Paris-based Alcatel-Lucent introduced a new Communications-as-a-Service (CaaS) platform called Rapport today.
Like other IP-based communication networks, Rapport uses cloud platforms to pool network resources. This way, voice and video communications and conferencing can be managed using the same principles as any other type of traffic on an IP network.
The critical difference is this: Rapport exists entirely in A-L’s cloud, not on customer premises.
“A lot of enterprises have looked at Amazon, Google, Facebook and the like, and said, ‘They’ve become good at scaling and launching new apps and services quickly. Why can’t I scale like that?’” remarked Brendan Ziolo, A-L’s head of large enterprise marketing, in an interview with CMSWire.
The Bigger the Cloud
All the communications networks being devised today — all of them — have their foundations based in Internet Protocol.
IP-based communications are based on servers — surprisingly ordinary x86 servers, the more ordinary, the better.
Cloud architectures are also all IP-based. The true principle of cloud (what I call “cloud dynamics”) is not that all your files follow you wherever you go, regardless of what Dropbox users may lead you to believe.
It’s this: Processing power, memory, storage and networking are all variables that can be pooled together from the various pieces of hardware that provide them, and that can be moved from place to place without moving the hardware.
The typical all-cloud-based service offering is targeted toward small and medium businesses. Their underlying premise is that companies with existing computing resources on-premise will want to leverage those resources, even in a hybrid cloud deployment scheme.
But software-defined networking (SDN) is a different order of beast, especially for one very peculiar reason. The servers which host SDN are not the same ones you use to run your database or perform analytics research or run the payroll. Sure, they’re the most common, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) servers you could possibly encounter, but they’re not already yours.
Here's the Difference
This is why A-L is targeting Rapport for a very different market than you’d expect: large enterprises, preferably the ones in the Fortune 500 list where the second zero is trimmed off.
“What we’re actually doing is helping these very large enterprises deploy, manage, and automate their own private clouds, and/or a hybrid cloud,” said Ziolo. “A lot of these large organizations are looking to do some of that cloud themselves, especially hybrid if they need the extra scale. And that’s where we see the fit.”
No one doubts the ability for A-L’s existing transport products to connect huge data centers (Amazon, Azure, etc.). What many folks don’t know — especially those who have the 83rd floor all to themselves — is that Alcatel-Lucent operates an SDN division, Nuage Networks (pronounced “new – AHJE”), that designs and builds entire IP comm networks (so-called “overlay networks”) as software.
Nuage will be contributing to the Rapport service, and what it contributes looks more like the administration features of an everyday computer network: enforcing policies, managing access permissions, load balancing, redirecting traffic.
Indeed last June, A-L began leveraging a customer service analytics tool called Motive to predict potential failures in IP communications networks, and resolve them before they actually happen.
Integration from the Other Direction
As Mike Lambert, A-L’s senior director of IP communications solutions, told CMSWire, software developers can utilize Rapport’s API to build services, such as built-in, live customer support conferencing, into Web sites and apps. They can make ways to communicate with businesses that go above and beyond dialing phone numbers, exchanging e-mail addresses, or forwarding WebEx links.
Rapport, said Lambert, “provides a unified communications and collaboration capability and an end user experience for them, but it also provides the ability to use all of the traditional tools of UC — screen sharing, conferencing, being able to end and send calls — inside a third-party application.
“We see huge growth in the number of Web-based and mobile app-based productivity applications that have need of a communications service,” Lambert continued. “But those applications are coming from people familiar with running patient record management systems, and [who are] not necessarily familiar with communications services.”
Lambert remarked candidly that the developers who build comm services into their apps and sites don’t feel like they’re experts in communications, and aren’t all that sure they want to be. As a result, they end up producing services that place the end user in what he called a “virtual swivel chair,” where the site operates in a tab in one browser window, the UC stream is visible through another (if it stays on top), and the productivity app is being maximized and minimized like an accordion during Mardi Gras.
“There’s a strong user desire to converge them,” he said.
But productivity vendors are not interested in providing communications, Lambert added, making it incumbent upon enterprise developers to devise the methods to zip up these services into one package.
A-L will offer Rapport in many different forms, including as white-label services to potential resellers, such as server OEMs. These major firms could offer out-of-the-box functionality for SDN and extensible communications, with A-L’s brand discretely tucked under the hood.
This way, Lambert projected, enterprise customers could put their own brand on their own communications services, once they’ve effectively purchased A-L Rapport network service from resellers. Imagine an automobile manufacturer providing conferencing services to all its dealers nationwide.
Such an integration not only changes the way communications are offered, but how customers budget their costs. As Lambert explained, a typical UC investment is charged to the IT department. But if communications were integrated onto a CRM platform, and the costs dispersed over incremental installments like a utility, then communications could be charged to marketing.
The communications tool could be charged to the line of business that makes use of it. “The willingness to pay by that organization,” he said, “is different than it is for the cost of current basic services.”
As another example, when comm services are purchased a la carte and bolted onto Salesforce, even though that cost is considered tangible, explained Lambert, it’s passed on to the IT department. If SDN and comm services were part of Salesforce to begin with, the entire budgeting process could be overhauled.
“When you’re presented with a bill for your communications services, did you ask for it? Did you want it?” he asked. “Or are you required to take it?”
To help sell Rapport to large enterprises, A-L has extended its partnerships with desk phone vendors Mitel and Polycom, and with soft-client phone vendor CounterPath. These are the vendors which large enterprises consult first when they seek to replace their PBX systems.
Such relationships will give large enterprise customers the devices they require to feel comfortable with their replacement decisions. SDN is a lucrative product, and A-L brings with it over a century of experience with installing telco appliances, which we now call routers and switches.
But the GMs and FedExes of the world need buttons.
“Alcatel-Lucent clearly is the leader in selling these types of solutions to telcos and cable operators,” said A-L’s Brendan Ziolo. “But very large enterprises quite often rival, and can be bigger than, our Tier-2 telco customers. So there’s clearly a need for these higher-end, scalable, large, reliable routers and optical transport products. [Now] we’re going to take into large enterprises this communications portfolio.”