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HP is building on a unified communications and collaboration partnership it announced in May 2009 with Microsoft by announcing the next batch of products in a continually growing line-up of Microsoft Communications Server-ready offerings.

The new products, which will be released at about the same time Microsoft Communications Server launches this fall, reflect two categories – branch office survivability and unified communications-ready PCs.  All products will further enhance the hardware communications element of the Microsoft software that lies at the core of the unified communications offering, said Alan MacLeod, Microsoft global alliance manager for HP ProCurve.

The key product in the announcement is the HP Survivable Branch Communication zl Module, which will fit into the HP ProCurve Switch 8200zl and 5400zl series of switches. Designed to reduce the IT infrastructure at branch offices and extend business productivity and reliability of Communications Server 14, the module serves two important purposes, MacLeod said.

“It allows you to deploy it at a branch location, have all the PoE to deploy your phones, and you plug in the Survivable Branch Module, which adds the voice survivability capabilities, which would be in use in this location,” he said.

Basically, the module keeps phones up and running even when the branch office’s connection to the corporate datacenter is cut – whether because of a disaster or unexpected datacenter downtime.

“Effectively, the users will use the survival gateway when there’s no way to connect to the datacenter,” MacLeod said.

That’s only one function the module offers. The second major role it will play in branch offices is cost reduction. Even if the datacenter is available, the Survivable Branch Communication zl Module can be configured to fit into the phone system’s dial plan so outgoing calls will be routed through the most cost-effective corporate-wide ports, MacLeod explained.

“Because it’s [a Communications Server] component and because it’s integrated into our switch chassis, you don’t have to think about a separate appliance any more. You simply plug it into the chassis,” he said.

HP is casting a wide net for the product, and the company expects it will be deployed in a variety of business sizes. It won’t be of interest to every company with branch offices, though, and it may not be appropriate for every branch within a single corporate entity, MacLeod said. Channel partners will find the best traction in branch offices that can’t lose their communications (such as branches in the financial industry).

It’s a business-driven decision to deploy the HP Survivable Branch Communication zl Module, he said.
“We’re not expecting 100 per cent deployment in every single branch,” he said.

Within the HP/Microsoft unified communications and collaboration partnership, the module provides additional enhancements above and beyond what is available only with Microsoft’s software. It improves the customer experience within a Communications Server environment, MacLeod noted.

“This is one of those deliverable items we first discussed when we announced the initiative,” he said.
Jonathan Edwards, research analyst in IDC’s Enterprise Communications Infrastructure program, agreed that the announcement is big for both HP and Microsoft. Microsoft Communications Server is going to need some fundamental resiliency that software alone can’t provide, he said. The Survivable Branch Communication zl Module will make Communications Server more of a PBX displacement product, which it hasn’t been up to now, Edwards noted.

"It’s significant, but it’s kind of just a checkbox," he said.

The second part of the HP announcement is the qualification of four PC models that are now Microsoft Communications Server-ready, enabling users to have business-grade voice and video communications from their PCs at a lower total cost of ownership, MacLeod said. The PCs are now unified communications-optimized, which means they will be able to eliminate the need for additional devices to place and receive voice or video calls.

According to MacLeod, the average employee spends no more than 40 percent of their time at their desk, so that cuts them off from their desk phone. Notebook computers optimized for Microsoft Communications Server 14 will allow them to cut the cable and essentially bring their phones with them whenever they leave their desks.

“As we’re starting to bring new PCs to market, they’re being taken to qualification,” he said. For the channel, this doesn’t provide an immediate opportunity, except to get customers that already have the PC models in their work environments up to date and ready for the release of Communications Server 14, but as new models hit the streets, they’ll find additional notebook sales opportunities while also adding the value of being able to offer unified communications and collaboration capabilities immediately.

The PCs that are now Communications Server 14-ready are the HP TouchSmart 9100 Business PC, the HP EliteBook 6930p Notebook PC and the HP EliteBook 8530w and 8730w Mobile Workstations.
While Edwards said the optimization part of the announcement isn’t too exciting, he did note that the entire announcement is part of something much bigger.

"The greater level is ‘okay, we’re starting something big here.’ With the severed alliance between Cisco and HP, this is just another example of Anyone But Cisco," he said. All the vendors that are coming together with their own core competencies are directly targeting Cisco Systems, and that’s extremely significant, Edwards said.

The battle for marketshare in the unified communications space is heating up, and while all parties continue to see growth in their own individual businesses, they’ll be competing much more directly with the likes of Cisco.

Further HP announcements related to the upcoming Communications Server 14 are expected over the next several months.