Cisco Systems Inc. this week is expected to announce a new version of its unified messaging server with twice the end-user capacity as before, reinforcing the notion that the company intends to be a major player in the corporate messaging software arena.
The company is expected to announce that the Cisco Unity 3.0 will increase the total number of users, or "subscribers," on a Cisco Unity server to 5,000, compared with the 2,500 limit on Unity 2.46, according to product information posted on the Cisco Web site. The company would not confirm or deny the information.
The software will apparently let users set up and manage a unified voice and e-mail system by hooking into Microsoft Active Directory in a Windows/Exchange 2000 network, letting network and messaging system administration be centralized. Cisco Unity 3.0 will be available only for Win 2000, but will work in an mixed Win NT/2000 environment, according to product information. Pricing for Unity 3.0 will be the same as the previous version, starting at US$146 per seat.
While Cisco's clout with large companies may help it become a unified messaging player, analysts say, the network hardware giant will have to fine-tune its sales engine to pitch mission-critical applications such as messaging to big corporations.
Cisco's Unity product is part of its AVVID (architecture for voice, video and integrated data) IP telephony product family, which includes Cisco's CallManager server software, its Media Convergence Server (MCS) - a dedicated server running CallManager on top of Windows NT - as well as IP phones, voice-over-IP and IP video gateways and voice-over-IP-enabled routers and switches.
Unity competes with unified messaging wares such as Nortel Network Corp.'s CallPilot, and Avaya Inc.'s (formerly Lucent's) Unified Messenger. Avaya and Nortel have offered unified messaging products for their circuit-switched PBX voice mail systems for several years, and both companies this year have integrated the software with their IP-based call server offerings. Unlike its competitors, Cisco has no PBX customer base to tap for its Unity product, but plans to push unified messaging and IP telephony into corporations looking to replace their aging PBXs. Unity can also be integrated with PBXs.
A Unity server provides voice mail services by connecting over an IP network to an MCS, or cluster of MCSes, running CallManager 3.0. Unity 3.0 also can provide unified voice mail and e-mail to multiple MCS clusters.
The Unity software, which runs on a Win 2000 server, interfaces with an Exchange 2000 server, letting voice mails - saved on the Unity server as .wav sound files - appear in an end user's mailbox. Users can then listen to voice mails on a PC. Users can view voice and text messages through a Microsoft Outlook application, or see their voice mails in a list on a Cisco IP phone's display screen. Unity's text-to-speech engine can also translate e-mail text into a computer-generated voice, which reads e-mails to users over a phone.
The state of Connecticut will roll out Cisco Unity 3.0 and Exchange 2000 during the next several weeks. The Cisco/Microsoft combination will serve 1,000 employees in the state's 62 agencies, says Rock Regan, the state's CIO.
"This will allow our employees, regardless of where they are, to deal with all kinds of messages from one system," Regan says of the Unity server. Besides giving state employees a new productivity tool, Regan adds that the ability to standardize on one system for voice mail and e-mail, and manage both messaging technologies from one directory, was a major reason for going with unified messaging.
Connecticut's Department of Information Technology installed a Cisco AVVID voice-over-IP system a year ago, and was using Cisco's Unified Open Network Exchange voice mail-only product to support about 600 IP phone users, according to Bob Dixon, director of enterprise networking for the state.
"We decided not to spend any time or money on the previous version [of Unity] because of where we're going on our other server initiatives," including Win 2000 server and Exchange 2000, Dixon says. "Because [Unity] is a similar product to what we had before, the risk is a lot lower."
With 70% of the enterprise switching market under its thumb and the top spot in terms of IP phone shipments so far this year (according to market research firm IDC and Cahners In-Stat), Cisco is looking to use its hefty influence in converged IP networks by pushing applications such as unified messaging, personal organization software (such as its Personal Assistant product) and call center applications into large companies.
According to IDC, the number of unified messaging user mailboxes will boom over next few years, going from 3.1 million mailboxes installed this year to 21.7 million mailboxes by 2005.
Robert Mahowald, a senior analyst at IDC, says Cisco can be a factor in the market if it can focus on selling IP telephony and messaging software differently from how it markets routers and switches.
"I'm not sure if Cisco salespeople know how to sell software," he says. "They're new to software. While the idea of unified messaging is great for Cisco's business, they have to learn more about how this fits into the overall enterprise puzzle."