Nortel users should hope for best, prepare for worst

Avaya purchase of enterprise business could kill key products, relationship

Users should chart the progress of Avaya's purchase of Nortel's enterprise assets carefully, so that they are spared any unpleasant product integration or rationalization surprises.

Product overlap, consolidation and subsequent support are the biggest issues facing Nortel enterprise customers on the heels of Avaya's $US900 million purchase of that business.  Avaya last week emerged as the winning bidder for Nortel's enterprise business, beating out Siemens Enterprise Communications for the asset. Avaya last week also won court approval for the purchase.

Now comes the uneasy task of sifting through the product portfolio and eliminating redundancies -- an ordeal that could leave Nortel -- and even Avaya users -- with a shortened lifespan on their investments.

"Like an onion, there are lots of layers," says Nortel customer Bruce Meyer, director of network services at ProMedica Health Systems in Toledo, Ohio. "Let's see where they go from here."

"There may be some surprises there," says Bob Hafner, an analyst with Gartner. "These are going to be two large companies coming together. It's not the easiest thing to do. These things never go without issues, problems or concerns."

Significant overlap is expected in the IP telephony/unified communications portfolios of both companies -- such as IP PBXs, handsets and call management software. Avaya is the leading revenue market-share vendor in enterprise telephony, according to Dell'Oro Group, while Nortel is No. 4.

Little to no overlap will be found in routers, switches and other infrastructure products, where Nortel has a significant market share and installed base. Indeed, Meyer believes Nortel routers and switches will be less susceptible to discontinuation than the VoIP products, because Avaya has virtually no data products.

"With Avaya, there's not a lot of strength in enterprise data," Meyer says. "[Avaya] will want to know that the infrastructure is good. We need a reliable infrastructure."

"The biggest issue for users is, 'Show me the [product] road map,'" says Henry Dewing of Forrester Research. "They want to see hardcore product plans and how they are going to actually consolidate product lines."

Avaya has pledged near term support for the Nortel enterprise products, including those serviced by Verizon, a Nortel reseller. Verizon filed motions last week seeking assurances that Avaya would continue to support the Verizon accounts, which the carrier says include many federal law enforcement agencies.  

"I'd be surprised if that issue doesn't work itself out," says IDC analyst Abner Germanow of the Verizon/Avaya scuttle. "I'd have a hard time believing they'd leave the U.S. government out to dry."

Longtime users such as Meyer and Promedica would also like support assurances. In addition to product direction, Meyer hopes the relationship his company has had with Nortel sales, service and support representatives remains intact.

To that end, Avaya kicked in $US15 million for employee retention, on top of the $US900 million purchase price for Nortel Enterprise Solutions. Nortel enterprise chief Joel Hackney said last week that Avaya could retain as much as 75 per cent of Nortel's enterprise staff, though he would not say how many the unit employed.

Published reports, however, stated that Avaya may only retain 60 per cent or less of the Nortel enterprise workforce, a situation that troubles Meyer.

"My concern is reduced staff," he says. "What are those reductions going to mean? We're talking about lots of long-term relationships. Brand loyalty comes from post-sales support. If those relationships change because of staffing changes, that would be a big deal."

Gartner's Hafner agrees.

"Customers need to pay attention to what's going on in the [merged] organization" to detect any potential distractions or turf battles or downsizings that may adversely affect them, he says.

IDC's Germanow is advising Nortel customers to accelerate any assessment or planning activities in light of the Avaya takeover.

"They should figure out where their own needs lie and how to most effectively migrate," he says. "They should hold companies to their multi-vendor visions -- that open means open."

Meyer, for now, is holding fast and not contemplating any alternative vendor options in light of Avaya's takeover of Nortel's enterprise business.

"This is still a wait-and-see scenario," he says. "How much of this will be a replay of Bay/Nortel?" he asks, referring to Nortel's 1998 acquisition of Bay Networks, which largely crippled the No. 2 player to Cisco in routers and switches. "This is going to be really interesting to watch."

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