Moving into VOIP

By Caron Carlson  |  Posted 2004-12-06 Print this article Print

."> Unlike the anticipated wave of VOIP deployments, where cost reduction is seen as a key factor, early VOIP adopters were driven more often by a combination of circumstances, including owning phone systems near the end of their life cycles; embarking on so-called greenfield deployments, which require building infrastructure from scratch; and engaging in business processes closely tied to integrated voice and data, such as call centers.

In 1999, these circumstances came together for CDW Corp. The technology consulting company (by definition, an early adopter) was expanding from its headquarters in Vernon Hills, Ill., and setting up additional call centers in the Chicago area. The company was not prepared to dump its existing infrastructure so it deployed a hybrid system from Avaya, said K.C. Tomsheck, director of IT operations for CDW.

Today, the company, with about 37,000 employees, runs all interoffice calls over VOIP, and some of its small sales offices and home offices use Avaya IP softphones. Yet CDW has retained its old handsets in the main offices.

"We just couldnt see spending the money to replace all those phones," Tomsheck said.

No less important than leveraging the embedded investment were the risk of the system going down and concerns about security. Both issues caused CDW to put the brakes on an immediate, complete transformation to VOIP, Tomsheck said.

"You hope you have your network secured, but if any kind of virus or worm breaks in, if its creating more traffic than everything else needs, then calls are not going to get through. Its just a risk we havent been able to absorb so far," he said.

In North America, Avaya closely battles Nortel, Mitel Networks Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc. in shipping IP PBXes, according to Infonetics Research Inc., in Woburn, Mass. Revenue from pure IP systems rose 11 percent from the first to second quarter this year, primarily on account of Cisco, according to Infonetics research.

For the village of Lombard, Ill., which completed a deployment of IP telephony equipment from Cisco this summer, security was a major concern. Working with Greenwich Technology Partners Inc., the village of 42,000 residents installed Cisco switches, dual Call Managers, Unity voice mail and approximately 240 IP telephones. The network connects the Village Hall and the police, fire, public works and water works departments.

To defend against Internet-based attacks, Lombard installed Ciscos PIX firewalls and Security Agent intrusion prevention technology. Like Avaya, Cisco is adding encryption to more of its products, including Call Manager, which works with a limited number of Cisco phones.

"IP phones are secure as long as you do your due diligence to make them that way," said Jerry Kaczorowski, business development manager at New York-based GTP, adding that staying up-to-date with patches is critical. "Patch management is a big thing. Most of the exploits go after buffer overflows," Kaczorowski said.

In Lombard, deploying a pure IP system from scratch made sense. The villages equipment was about 10 years old and becoming increasingly difficult to manage, with PBX systems from three different vendors installed throughout the municipal complex. The aging phone system did not support automated voice mail, caller ID or Enhanced 911, which have come to be considered critical in large organizations.

"We wanted to get down to one system," said Lombards IT manager, Larry McGhinnis. "Nobody knew where any of the [voice] cabling was or where any of these connections were going."

The main benefits of the new system are efficiency, manageability and new functions, but there are expected cost savings as well from centralizing moves, from adds and changes and from eliminating lines that were not being used, McGhinnis said. Employees have a variety of new features at their fingertips, including auto-attendant, and they can view directories on the IP phones and check voice mail over the Internet.

While moving confidently into VOIP, both CDW and the village of Lombard faced the age-old challenge of ensuring that calls moving over the data network offer the reliability and QOS that employees were accustomed to. For CDW, the greatest challenge was determining the necessary amount of bandwidth and figuring out how to balance voice and data traffic, Tomsheck said, recalling "a little bit of experimenting and tweaking it as you go."

But convergence, for all its promise, is not easy to accomplish, said Forresters Pierce. Suppliers need to provide better tools for network monitoring and management, and traffic balancing remains a major challenge to VOIP, she said.

"I think everybody is still trying to feel their way. It gets complicated very quickly," Pierce said.

Over the next year, companies such as Avaya will work to break down some of those complexities. Avaya plans to offer enhanced remote monitoring diagnostics for VOIP traffic and proactive monitoring services, Blanco said.

With companies relying on the packet network for phone calls, monitoring becomes increasingly critical, as well as increasingly complex.

"Now we have to watch switches, we have to watch routers, interconnects with the carriers," Blanco said, adding that Avaya also needs to provide the tools to let enterprises do such monitoring themselves.

The best news for IP equipment makers is that one key motivator for migrating to IP—aging gear—will hit most large enterprises over the next couple of years as the major network upgrades made prior to the year 2000 begin to near the end of their life cycles.

However, as the market for VOIP gear grows, so does the pool of suppliers eager to fill the need. Makers of IP telephony systems face increased competition from technology companies, such as Microsoft Corp., that historically served a separate niche.

Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, views and analysis on voice over IP and telephony.


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