New VoIP Wares Targeted At Channel

Fall VON 2006 conference in Boston VoIP

Digium, the creator and primary developer of the Asterisk open-source VoIP platform, showed off version 1.4 of the software, the first major release in nearly a year. Available for download in October, the latest version adds more than 20 new features, about half of which came from the developer community at large, said Kevin Fleming, senior software engineer at Digium, Huntsville, Ala.

The upgrade improves the quality and performance of the system. Among the new features is unified messaging capabilities that integrate voicemail, e-mail and fax into a central mailbox, support for the Google Talk communications service, the Jabber instant messaging protocol and the Jingle peer-to-peer signaling protocol.

In addition, Digium launched the new Asterisk Appliance Developer Kit, a hardware appliance scheduled for availability in October for $3,995. Next year, Digium plans to offer the Asterisk Appliance to end users, so the kit will give VARs, integrators and the rest of the developer community early access so they can begin building communications solutions on it, Fleming said.

The kit includes an early production pilot of the appliance and the Asterisk GUI framework, which was designed to act as a foundation for developers to customize the appliance with their own user interfaces.

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The appliance will target SMBs and small branch offices of larger enterprises that have two to 50 users. It is slated for availability at the beginning of next year for $500 to $1,500.

Chad Agate, co-founder and CEO of SIPBox, a solution provider and Digium partner that formally launched at the conference, said customers are attracted to the Asterisk VoIP platform because of its lower cost and flexibility.

Tinley Park, Ill.-based SIPBox was founded in January specifically to focus on Asterisk implementations, Agate said. Working with the open-source platform affords dramatically higher margins than what the company was seeing in its previous incarnation as The Cipher Group, a VAR that worked with a variety of VoIP vendors, he said.

"All of the money gets moved from the hardware side over to us for services. We've moved from four to five points with Cisco [Systems] to up to 50 points, and we're still saving our customers money," Agate said. Asterisk-based solutions typically cost 20 percent to 30 percent less, he said. Also at the conference, Inter-Tel showcased its upcoming Inter-Tel 7000 communications system, which is scheduled for general availability next month at an expected price of $600 to $800 per user.

With the new system, the vendor and its partners will be targeting larger accounts, as the new system can handle up to 2,500 users, a big jump from the vendor's existing systems that top out at 500 users, said Rick Dell, vice president of sales at Inter-Tel, Tempe, Ariz.

In preparation for the move upstream, Inter-Tel earlier this year began to restructure in order to bring its independent direct and indirect sales organizations together, cutting down on conflict between the two, Dell said. As part of the effort, Inter-Tel has developed a specialized enterprise-focused sales team and a services division to assist its channel partners with high-end enterprise deployments.

"We get instant deployment expertise," said Craig Marowitz, founder and vice president of technology strategy at Expert Technology Associates, a Plymouth Meeting, Pa.-based solution provider. "We're going to learn it over time, but we'll need to be on the shoulders of those that are already doing it," he said, of the new services organization.

Several vendors also used the show to showcase their channel efforts. SyncVoice Communications launched its first formal channel program at the show for systems integrators working with its VXTracker unified management software.

VXTracker manages hybrid environments that use both traditional and IP-based communications. It also enables channel partners to give customers an accurate assessment of their current, traditional telephony usage to create a strong business case for moving to VoIP, said Kerry Shih, president of SyncVoice, Costa Mesa, Calif.

"The timing is perfect," Shih said of SyncVoice's program launch. "Because of the mass traction VoIP has gained, it has thrust the whole voice infrastructure into the CIO's lap."

Those CIO's will be turning to solution providers to help them build their IP telephony strategies, and "we want to be close to where the gear is moving because that's where the management questions are getting asked," he said.

SyncVoice is recruiting top partners that work with vendors such as Avaya, Cisco and Nortel Networks, Shih said.

Hosted VoIP provider Whaleback Systems, Portsmouth, N.H., also launched a channel program at the show for partners that want to sell its CrystalBlue Voice Service. Whaleback provides 24x7 monitoring of its service, taking that burden off its partners. The company is also offering a partner demo kit and providing its solution providers with discounted service for their own use.