Cisco revamps VoIP products for SMBs

The networking giant, hoping to also become the VoIP giant, is offering a new line of SMB voice products and services that may increase its advantage against competitors like 3Com and Avaya.

Redoubling its effort to make VoIP more attractive to small and midsized businesses, Cisco Systems Inc. today unveiled a set of SMB VoIP offerings for business and resellers.

The San Jose, Calif.-based networking giant's new Cisco Business Communications Solution packages hardware, software, services, support and financing options together, providing SMBs -- defined as organizations with fewer than 1,500 employees -- with everything they need to get VoIP up and running.

The release is highlighted by a new switch family, the Cisco Catalyst Express 500, a set of entry-level, wire-speed Layer 2 managed Fast Ethernet and Gigabit Ethernet switches featuring optional Power over Ethernet (PoE) capability for powering IP phones and other devices.

Marie Hattar, director of marketing for switching at Cisco, said the devices offer enterprise-caliber performance, but make use of features that simplify setup and management for SMBs, such as Cisco's Smartports technology, which uses a set of common configurations to automatically deploy new Ethernet ports (available throughout the Catalyst line), and the Security Policy Slider, which provides pre-set security profiles to help SMBs avoid manual configuration.

Further helping SMBs in regard to management, Cisco is offering the Network Assistant 3.0. With a redesigned GUI, it replaces the command line interface as the method for managing all network devices -- including switches, routers, wireless LANs and security -- throughout the network.

Also part of the Business Communications Solution are CallManager Express 3.3, a new iteration of Cisco's slimmed down call processing application, and Unity Express 2.2, an update of its voice mail and auto attendant services.

Other elements of the release are: Unity Connection 1.1, a single-site simplified voice mail, integrated messaging and speech recognition offering that can be ready for up to 1,500 users in under an hour; three new IP phones, including the 7985G integrated video endpoint for desktop video collaboration; Mobile Connect, new software that can redirect IP calls to cellular or home office phones; and three new monitoring and management tools for midsized businesses looking for more troubleshooting and quality-of-service capabilities.

Cisco has taken extra steps to not only make the new offerings easier to buy, but also to troubleshoot. Through its subsidiary, Cisco Systems Capital, it has developed new credit and leasing programs that allow SMBs to apply online and obtain approval within hours.

To complement its SMARTnet technical support service, it has extended its SMB Support Assistant service -- for organizations with fewer than 250 employees -- to those using Cisco voice products.

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Cisco is putting forth several new tools for resellers as well, including an updated Demo-In-A-Box, quote-building tools, joint marketing and sales materials and the IP Communications Express Quick Configuration Tool, which reduces the time it takes a channel partner to get a customer's VoIP system up and running.

Pricing varies depending on products selected and the number of user licenses required, though the Cisco Catalyst Express 500 Series ranges from $795 to $2,795.

The Cisco Business Communications Solution represents a strategic shift for Cisco. In the past the company has not made SMB VoIP products a priority, but earlier this year CEO John Chambers said Cisco would change that strategy because the market, and small businesses in particular, will be one of the company's fastest-growing segments in the next five years.

Robert Whiteley, an analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc., said Cisco and other vendors are developing new product packages specifically for SMBs now that those companies are spending more. In fact, Forrester forecasts SMB spending will rise 8.1% this year, while overall IT spending will increase 6%.

"Most vendors have taken large enterprise products and repurposed them for SMB use," Whiteley said. "Instead, Cisco has taken its knowledge of large enterprise products and put it into hardware and software packages that are more in tune with what SMBs need."

From a competitive standpoint, Whiteley said Cisco was and is the best positioned SMB VoIP vendor. He said 3Com Corp. is also well positioned to compete, but has made some strategic missteps amid its attempts to court enterprises. Avaya Inc. lacks the data play to compete with the Catalyst line, Nortel Networks Ltd. is not focused on the SMB market and Alactel lacks name recognition.

"I think the market will respond very well [to Cisco's offering]," Whiteley said. "Cisco is a reputable, reliable vendor, which is more critical when discussing voice since no SMB can afford to go with basic phone services."

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