Sphere System Offers PBX Alternative

LAS VEGAS (05/08/2000) - Next-generation phone system vendor Sphere Communications Inc. says it's time for enterprises of up to 15,000 end users to begin thinking about throwing out their PBXs.

At NetWorld+Interop 2000 this week, Sphere will announce Version 3.0 of its Sphericall.ems system. The system - a package of Windows NT call-control server software plus wiring-closet hubs that ship voice over data networks - promises new reliability and scalability because of strengthened autodiscovery and load-balancing features.

Like other PBX alternatives, the Sphericall system not only eliminates tolls on intracompany calls, but also unifies telephony and data network administration for such tasks as moves, adds and changes. But the introduction of Sphericall.ems 3.0 is especially key for Sphere because it represents the vendor's Ethernet coming out party. Previous Sphericall versions were strictly based on ATM and usually sold to long-time partner Marconi's ATM switch users.

Larger players such as Cisco and 3Com have been attacking the larger Ethernet market with their CallManager and NBX telephony systems, respectively.

In the Sphericall system, a call control server called Sphericall Manager, which Sphere now promotes as an enterprise multimedia switch - thus the .ems tag - establishes a call path between two telephony hubs that feed back to the desktop.

For calls between two users on the same LAN, the connection is generally between two Sphere Virtual Branch Exchange (VBX) PhoneHubs, available in up to 24-port configurations. For calls between different WAN locations or placed to a party outside the company, the system uses Sphere's COHub. That box now includes T-1 and ISDN Primary Rate Interface links to frame relay, ATM and IP networks as well as to the public telephone network.

In the latest release, VBX PhoneHubs and COHubs support connections to Ethernet Layer 3 and Layer 4 switches from Cisco, Cabletron, Extreme Networks and others, as well as ATM interfaces to the LAN. For its part, Sphericall Manager server software now includes signaling and autodiscovery routines that enable the server to drop-off the point-to-point connection once the call is established and detect the failure of any other Sphericall Manager on the enterprise network.

As a result, if one of the Sphericall Managers goes down, calls that it has already established will stay live across the LAN or WAN, says Morgan Mann, Sphere's director of product management. If there are multiple Sphericall servers in the enterprise net, incoming call streams can be routed around the downed server to maintain uptime.

Customers can tie up to 625 hubs together on a single enterprise network, and because each hub is capable of carrying 24 connections, Sphere estimates current scalability to reach 15,000 end users. Sphere's current collection of ATM-based users say they're interested in the upgrade even if they don't yet need the extra scalability.

Steve Hays, director of IS at St. Louis custom-software development house G.A.

Sullivan, says he's considering installing Version 3.0 in several of his eight locations. Currently, he has two Version 2.2 servers at headquarters establishing voice links among PhoneHubs and at least one COHub in all eight corporate sites. Hays runs a private ATM network across leased T-1 circuits and says distributing the servers and hubs will provide further resiliency to prevent downtime.

Sphericall eliminates tolls for intracompany calls and enables users in any location to obtain a dial tone from the COHub link to the public network in any other location - to make what look like local calls in that distant city, Hays says. He adds the new release's support for IP increases the opportunity to support telecommuters such as software developers working outside the office, including Sullivan's clients' sites.

Sphericall 3.0 also includes desktop end-user software with optional links into a number of unified-messaging systems built on Microsoft Exchange messaging platforms. The three elements of the system - server, hubs and client software - are priced separately (see graphic) and all are expected to be generally available next month.

Sphere: www.spherecom. com.

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