Back to Basics: The Connectivity of Voice

24 Nov 2020

In this Industry Buzz videocast, BCStrategies' Jim Burton is joined by Dawn-Marie Elder, COO of Sippio, Bill Skinner, Senior Director Global Services of AudioCodes, and fellow BC Expert Kevin Kieller, as they discuss the gold standard of putting Voice into Microsoft Teams. They review what native really means to Microsoft, what certifications actually exist for Direct Routing, why Teams is in the Cloud, how the right SBC solves woes and why the alternative to calling plans and build-it-yourself might be right for your customers.




Jim Burton: Welcome to BCStrategies Industry Buzz, this is Jim Burton and we have a pretty interesting session today. Oftentimes we have a group of us talking about a particular topic, or we have a specific vendor talking about what they do; today we have what's going to be an interesting kind of combination. We have Dawn-Marie Elder from Sippio talking about their relationship with AudioCodes, and representing AudioCodes is Bill Skinner, and then we have of course Kevin Kieller from our team at BCStrategies, from enableUC, who's going to help us on the Microsoft side. So the combination is Sippio, AudioCodes and Microsoft, and that combination is pretty darn powerful.

I guess the first thing to ask and I'll start with you, Dawn-Marie, is tell us about the relationship you have with AudioCodes and then together, how that all fits into a Microsoft relationship.

Dawn-Marie Elder: Sure, so Sippio went to market to try and build gold standard in what we call direct routing as a service. And so we looked around and we decided that AudioCodes really had the best technology stack out there for that, as well as their tools and their ability to wrap pro services and support services around that to support a customer end-to-end.

Jim: Bill, and from your side?

Bill Skinner: OK, from our side we have been working with Sippio. The one thing that we've been able to do is take all of our products and all our services and with Sippio's help we've been able to take everything that we do not only SBCs that we're using for our direct routing as a service but also our analog and handsets and our pro services and our managed services, and really Sippio has helped us to “SaaSify” all of that and create this overall end-to-end solution for our partners.

Dawn-Marie: Yeah, I think that's an important link between our relationship is that we both view ourselves as the back-end manufacturer and we're here to enable the partner ecosystem to be successful in building out voice capabilities within Microsoft Teams.

Jim: So in our pre-call we had a discussion, and Kevin has actually looked at both companies but never understood that they were partnering the way they are. Kevin, I'm going to turn it over to you to ask some really telling questions.

Kevin Kieller: Well thanks, Jim, and thanks, Dawn-Marie and Bill. Like at enableUC, we help organizations make the most of the Microsoft ecosystem and certainly, many organizations have said, as they moved into this pandemic time, that Teams has really been the tool that's saved their organization, or enabled the organization to keep functioning. And certainly as part of that, organizations started with the collaboration piece and now have a great opportunity to add that voice capability onto Teams. There’s different ways to do that, one of which is direct routing. And there seems to be a lot of confusion about the different ways to empower voice. Anne-Marie, please talk a little bit about the different paths, and maybe succinctly kind of describe direct routing and the pros and cons of connecting to the PSTN that way.

Dawn-Marie: OK, so a couple of ways to put voice into Microsoft Teams. One is through a Microsoft calling plan and that has its merits as well as its go to market and certain type of customer that would sign up for that.

The second way, and this is what I think is brilliant about how Microsoft goes to market, are customers that already had pieces and components that they would want to bring into the Microsoft platform. So they offered the concept of direct routing. So direct routing is really this sort of build-it-yourself, and bring your carrier services, select your SBC, what data center you're running on, and bring that into Teams.  

And then I think the third way that Bill and I are talking about today is really a true end-to-end Direct Routing-as-a-Service solution that would have a global footprint, and would provide opportunity out of some of those different components of build-it-yourself, into consume-it-yourself, based on what your back-end or what your current footprint might look like.

Everybody is at a different stage in their migration strategy right now, so it's nice for customers to not have to build most of it and get most of it and just add on the things that they might need to be successful.

Kevin: That's a great primer on the different paths. Bill, I know AudioCodes has a whole bunch of those pieces; some of the cloud pieces, definitely the on-prem pieces. What does Sippio bring to the table? Because as you mentioned, both of you have very compelling, go-to-market stories and it was only recently that I realized how closely you work together. So talk a little bit about the AudioCodes pieces, and then help me and the listeners understand the key part that Sippio brings to that.

Bill: So a couple of pieces on that. So the first one is that, and because we get this question quite often from several of our partners, it seems like you're taking it to the next level, and what I say is that we're all in this to enable and make it very simple for customers to be able to migrate to Teams voice. So the more business that we altogether generate, the more buzz that we create in the marketplace, the more and more opportunities there are for all of us to be very successful.
The one area that Sippio helps us in our partner base is we are being asked often, “we just want a single source provider to help us to be able to do this; we need to make this very simple.”

It needs to be a transaction because if there's any sort of stumbling along the way then that customer is going to find it difficult. I've spent my entire career in the voice industry. Voice doesn't scare me at all, but for the most part, voice scares a lot of people. So that's another reason that we want to keep it very simple. And that's what Sippio is helping us to do, and together we can go and say, “Hey, we can provide everything for you. You can do as much or as little as you want, but here's our complete breadth and portfolio that we can do and we can make it so simple for you, Mr Partner. You don't even have to do anything.”

Jim: One of the things that I know is there's a lot of confusion when people hear these terms like what is “native” and what is “certified,” and I know that people are thinking, what does that really mean? And some people are kind of pooh-poohing – you don't need to be this or you don't need to be that, so maybe you could spend just a couple of minutes going back to the basics and defining those: what is “native” and what is “certified” in the sense, of course, of the Microsoft Teams environment?

Dawn-Marie: I'll talk about “native,” and then Bill, I’ll let you talk about “certified” since that's in your wheelhouse. “Native” really means that it was built in or built for, whatever it's running with. So if you think about Microsoft Teams, it was built for the cloud. Microsoft Teams is native in the cloud. You can't really take Teams and put it on Earth because it wasn't designed for Earth, right? And then Teams is also built on a collective platform of Microsoft Azure and together those code bases were developed so that they work together, hand-in-hand.

And when you have something that's native and they're designed to work together, there's less piecemealing and fixing, or sort of “caulking” that has to go in there to fill in the holes because they are designed to work together and that can make for a more secure, compliant and less vulnerable environment. And I think that's one of the really nice things about the Microsoft platform and where they've gotten to on their development journey.

So in terms of “certified,” I'll let Bill take that one.

Bill: “Certification” really is just a standard process of anytime you have any sort of new architecture, or new platform, in order to get the full end-to-end support from all the manufacturers, there is a certification process that needs to occur. AudioCodes, with our great relationship that we have with Microsoft – all of our products, whether it's on-Earth SBCs or Azure-based SBCs or handsets or analog devices – we have gone through the formal certification process that Microsoft has set forth and all of our products are completely certified.

That allows us then that any sort of restoration time when there are any sort of issues, we will get the full support from end-to-end to be able to restore that service to the customer. It may “work” in the environment, but it does not mean that it is certified and because it works, if something breaks, you may not be able to get the support that you need.

Dawn-Marie: Right? Microsoft's not certifying the direct routing piece of it, they’re certifying the hardware components and its ability to run in its environment. And I think there’s a lot of people out there using some marketing terms like “certified,” or “direct routing as a service,” and that's a little bit of a marketing thing.

Kevin: There’s one point that you brought up, Bill, and you talked about how Sippio makes it very simple and straightforward. Dawn-Marie, I've had the opportunity where you've walked me through a demo and set up some phone numbers, and it is very simple. Maybe you could just describe how people go about adding some phone numbers/DIDs to Teams.

Dawn-Marie: OK, so you always have to have a DID in hand. And that's either a new one that we get, or one that you port from your existing dial tone service or carrier services that you have. And then we have an application that was built for Microsoft Teams. We worked with the app source team at Microsoft to build it. You can go find it if you click on Apps down in the lower left hand corner of your Teams interface and search for Sippio or voice or panel, it’s in there. It’s based on your role in Active Directory, so the global admin and user, whatever you're defined as, in order to serve up the different features and functionality for you.

And then what we're doing is we're reading and connecting to your Teams tenant, looking at the user community through Active Directory and supplying you with the list of phone numbers, and you're assigning those users with their policies both for them as a caller to make or take calls, as well as for how you’re routing through the world in Azure. It’s got a really big global footprint of data regions, and those are designed to work together from a high availability standpoint as well as being meshed for failover so that you are never down or missing a call. And then ongoing you can manage those users in there. It's really providing an interface to PowerShell so that somebody is not having to be in PowerShell and it's a visual interface so that you can see all your users. Then you can maintain them and drag-and-drop and change things very, very easily and be a little bit less time consuming.

Kevin: Yeah, so from right in Teams, if you have the proper authority you can just enable users to now use voice and then I think it's 5 or 10 minutes later at the most. Then these people can place and receive calls, is that right?

Dawn-Marie: That's right. And then in that same interface for an end user we’re building out additional features and functionalities that might pertain to them. But today all their training’s available there. So if an end user doesn't know how to use the calling functions within Teams through phone system, there's little, short 30-second/45-second videos that they can watch on setting up their voicemail or parking a call or doing a consultative call transfer, so that they can use the features and learn them, because the Teams interface is a little bit different than that black phone that everyone used to have on their desk, so it's nice to give end users a path to assimilate with the new ways.

Kevin: So let's talk a little bit about the economics, right? Because with Microsoft, you can add Calling Plans. So for $12 per user in the U.S., $12 per user per month, you get this kind of pooled 3,000 minutes of North American calling and in terms of how that scales, I think it's as high as 85% of people who have enabled voice have not gone the Microsoft route and I think one of the key things is some economics of that. So talk about using Sippio and AudioCodes together – how do the economics compare and contrast? And what's better than going with Microsoft as a carrier?

Dawn-Marie: Yeah, so I never view Microsoft is a competitor, but the ability to complement them and what they're offering, is. We offer a couple different types of Calling Plans so that there's choice because some users don't need 3,000 minutes, they need 300 minutes, so will offer a pay-as-you-consume model which are very popular for outside of the North America footprint, especially in what I call exotic vacation countries, so Singapore and down in South America, South Africa. We really had a lot of customers through AudioCodes that are multinational in nature and one type of plan does not fit all. But by having the calling plan in the way that AudioCodes and Sippio go to market is it's a per-user per-month and you're paying for that consumption in order to make sure that you're realizing true value out of the solution.

So they don't have to buy hardware, they don't have to buy on-going maintenance, they don't necessarily have to invest in large professional services projects for the pieces that are built into the solution already. Bill, what do you want to add there?

Bill: Yeah, definitely. With calling plan, there's a limited number of countries where that is available. AudioCodes, with the presence that we currently have, and working with large multi-country customers, the calling plan just really isn't an option for them. But yet going back to something I said earlier, they are still looking at that they still would prefer to have a single source provider in our partner base. They would like to have that so they don't have to have one relationship in one country and another relationship in another country, and another relationship in another country. It allows us to pool all that together, and the other thing that we can also do with Sippio is to offer different Calling Plans, today, in different countries. Today you have to have the same calling plan inside of a certain country, one of Sippio's Calling Plans but you can have different unlimited or usage-based Calling Plans and in every other country.

Kevin: OK, so you're obviously available in more countries than just the Microsoft footprint…

Bill: Yes…

Kevin: …and there is some additional flexibility in terms of just usage versus the minute pooling. So that sounds like, especially for larger organizations, that flexibility is going to equate to some financial savings.

Dawn-Marie: Yes, that's right. And AudioCodes does a really good job of allowing us to say we can be in any country, because even if we can't supply with tier one grade carrier services in a particular location because of regulations that they might have in place, AudioCodes can put in a gateway or an SBC that's local and bring local SIP or PRI into that and then we can funnel the whole thing through the same platform. So the platform and the experience is the same and then AudioCodes will also offer that if the customer so desires in a per-user per-month, so that the plan is the same and they're not having to cap ex, op ex, etc. So there's a lot of choice there, and I think, Bill, you probably have some customers that are one or the other and a lot of them that are hybrid in terms of how they do implementation when they've got those exotic vacations countries as part of their footprint.

Bill: Even if it's not Bali, or some exotic application like Dawn-Marie’s talking about, but a lot of these customers have existing contracts, where they may have a year left in that existing carrier contract. And yes, and they want to go to a SIP centralization, but there would be a requirement that in order to on-board that customer today to Teams because they want to, then that would be another reason why we would need to put something local as an interim solution until we could fully migrate them over to a Cloud-based solution.

Kevin: Together you have lots of flexibility, so that’s obviously evident. Jim?

Jim: I want to bring up another topic. Everybody knows about AudioCodes and their SBC. But Bill, could you spend just a few minutes talking about your SBC for the cloud edition for Azure?

Bill: Yes, it was completely built for Azure. As opposed to having a physical device with the one stack, it was built with an elastic mode where we can grow and expand that SBC capability and take advantage of everything that Azure and the cloud has to offer with that. Even though it is effectively the same code base along all of our different SBCs, you'll see the same user interface. It is custom form factored for the cloud to take full advantage of everything in the cloud has to offer. And I know Dawn-Marie gets this question a lot whenever she talks to her partner community as well. So if you wanted to add something on that as well, that would be great.

Dawn-Marie: Yeah, mine will be the funny comment, you're setting me up here. I always tell everyone you don't need 31 flavors of SBCs, you just need one really, really, good one. And that's why we selected AudioCodes because they were built for and designed for Microsoft and Azure, so why go someplace else when you're ensured that it's going to work and have all the interoperability?

Jim: Great thanks.

Kevin: That's great. I mean obviously in these challenging times with this distributed work, having that agility and that elastic scale, how are customers that are using your combined solution reacting and what are you hearing as feedback? Because certainly, as I said at the beginning, Teams just for collaboration and internal communications is key, but then when you're able to quickly enable this agile voice, how are you hearing from your customers that this is helping them through these times?
Dawn-Marie: Bill, I’ll let you answer that and then I'll tell you what I see on the other side.

Bill: A lot of it has to do with the pre-conversations. I think, Kevin, that you were mentioning earlier, when we were sharing some of the examples around the flexibility in the capabilities. It's kind of like the insurance company commercial – been there done that. AudioCodes has been along with Microsoft along the journey back from OCS/LCS all the way to where we are today. And we've been able to take all those lessons learned and we actually impart that information to our partner base and our customers, giving them the flexibility that they need because, when you're looking at a deployment, very rarely do you see somebody who is just ready to go in and shoot it off tomorrow. I mean it is a journey. There's a reality. There are lot of times things need to be put on Earth because somebody still can't get analog up to the cloud yet. So there are those realistic things that need to happen and occur. We win our partners and our customers over just in the initial conversations because of the experience that we all bring together.

When it comes to the deployment, Microsoft and Teams is no different than any other new venture. There is a gradual ramp-up that will occur and then it just skyrockets. These large global customers will take a month or two to get going and then it – just bam – it becomes an overnight process and its recurring. And it just happens and it just goes on and on and on until they finish deployment. We get lots of tremendous feedback from our customers on a very, very positive scale.

Dawn-Marie: We’ve had several opportunities together where we worked with customers that have struggled with putting their own direct routing solution in place. And that struggle is there because you need a lot of expertise across different silos. You need somebody that's an expert in care services. You need somebody that's an expert in SBC; somebody that's an expert in Azure; somebody who’s an expert in Teams and there really aren't that many people around the community just yet who have an expertise that spans over all of those items.

So when we go in, usually where a customer is struggling, they’re already a little gun shy because they've been struggling and then we explain to them the journey and how we've pre-built a lot of the things that it can be easy for them and they always say, “I'll believe it when I see it...”

And I say, “OK, well, we're up for the challenge.” And then I'll joke back with them and I say, “I guarantee you within a month or two you'll come back to me and tell me what my husband tells me all the time,” and they're like, “what's that?”

“You were right.”

So we see a lot of that where we're just taking the complexity out of the equation for them, because we've done all the hard work and we've done all the heavy lifting and we've taken the bugs out and we've tweaked everything and we make sure the load balancing and the failover and all that stuff that they would have to worry about themselves is done. And it's just peace of mind. I mean, this is dial tone. It should be a commodity now, and Teams is a great platform, so overcomplicating putting dial tone into Teams should be something that people really should think about before they go down that path, because we'd hate for somebody to have a poor experience and then come to us second. Come to us first and just have a positive experience your first time around.

Jim: Yeah, good point. I wanted to add a little something. I know one of Audiocodes’ competitors and one of them came to me once and said, “you know, AudioCodes has done such an incredible job of working with Microsoft’s team out in the field that they just get a lot of business that way.” And I think that's a really important point because having that relationship with the field people at Microsoft really helps a lot, and it was really kind of funny that this company just kind of said we just realized that we've never developed the relationship AudioCodes has with them, and we're having a hard time getting in there. So kudos to AudioCodes for developing those relationships, and I know you've been working on those relationships for many, many years, and since probably 2013 or so. Good for you.

Bill: Thank you, Jim, for sharing that. I appreciate that and yeah, we do spend a significant time working with the Microsoft team and not just with people in the field; we spend a significant amount of time working with all aspects inside of Microsoft from marketing to development to the people in the field. I personally spend a significant amount of my time working with Microsoft as well.

Kevin: If I could ask a question kind of in a different area, which is, listening to Sippio and AudioCodes in the partnership that you have, if I'm listening to this or watching this video and if I'm an Office 365 partner and maybe I have a whole bunch of customers, I've rolled out a bunch of Office 365 workloads whether that's SharePoint Exchange, maybe Teams for collaboration. But if my practice doesn't have that voice expertise, I mean, it sounds like, because you’re both a great partner channel then, as an Office 365 partner without the voice expertise, it sounds like coming to Sippio or AudioCodes would be a great way to enable the voice aspect that my clients may be asking me for. And maybe unlike you, Bill, we don't have that expertise in voice and so we are scared of it, right?

So you both have partner channels – do they talk to Sippio? Do they talk to AudioCodes? Does it matter who they contact first?

Dawn-Marie: No, but they'll probably get on my calendar easier than getting on Bill’s calendar. You can tell Bill and I have been in the trenches together that we can joke amongst us.

Bill: Before all this happened with the pandemic we learned last year that there are 100,000 Microsoft Partners in the world. So for all of them to come to Bill Skinner or all of the to go to Dawn-Marie is unrealistic, but we both have our own go-to, and there’s not one answer, Kevin, that says go to Dawn-Marie or go to Bill or go to Sippio or go to AudioCodes. It doesn't work that way. But like I said in the very beginning, the idea here is that we want to find those partners. We want those partners, if you're listening, to come to us because the more that we can generate in the industry around Teams and enabling and getting more success stories around enterprise voice and how easy and simple it is, the more all of us are going to win. That’s my take.

Dawn-Marie: Yeah, and one thing Kevin, I just wanted to say about partners. You know there's the other side of the ecosystem that Sippio started pulling from when we launched a couple years ago. And that's the traditional IT resellers in the telco world. I encourage them to really look at their practice because they might be tied to a Cisco or a Mitel or an 8x8 and look at how are they evolving their business. And are they keeping their eye on what their customers are doing from a collaboration standpoint? Because the way that Microsoft drives value and active daily usage in Teams is not by just having teams deployed. It's by using all of the features and functionality of Teams collectively. So voice in meetings are two very, very big components of Teams in order to drive that return on investment and drive that active daily usage. And it can be a really nice replacement for some of your traditional premise-based PBXs that have been around since we were all in grade school or before, so those IT resellers really need to look at that other side and think about the future and where they're going and continue to be that trusted advisor in the telephony world or the voice world for their customers and come along so we help a lot of those types of partners. They're probably a little bit slower to get there, but they definitely have all the history and the legacy behind them to be successful in the future for sure.

Kevin: Yeah, that's a great point, because the bundle proposition that Microsoft brings, as you use more of the features of Office 365 in Teams, each of the other features get more valuable and so it's difficult in the long term to compete with that. And if your organization is already using Office 365, I've often said you should really go all in and so adding voice just really as a multiplier for all the other investments that you've already made. And certainly if Sippio and AudioCodes can make that easy, that's good for their organizations, and it's good for the partner ecosystem, so that's definitely great advice.

And people often ask me, is Teams ready to be an enterprise grade PBX? And I think that you can still ask the question, but there's large organizations, and I think you both have worked with them, that have had great success. I like to say it's not for every organization, but if Office 365 is working well for you, don't be afraid of the voice component because there's a lot of people that are having some great success with that.

Dawn-Marie: Remember when your phone was separate from your camera was separate from your music device and then Steve Jobs brought them together into one. And now it's now your wallet and it's now your ticket to get on an airplane and a million other things and I think that's what's going to happen with Microsoft Teams, and you don't need all these other tools and things on your desktop, especially with the changing way of the world right now. The whole light up Christmas tree thing on a phone may not be applicable to people when they're working from home. Good point, yeah.

Jim: Well this has been great. Are there any other questions you have Kevin, or Dawn-Marie or Bill? Any comments you'd like to make or closing statements here?
Bill: I think about this all the time and I think about voice – I said before that I have been in the voice industry forever and there’s one example I give of why voice is so important. In our daily lives of looking at chat sessions and IMs and email messages going back and forth, it's still so much easier to pick up and call somebody and have a five-minute conversation as opposed to a 30-email message conversation going back and forth. I mean, I do this stuff with my kids all the time. Just pick up the phone! I'm not gonna chat with you all the time!

That's on a personal note, but from a business perspective, it's actually even more critical because when you read words on a screen or in a chat, you can interpret something completely different than what that person had intended, and that's what the power of voice really is – you avoid having those situations.

Dawn-Marie: Yes, and I would add to that, that meetings have become a trend in this pandemic world, right? Everyone's like meeting, meeting, meeting, and I was joking with Bill earlier about getting on calendars. Well, it doesn't always have to be a meeting. It can be a phone call or it could be a three-way phone call. And sometimes that can reduce fatigue and lighten up the load of calendars and allow people to go back and have focus and work time so voice is really, a good “oldie but goodie” to be the base of how people collaborate in the past and in the future.

Jim: Great. Well, this has been a fabulous session. I really appreciate everybody's support in this. I think we nailed what we wanted to do and that's to help educate those people who are going to be listening to or watching this or reading this. So thank you all and have a great day.


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