Siemens Enterprise and Ansible

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Siemens Enterprise Communications hosted analysts and consultants for a few days in Denver (#Eworld13) to discuss its accomplishments and to provide a sneak peek at a future product codenamed Ansible.

Ansible

Ansible was unveiled on day two. Day one was an exhausting overview of a predominantly voice centered product line. We knew big news was coming, but were forced to wait. The build-up was impressive, and when we did get to hear about Ansible the excitement was palpable. Siemens Enterprise promises a very interesting project with design, rather than just technology at its core.

The company has been plodding along mostly off the radar. I’ve seen some estimates that is NA revenues are about $500 million. It’s aligned its numerous products into two broad platforms – including migration paths. Siemens Enterprise is working with other service providers to deliver OpenScape based cloud solutions including IBM and its upcoming SmartCloud UC offer and a partnership with Telefonica offering hosted UC services in Spain.

The name Ansible reveals nothing about what it will do. Siemens Enterprise was actually fairly light on Ansible details, functionality, and scope. Attendees were given an extremely complex NDA that would permit awareness and excitement without revealing details, and just to be safe they didn’t give many. We saw snippets, a video demo, and the obligatory call transferred from the iPad demo. To avoid the NDA, I will describe Ansible by quoting CCO Chris Hummel from this UCStrategies interview (emphasis added):

“What project Ansible brings to the table is a new experience that actually allows people to bring new tools to the way they work, aggregates the contents that they get involved in, the contacts that they have, all the different applications, and then maps into the business process in the way they work…an Ansible space is basically a sharing environment where you can put the documents that you use, and all the materials you use, and it leverages, whatever you are using, Google Docs or SharePoint or whatever else as the system. But by automatically creating that, you now have a record of the conversation of what you have been doing.”

Marketing

I will come back to Ansible in just a moment. I want to draw attention to its magical unveiling. Two-day analyst briefings are fairly common. You can generally expect some clever tweets and follow-up posts from the usual suspects. However, with this event Siemens Enterprise actually created buzz. That’s not an easy thing to do.

CEO Hamid Akhavan and CCO Chris Hummel were both in attendance, but it was clearly Hummel’s event. When Chris Hummel initially joined as the CMO. I jokingly titled our 2011 interview “Sen’s Has a CMO?” The firm wasn’t known for its marketing prowess, and Hummel was to change that. Instead it was Mr. Hummel’s title that got changed to CCO to better align with his activities.

CMO Chris was handcuffed. Branding takes a lot of money, and makes no sense with a temporary (and ridiculous) name like Siemens Enterprise Communications. The firm had planned to rebrand in 2012, but postponed it until this fall. I believe the joint venture between Siemens AG and Gores Group loses its rights to the “Siemens” brand soon, so this time the rebranding is required and funded.

The Siemens event was very impressive. They certainly spared no expense on food. The facilities were great, and the Siemens Enterprise team was extremely present (lots of them, accessible, and in good spirits). The team wanted feedback, and asked as many questions as they answered. The choreographed announcement of Ansible was impressive. The event not only generated buzz, but goodwill. I realized that what SEN can do is vastly different than what SEN has done, and the show is about to begin.

Things are looking up. A radical (for Siemens Enterprise) new product to share in July, a major new rebranding in October, marketing budget now approved, and clear indication that the firm can market. What could possibly go wrong?

Back to Ansible

I can attest that “Ansible” is not an accurate descriptor. What I saw did not receive instantaneous or superluminal communications over interstellar distances. Also, I did not see any radically new UC components or capabilities that haven’t been spotted elsewhere (also under NDA). It does offer a refreshing user interface, but that’s difficult to truly assess without trying. Siemens Enterprise is collecting selected reactions to Ansible here (here’s my submission: “With Ansible, Siemens Enterprise poses a revolutionary leap in business communications. While most of the industry is still grappling with the relatively ordinary and possible, superluminal communications is where the future lies.”).

Ansible reminded me a lot of Google Wave – a product that did not get its fair chance to change the world.  Put Wave in a UC context, add WebRTC, and you are getting warm – definitely intriguing. I believe that I am describing the vision, not the product which remains so immature that most of the demonstration was through a prepared video. A video I expect everyone will see sometime this month. Based on what was revealed, Ansible has a long way to go before it can be released in the wild. Also, it is a radical departure from what Siemens Enterprise has done before. Ansible = risk.

Buzz may or may not be appropriate, but the bigger issue is why would Siemens Enterprise want buzz over a product that (at best) won’t be generally available for a year? Buzz has a short life. Vendors usually want buzz to drive demand for its immediate products – or company.

Siemens Enterprise Communications was created in 2008. Its products are highly regarded, and the firm has reportedly gone from hemorrhaging cash to being profitable, but at a cost. Its headcount is about half of what it was a few years ago. That shows up in a few ways, namely Siemens Enterprise cancelled or retreated from several key technology declarations.

The list includes its Amazon storefront concept demonstrated at Enterprise Connect 2010. It demonstrated a new XMPP video solution to be delivered in “90 days” in 2012 that never came to be. Siemens Enterprise may be the only firm in 2012 that killed its direct public cloud.  It scrapped/replaced its first (impressive) attempt of tight integration with Google Apps. Those were all relatively simple projects compared to the far more ambitious Ansible. It is odd to me that Siemens Enterprise is deliberately drawing attention to Ansible so early.

Enterasys

Another thing that stood out was the complete exclusion of Enterasys. Enterasys is operated as a separate subsidiary of Siemens Enterprise Communications. Neither its products nor its leadership were included in the Denver event agenda. This struck me as odd because Cisco, Microsoft, Avaya, and NEC are playing-up networking, specifically SDN integration with UC. Enterasys does have an SDN solution called OneFabric which lists Siemens Enterprise as an integrated UC partner. A tight(er) SDN integration to OpenScape seems compelling and low hanging.

The Art of Story

I wonder if Ansible is the real story, or if it is just a distraction. I’m not alone, Michael Brandenburg at Frost pointed-out that an Ansible is just one story telling device, another is the MacGuffin which acts as a plot decoy while the real story unfolds. In this sense, the details to Ansible can be found in the Pulp Fiction briefcase, near the recipe of the EverLasting Gobstopper, and a copy is also hidden in the piano in Rick’s Café Casablanca. In other words, Ansible may not be the story you are looking for.

The real story may be Hamid and Chris looking to sell the UC business this year. If I was looking to sell it, I would initiate a sexy project with minimal staff, and hype it with cryptic demos and NDAs. I would not integrate with Enterasys, so as not to offend a potential acquirer that already has a networking line. Also, I would do this quickly to potentially avoid the cost of rebranding. I would even hold a briefing event for the first time ever despite the fact that neither the new product nor brand are ready to be revealed.

Maybe I’m seeing plots that don’t exist. Admission is safe because luckily the official story is good too. Siemens Enterprise has a solid enterprise reputation, especially in Europe. Combining its current assets with some ‘off the hook’ thinking could leap it ahead of the catch-up game with its much larger rivals. Siemens Enterprise knows where the industry is headed, its vision is articulate as is its understanding of why current solutions fail. It believes that technology alone will not be enough, the next level of UC requires a revolutionary approach to the user experience. That’s what Ansible is about, the future of communications which just happens to align with the future of Siemens Enterprise.

It is a fantastic story. The question is will it be filed under nonfiction, fantasy, or tragedy.

Dave Michels