle management layer that doesn't seem to understand what goes into a voice network. What partner is going to stay loyal to HP on just a commodity switching sale?"
Essayian said he's happy with his local team of HP reps and makes no presumption about how to run a $127 billion company. But he agreed with other solution providers that HP is leaving behind a potential-packed VoIP opportunity with a built-in, loyal channel following.
"The point is this product has a toehold," Essayian said. "Yes, we're a minority, yes we're a little crazy, but we're also willing to sell the [crap] out of this product. If you look at it even cursorily, how much data pull is there when you sell voice? It can be a holistic sale."
"I am still a believer that voice pulls the data network along," added Betzel. "When the data network doesn't matter, and it's 'I just need a 24-port gig switch,' they're just looking around for someone who's got one with reasonable speeds and feeds at the best price. Cisco's the one that's gone after this intelligently. Video is so important to Cisco because it forces the conversation on upgrading the data equipment."
The ex-3Com dealer channel is making other plans. Solution providers told CRN they're not exactly expecting an HP reversal.
"We've all moved on," Betzel said. "I don't think you'll find anyone still betting the house on HP voice."
PUBLISHED ON JULY 11, 2012