Cisco vs. Avaya – VOIP Wars

Within a few years after the commercialization of the Internet in the mid 1990s, a new idea to make telephone calls with computers started to come to fruition. At this time the idea was a joke. Also the same for when Cisco started VOIP around the same time. Why? The Cisco types were hip and cool, and insisted the IP way of doing things would be the future. Any telecom stuff should be damned and be put off to the curb.

Their arrogance didn’t pay off.

Meanwhile traditional telecom companies like Nortel, Avaya, NEC and a slew of other companies by the mid 2000s would offer competitive VOIP systems and solutions.

Cisco had early adopters though, but very small groups especially when VOIP had tons of problems in the beginning. We also seem to forget TDM had the same stigma in the 80s, we just seem to deny it.

It also didn’t help Cisco when all they did was buy up companies to build solutions, the company behind the Call Manager was actually an acquisition from Selicus, that they bought in 1998.

Meanwhile, Avaya was the safer bet as they had bolstered their technology and brand from Lucent. In fact by the mid 2000s, nearly 90% of the Fortune 500 had Avaya systems in some capacity. Avaya didn’t need to acquire any companies that much to build up on themselves. Nortel struggled as a business to implement VOIP as a financial model, but technologically and the R&D they seem to had it.

But somehow Cisco got their heads out of their rear ends and started to realize that the network administrator way of programming phone systems was not going to get them into more installments. Tweaking the “CallManager” (also known as other initials today – saving you the trouble to keep up) to run on Linux, and become somewhat easier to manage factoring in the strong salesforce of Cisco just harassing customers to buy their product or else got Cisco to now almost an entire monopoly in the installed base of enterprise systems. But with a headache!

Here is what difference between Avaya and Cisco for VOIP.

User Interface (experience) 

Cisco Cisco’s phones are generally sexy looking, but come at a high price for limited options. I should say that I do use Cisco VOIP phones. They come with a boatload of ring tones, have crystal clear audio quality, overall the phone’s have limitations. I sometimes refer to the 7900 series as a fancier 1A2 telephone with IP connectivity. The phones can do even weirder things such as using web “services” to check on the weather and other stuff. It requires dedication of an patient IT manager to dedicate a server using Microsoft IIS, if you can handle such complexity – to please those end users.

Another pitfall at least for the 7900 series is stubbornness of hardkeys. Nortel and Avaya phones have the ability for the end user to “scroll” between screens to emulate the old fashioned paper based designation strips, but have a few less buttons. Essentially the keys are virtualized, and the 12 to 24 lines or feature keys are not that far away.

With the Cisco solution, it’s not possible. All feature keys are located at the bottom and can be programmed by an administrator. However it does not give you indications (such calls being forwarded actively for an example) and these keys can’t be programmed on the line buttons (or at least from my experiences.)

In the case of Avaya, for many years the sets were one of the most user friendliest in the breed. Before there was an Avaya, the predecessors at AT&T designed a system with the user in mind. This same mentality went well past the beginnings of the 21st Century. Avaya caved into the whiney hipsters, who wanted to do more on their phones as Cisco had bragged about for a while, and now in todays carnation of IP telephones, it shows yet again how a smartphone like an iPhone is more user intuitive than their IP phones or older cell phones.

The 9600 Series sets are very menu driven, and it’s harder to change a ring tone or lower or raise volumes. Despite the hard key desi strip sets in the 1600 Series, to change simple functions require pressing buttons up, down right to left. This breaks the original meaning of their office telephones, but I bet the marketing and sales departments are busy shredding and burning every AT&T Technical Journal publication of the System 75 PBX in any of the Avaya premises, which is why that subject will become a vExhibit later on.

System Administration 

Cisco’s administration is just horrific. From playing around with version 7 of the Cisco Unified Communications Manager, its plagued with very long HTML pages, and easy to miss features without the system beeping at you such as the easy to miss Device Security Profile.

Cisco’s way to teach you how to use their systems requires paying them tons of cash they will in turn burn, that is getting Cisco Certified. The CCNAs or CCIEs or what have you is just a professional title of being a Cisco fanboy. This isn’t how people should be taught. Professional certs to then brown nose to the top isn’t how IT should be.

Another problem that that makes Cisco UC/IPT a royal pain is the encounters with their network operating system IOS. IOS is a command line operating system ridden with hyphenated-commands-when-they-are-not-hyphenated when you want to do a #show function. Another problem is not necessarily the hardware dependence, but just the dry nature of dial-peers and syntaxes that you must be perfect. Trying to bridge a router or gateway to do VOIP functions can be painful.

Some of the concepts of the CallManger seemed to derive from Nortel, especially in the screen functionality and phrases like “DNs” “directory numbers”, etc.

Cisco insisted or insists that people with a voice background must learn how to route voice like Internet traffic and to do so is to use network terminology. Hunt groups, the way how a call gets processed uses similar network words like “hop” “peer”, “singular” when in the telephony world we would call those “redirects” “ring all” or “single” or something like that. What’s amusing is while the voice people must know networking, the data guys aren’t that required to learn voice at all.

It’s amazing how many places now have Cisco and yet I’m amazed there are people who know how to get one to work and just work without problems.

– – –

Avaya’s process is similar to the telephony world, however the ways to do it has evolved. You can change sets, extensions or users using a web browser, a traditional AT&T terminal or through a variety of terminals such as SSH, TTY, VT100, but I like the AT&T terminal emulations myself through serial connections.

Avaya’s interface is a Terminal User Interface or TUI, but its not command line per se. Typically you enter a series of words (26 in the lowest level, nearly a 100 in the next level and a couple dozen in the higher level, if necessary.) Typically you enter in English words such as “add station 3000” (including the space) then Return and a screen prints out with a text based form where you use the arrow keys to enter in the data for the set. Page Up or Down to fill in the feature or line keys and hit F3 (or Save function) and you’re done if you didn’t make a mistake.

IP network administration is more on the mindset of a telecom professional or a non technical user, maybe in my experience the phrases between Avaya and Cisco are different. I’ve also realized that because Avaya has roots in traditional analog technologies it’s easier to add trunks from the phone company as opposed to Cisco’s Foreign Exchange (you know electric power networks are “foreign” to fancy IP like networks) and with that, this makes Cisco’s harder to work in a home, or a very small business environment.  Avaya’s systems are easier to set up in a residential or micro enterprise environment.

I’d take Avaya’s UI and administration over Cisco’s any day.


I’ve never call vendors for support, but I wouldn’t suggest ether one. Cisco’s SMARTNET (also called DUMBNET) won’t be helpful as Cisco has cut their Technical Assistance Center like crazy. You spot a big bug in security – forget it. Avaya has gone so far to have announcements on their helpline to go onto Twitter or Facebook and avoid calling them. When it comes to UC, I hate to say this – but in 2015 Cisco seems to understand a phone is a phone, and sometimes people want to make a phone call and Avaya seems to be going the other direction.

Avaya’s support site was never perfect, but it’s progressively gotten worse to find PDFs, it’s easier to search on a search engine than their own site. Cisco is known for actually getting a certificate to fully understand the system, and the site has a tiered entitlement system, and if you pay for support, you’ll get some downloads, and you are in their developer club you can actually get confidential information like roadmaps. Other than that Cisco’s support site is bad if not worse than Avaya’s.

The final review:

If I were to score the two vendors (because the others are well behind, Shortel is a joke, NEC is non existent in the States, Mitel seems to be picking up steam again, being the exception) I’d put the two in the following

User Interface:  Cisco *** 1/2 Avaya ***

Administration  Cisco **   Avaya *****

Support:                Cisco **  Avaya *** 1/4

Overall:                  Cisco *** 1/2 Avaya **** 1/2

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