Startup execs glean lessons from massive VoIP project

Nothing gets the attention of a room full of network start-up executives quite like a senior IT official from a huge company such as Bank of America.

Attendees at this week's Network Ventures conference in California, didn't like everything Bank of America's Craig Hinkley had to say when he took the stage, but he wasn't entirely discouraging either. Hinkley, senior vice president of network architecture and strategic direction, was on hand to discuss his organisation's planned rollout of 180,000 IP phones across a Cisco Systems network in a project orchestrated by Electronic Data Systems.

While Hinkley said the bank never considered going with a start-up over an established supplier like Cisco for its VoIP project, he did leave the door open for start-ups to supplement the Cisco offerings once the VoIP network gets further along.

In fact, Hinkley said he just took part in a Cisco customer advisory board event during which he pressed the vendor on what it would and would not be doing.

"I want to see what the (Cisco) Call Manager roadmap is," said Hinkley, who also discussed the bank's network at the VoiceCon show in Florida last month. "Where are you playing and where are you not? Where do I need to develop partnerships with third parties?"

In particular, Hinkley said he is curious about where Cisco is going in network management and call quality reporting.

Hinkley also said that given the bank is still in the early stages of its project, it's hard to say how the network will evolve and what new products or applications will be needed to support it. He said the IT group is not just rolling out a bunch of applications it thinks end users will need, but rather is trying to find out what those end users want.

That sort of talk was encouraging to start-ups presenting at the conference. Salem, N.H.'s Xelor Software, for example, is readying products designed to help companies ensure the quality, reliability and performance of VoIP networks. The company, which plans to have its first customer trial in May, is attempting to differentiate itself from companies that simply report on VoIP quality after the fact by stressing the proactive capabilities of its software.

The company, which got its start based on technology developed in Australia, raised US$4 million in its initial round of venture capital in the land down under, and is now seeking US$7 million more in a second round in the U.S.

CEO Rob Scott said Xelor is seeking to "unleash" customers' investments in Cisco VoIP products. Xelor said its products will enable customers to reduce the cost of installing and operating VoIP networks by automating otherwise manual tasks and by reducing the need for companies to overprovision their networks to ensure VoIP traffic travels smoothly.

The company didn't get into specific dollar figures when asked about how much its software will cost, but did say it would run somewhere between 3 percent and 10 percent of the cost of a VoIP setup per endpoint.

While plenty of speakers at the conference acknowledged the common challenge for start-ups to entice customers to take a chance with a newcomer instead of relying on a more established vendor, many of the presenting companies said they are getting lots of customers and were even able to name names.

GroundWork Open Source Solutions, a maker of open source-based management software, said it has a number of customers who have ditched HP OpenView in favor of the GroundWork offering. While the company didn't specify any such customers (CEO Robert Fanini said the company has a white paper on one such customer in the works), it did tick off a list of buyers, including IT company Ariba, ticket reseller StubHub, plus a few utility companies. GroundWork is targeting small and medium businesses as well as divisions of larger companies.

The Oakland start-up specialises in availability and performance management and sells its software as part of a service package as well as through subscriptions. A free General Public License version of the software is on the way, which Fanini said he hopes will generate further interest in the product and eventually encourage customers to pay for service and support. GroundWork claims that many basic management functions, such as configuration and availability monitoring and management have become commoditised, so the company has integrated open source tools in those areas and delivered a package that goes light on fancy features and includes a carefully designed user interface based on an Apache portal technology called Jetspeed.

Fanini said GroundWork is going head to head with the biggest management vendors, such as Computer Associates International, IBM and Hewlett-Packard, though he said his company is most often running into Smarts, which was acquired by EMC recently.

He said GroundWork is positioning its software as a manager of managers, and because of its open source technology, will work with customers' existing products.

Products on the way include an appliance and a tool for service desks, Fanini said.

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