Cisco, IBM Target Voice Apps

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Look for a bevy of IP-telephony and video products this summer from Cisco that will provide tighter integration with software from IBM.

In a pact recently signed off by the two companies' chief executives--Cisco's John Chambers and IBM's Sam Palmisano--the two companies have agreed to integrate Cisco's CallManager, MeetingPlace, IP Contact Center, Personal Assistant and Unity Express product lines with IBM's WebSphere, Tivoli management products and Lotus Domino software. They are integrating the products using key standards, including XML and the Session Initiation Protocol, an evolving set of signaling protocols from the Internet Engineering Task Force for Internet conferencing, telephony, presence, events notification and instant messaging.

The companies offered only vague details about the new products, but did say Unity, a branch-office voicemail system, will integrate with Domino to provide a unified communications offering that combines e-mail, voicemail, and other data and telephony-messaging functions. And customers will be able to use the Tivoli systems-management suite to administer Cisco CallManager, the call-processing component of its Media Convergence Server. In addition to offering CallManager on several Xseries systems, Cisco will offer its MCS 7851 using IBM technology. The two also will develop industry-specific applications for the retail and financial-services sectors.

Though the relationship is nonexclusive--for example, Cisco currently offers CallManager support with Microsoft's Exchange Server as well--executives at both companies described the pact as strategic. For IBM, the deal is a key component of its on-demand effort, while Cisco views it as a critical component in linking its IP-telephony products with key business applications.

"When two 800-pound gorillas get together, people take notice, and it starts to get the attention of some of the luddites in the market," says Gartner analyst Eric Goodness. "The most important part is that they are cooperatively putting together resources and capital for research and development to really start to bake these technologies and to make voice the killer application." That means providing integration beyond CRM applications in the call center into software used by knowledge workers.

Nevertheless, the deal comes on the heels of a Gartner report that finds Cisco facing challenges in holding onto its lead in IP telephony. While noting that Cisco has routinely upgraded CallManager--most recently adding video-telephony support, better survivability and interconnectivity via support for Q-Signalling in its 4.0 release--Gartner has warned its clients that CallManager has some weaknesses, among them a lack of rich features offered by traditional PBX vendors and inflated pricing.

Worth noting, however, is the report says Cisco's channel competence is key to its success to date, and those customers that use their own staff run a higher risk of failure than those that use third-party partners.

Michael Collins, director of marketing at Cisco partner Netarx, is hopeful the new relationship will lead to more products, but he is concerned the deal is aimed at strengthening IBM Global Services (IGS), with which he often finds himself competing against for large customer deals.

"When you're an organically growing organization like our company, then it is a very hard fight," Collins says. "We can win, but they are big." When going up against IGS, Netarx emphasizes its local presence, best practices, strong technical expertise and customer references.

There is plenty of business for both, argues Don Fitzpatrick, IBM's vice president for the alliance. Nevertheless, Fitzpatrick describes the partnership with Cisco as an "inflection point" for IBM's efforts in IP telephony. While clearly the relationship will help IGS, Fitzpatrick emphasizes that partners of both companies will equally benefit from the deliverables from this pact.

"We think what we are doing around technology integration is absolutely going to help the partner channel have a stronger set of offerings in this space," Fitzpatrick says. "Clearly, the benefit of us doing some of the heavy lifting to make our components work more effectively together should certainly make partners' lives easier."

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