Unified communication

AlcaLu Takes Virtual UC to the Cloud

Alcatel-Lucent today introduced Rapport, a new approach to communications and collaboration for service providers and large enterprises. Rapport uses cloud-based software to deliver services or add capabilities to applications as virtualized functions that run on standard hardware. (See AlcaLu Launches Cloud Platform for Virtualized IMS.)

Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU) has re-architected its IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) to create this software platform, which is designed to replace the diversity of voice, conferencing and collaboration programs such as chat with cloud-based software that can flexibly combine virtualized network functions to quickly create new services.

"I see this as a positive step given it promises to simplify the complexity and cost structure for IMS deployments," says Jim Hodges, senior analyst with Heavy Reading . "Since the approach is based on fully decomposed VNFs that can run on any hardware platform it means carriers should be able to bring new services to market faster at a lower cost."

The announcement has been in the works for some time, but was delayed by the breaking news last week of Nokia's AlcaLu takeover plan. Rapport represents another major element in the vendor's overall NFV and virtualization strategy. (See Nokia Makes €15.6B Bid for Alcatel-Lucent, Alcatel-Lucent Lays Out Its NFV Plans and Alcatel-Lucent Joins Virtual Router Race.)

For enterprises, moving to Rapport as a single cloud-based framework would enable them to leave behind the diversity of legacy PBXs that deliver voice services but also to replace video conference, chat and other collaboration software that may be used in all or part of an organization, says Sue White, senior director marketing, IP Platforms, at Alcatel-Lucent. That would reduce the complexity of communications and collaboration and also the cost but, just as importantly, make it possible for enterprises to more easily adopt new applications.

For network service providers, Rapport can simplify what has been the complex process of trying to deploy IMS, and support voice-over-LTE, other mobile voice, fixed services and WiFi, replacing it all with a single cloud-based platform, White says. The promise is greater flexibility and simplicity at a lower cost per user than what their multiple platforms cost today. By using NFV to break down services into virtualized components, Rapport lets service providers embed communications capabilities into applications, websites and objects to create new services more quickly and easily, White says.

"We are changing how communications is consumed," she says. "It's not just about making a call from a mobile or desk phone; we are starting to integrate communications into different types of apps and connected objects. We think this will help service providers focus on innovation and growth, rather than having to worry about the business case."

One of Alcatel-Lucent's key goals is to change the thinking around the business case for advanced services that build on or incorporate communications capabilities, White says. That becomes possible with a cloud-based platform using software clients that are the same whether deployed on a mobile phone, tablet or PC, replacing the diversity of voice, conferencing, chat and messaging applications in use today.

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Rapport works with AlcaLu's own NFV platform, CloudBand, but with other NFV platforms as well through open applications programming interfaces. Software development kits (SDKs) make it easier for developers to design applications that take advantage of Rapport.

Caroline Chappell, principal analyst at Heavy Reading, says Alcatel Lucent has created Rapport as a standalone software-only solution that will be deployed using open standards such as an OpenStack standard Heat template (Heat is an orchestration engine within the OpenStack Orchestration program) or a TOSCA template.

"So presumably, [Rapport's] deployment and cloud lifecycle can also be orchestrated by any third party, OpenStack-based MANO [management and network orchestration]," she says. "So customers should be able to choose. But of course, like other vendors, Alcatel Lucent will be hoping that the VNF will pull CloudBand into a customer's organization -- hence the packaging route. Very few operators currently have an architecture where they run multiple VNFs from different vendors on the same NFV infrastructure under the same orchestrator."

The packaging to which Chappell refers is Alcatel-Lucent's approach to allow enterprises and service providers to use Rapport as a software-only solution that will work with an NFV platform, as software packaged with its CloudBand NFV platform, or in packages that the vendor has designed for specific network segments such as Tier 2 and Tier 3 service providers.

White says AlcaLu is moving to a new pricing strategy in addition to the simplified packaging. Instead of paying upfront for hardware and software licenses, Rapport will be priced on a pay-as-you-go basis. The simplified segment pricing is built on a simplified infrastructure which she says the company "has been working on for years" to make its technology more easily deployed by enterprises and smaller carriers.

Layered on top of that is an ecosystem of 800 software developers and partners who are using AlcaLu's SDKs and the open APIs to build applications or their own packaged solutions, White says.

Alcatel-Lucent is already working with network operators who are deploying Rapport, including a Tier 1 operator it hopes to announce soon and a Tier 2 operator that plans to deploy by the end of the year. Because it is cloud-based software, Rapport can be deployed in one part of the business or to support one set of new services, but the intention is to ultimately replace existing silos of functionality at both the service provider and enterprise with a single unified communications and collaboration platform.

"The key things that have been difficult have been getting the business case right and then providing an environment to test deploy and experiment with these new services," White says. "A more cloud-based platform allows service providers to isolate and spin off an instance of software that they can test in the market to see if it makes sense. Those are the kinds of things they have never been able to do before in a cost-effective way."

If successful, this approach lets service providers move beyond trying to charge for separate voice, data and video services or bundles to more contextual communications which target the customer needs, not specific devices or places, White says.

— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading

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