Four years ago, when I was MIS Manager of Duke Communications, we had to upgrade the corporate phone mail system. Representatives from the company's telecommunications vendor, Rolm, told us that we needed more disk space.

"OK," I said. "How many megabytes do we need?"

"Oh, you have to buy hours, not megabytes," said the Rolm representative.

"OK, how much will 4 additional hours cost?" I asked.

"That will be $6500," said the representative.

"$6500! That disk must be huge!"

After our Rolm service engineer performed the upgrade, we discovered we had just paid $6500 for a 500MB hard disk. At the time, a 500MB disk was worth about $400. I promised myself that I would help end this madness if I ever had the opportunity. Windows NT might just be that opportunity.

Telephones on NT
A company's phone system has always been a mission-critical application. You expect to pick up the phone and hear a dial tone, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In the past, to ensure that their systems provided this reliability, telecommunications vendors had to create proprietary real-time operating systems (OSs). Unfortunately, these vendors did not spend as much attention on the interface as on the OS. Typically, a phone administrator had to use a 300-baud modem to connect locally and then type cryptic commands into a text prompt.

Well, those days are almost gone. NT is becoming the platform of choice for many telephony solutions, including such applications as call centers, unified messaging, Internet telephony, LAN telephony, and voice mail. Many of these solutions are build-it-yourself kits, not something to replace your primary PBX.

However, Mitel, a leader in traditional PBXs, has just introduced a turnkey PBX built on NT with all of the features you expect from a traditional PBX. This solution is fully integrated with the Exchange Server directory, NT accounts management, and NT administration tools. For example, while adding users to Exchange, you can specify the type of phone they need, and the system automatically configures each user's phone and voice mail. You can perform moves, adds, and changes all from one interface for account, email, phone, and voice mail administration.

Mitel designed its first offering, the SX-2000 for Windows NT, midsized businesses (from 40 to 120 users). Mitel wants a year of real-world field trials before shipping the product for larger installations.

Real-World NT Telephony
SERVERxtras, Inc., a catalog reseller of software tools for managing NT Server networks, is the first company to field test Mitel's newest telecom solution. As part of the trial, Mitel provided an NT-based PBX and a traditional PBX as a backup. In addition, SERVERxtras is using Applied Voice Technology's (AVT's) CallXpress for NT for its call center. (For a look at the SERVERxtras configuration, point your browser to http://www.serverxtras.com/sx2000nt.asp.)

"The NT PBX acts and feels like a traditional PBX," said Mike Schinkel, president of SERVERxtras. "We looked at a lot of different solutions, but chose Mitel because it was a large vendor with a lot of resources and a local Value Added Reseller (VAR) that could provide 30-minute support turnaround," said Schinkel.

Schinkel's group has experienced two problems so far. First, they ran into a video driver conflict with the version of Symantec's pcANYWHERE they were using to remotely manage the system. They had to reinstall NT to recover the system. The other problem arose when they installed Executive Software's Diskeeper on the PBX system.

"Diskeeper consumed enough CPU power to cause several of our phones to drop. In the data world, you get used to a few seconds of delay. Users in the real-time phone environment do not tolerate latency," reported Schinkel. Because of the high cost of the PBX (about $50,000), creating a test environment is not feasible. Schinkel's SX-2000 for NT has become the company's most mission-critical application. "Once you have a working configuration, you don't want to mess with it," said Schinkel.

NT Reliability
As Microsoft begins to focus on voice applications, more is at stake than just conquering a profitable new market. This focus will move responsibility for corporate phone system administration out of telecommunications divisions and into IS departments. In turn, IS professionals will demand increased reliability from NT.

In this scenario, all NT users win because telephone systems based on NT will do more to emphasize the need for NT's total reliability than any other application.