Cisco Canada Blog

A journey into the future: from PBX to Collaboration

December 20, 2012

This blog will provide you with the background to a panel discussion that I will be a part of at the Know Your Alternatives 2013 event on February 7th, 2013 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. For more information regarding the event and panel discussion, please click here.

A trip down the road to unified communications and collaboration (UC&C) doesn’t necessitate the junking of the PBX. An architectural approach to UC&C can incorporate an existing PBX investment, de-risk it while gracefully migrating to the next generation of UC&C. 

Many Canadian organizations are struggling with what to do about their Nortel PBX and at the same time are being challenged with meeting their organization’s rapidly changing communication needs. Highlighted below are some of the challenges Canadian organizations are faced with when migrating their PBX technology.

  1. Do they buy a PBX upgrade to buy them some more time and vendor support all the while knowing that any PBX investments at this time deliver little if any new capabilities and are lost investments?
  2. Do they buy a PBX upgrade and move to Avaya Aura knowing that same investment is again a lost investment and that there is a level of financial and roadmap risk with moving to Aura?
  3. Do they stay status quo using time and materials support knowing that if a significant outage occurs they may not be able to be recover from it?
  4. Some IT organizations are deploying Microsoft Lync for Instant Messaging and Presence and a view to eventually replacing their PBX but are struggling with voice & video quality, the cost and complexity of getting this multi-vendor system to work, and a demanding user community that is wanting to use non-windows devices like BlackBerry, iPad, iPhones, Android, Mac Laptops and more.

Business Challenge & Value Identification:

I have the fortunate opportunity and privilege to work with many great organizations to build roadmaps that deliver transformative communications and collaboration capabilities.

While the questions raised above are important they are best considered in the context of business relevancy and business value. Yes it is important to keep the “Dial tone flowing” but as with all technology, change happens. A PBX technology migration is an opportunity to create new value for the business.

As a point of definition for the examples below, collaboration technology offers the ability to connect, communicate and collaborate anywhere, on any device with a rich set of multi-modal capabilities that include voice, HD video, web & video conferencing, desktop/document sharing, unified messaging, instant messaging/chat, true presence. Collaboration capabilities should deliver a consistent user experience across multiple platforms such as Windows PC, Apple Mac, BlackBerry, iPhone, iPad and Android devices, and should include Business Grade Social Media tools and integration, desktop telephones and desktop videoconference endpoints. All this while ensuring security, and resiliency.

Here are some Business Value examples that our customers have deployed:

Enable HR

  1. Attract and retain top talent by supporting tool sets that empower top performers to create more impact. Tools such as rich collaboration client software on the employee’s device of choice. Enterprise social media tools that leverage employees social media skills.
  2. Effectively interview top candidates and conduct employee performance reviews from remote geographies via immersive TelePresence enhanced video experience.
  3. Flexible workspace and teleworking to reduce real-estate and recover time lost to today’s ever growing commutes to downtown core. Employees log into available workstations when in office and have complete business grade communications and collaboration tool set available when working remote.

Enable Sales

  1. More time selling and less time tied to the office with collaboration enabled mobile devices like tablets and smartphones.
  2. Connecting customers quickly to account teams through better mobility tools and single telephone number reach.
  3. Richer customer collaboration via web and video conferencing technologies that easily connect across firewalls.

Enable Manufacturing

  1. Reduce costly plant downtime with rapid fault resolution. Locate and engage with remote expert directly at the shop floor via handheld wireless 2 way video devices.
  2. Improve logistics by reducing human latency and human error with existing Business Processes integrated with automated real-time collaboration tools.
  3. Supply chain innovation is achievable by tighter integration with remote supply chain personal. More rapid product development, improved logistics, and reduced supply chain errors.

Migration Plan:

Migrating to new technology doesn’t necessitate the ripping out and replacement of the existing PBX(s). Quite the contrary, most Canadian Nortel customers migrate gracefully by “voice enabling” the network and integrating the PBX to the network using Cisco’s Session Management capability and then shifting critical PBX applications like Voice Mail, PSTN services and Contact Centre to the network. The PBX is then relegated to the role of gateway to power the existing PBX phones until their natural end of life. The network now manages the dial plan and new users are added to the network. When a PBX phone fails or the user moves, their extension is replaced with an IP Phone and easily added to the network. This in effect de-risks the PBX. Session Management integrations are available for some of the oldest PBX’s.

Once this method is deployed new capabilities also become available to PBX users, like Nortel Telephone control via Jabber PC client, Unified Messaging and Single Number reach, to name a few.

Business Case

Once the business value, business challenges and migration plan have been identified then the business case work can begin. Business case cost inputs will consist of items that can be reduced by migrating to new technology. Here are some examples of costs categories that can be improved upon: Consolidation Of Multiple Phone Systems, Moves Adds Changes Deletions, PSTN Service Consolidation, Cellular, Real-Estate, Staffing, PBX Upgrades, PBX Maintenance, Service Provider Consolidation, Conferencing, Travel, etc…

Most often the cost savings identified are more than enough to fund the migration to new technology and still show a positive economic benefit to the organization.

For my customers I input these costs along with the cost of the new solution and the length time (e.g.months , years) that the migration will occur. The business case is usually calculated for 5 – 10 years but initial payback is often in the first 6 – 18 months. They more rapid the migration the sooner the business benefits are realized.


Often organizations deploy technologies in silos to address a specified business requirement. All to often an unforeseen business use case develops once the user community adopts the technology. Case in point: Company X deploys web conferencing to address a department’s request. Company X then deploys video conferencing for the executives. Subsequently an executive requests the ability to broadcast and record a monthly “State of the Nation Address” to all executives via video and all employees and partners via web conferencing.  Since this was never planned, lack of interoperability prevents the request from being fulfilled.

Cisco’s architectural approach solves for this. It starts with a hardened secure and resilient network layer with virtual compute and storage, upon which UC&C services such as voice, IM/presence, HD video, BYOD, Mobility are layered on. These services are open standards based to ensure interoperability e.g. SIP/Simple, XMPP H.264, H.323, open API’s, etc… These services are then extended throughout the organization and beyond via the intelligent IP network. This architectural approach is cost effective since it turns the Network into a PBX and much more.  An architectural approach can be consumed on premise, via cloud or a hybrid of both. It can also be managed by the customer or the provider.

The path forward to UC&C is well travelled. The greatest obstacles are often inertia of “the PBX has done a fine job all of the years”. However the question should be asked at what cost? Canadian organistions are being challenged to be more productive and more competitive. As we evolve into a more knowledge-based society I can think of no better tools to give us the needed edge than UC&C.

Further Reading:

Is desk phone dead?

Architectural Strategies For Unified Communications

 Cisco Collaboration on the Web

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