VOIPs Missing Link

By Paula Musich  |  Posted 2007-08-24

VOIPs Missing Link

So youve done your planning and predeployment testing, and now youve rolled out your new VOIP system into production. Now, how are you going to manage it?

While market forces push up adoption rates and enterprises scale their voice-over-IP deployments, more and more IT managers will be faced with that question. The answer may very likely be, "I have no idea."

As with any new technology, management of VOIP appears to be an afterthought.

In a survey of 273 network engineers conducted by Network Instruments this spring, almost half of respondents said they had deployed VOIP, and another 30 percent planned to implement VOIP in the next year.

However, the respondents confidence in their ability to manage the VOIP deployments didnt appear to be very strong: Almost half were concerned with their ability to monitor the quality of the VOIP service; 41 percent didnt know whether their network could handle the extra bandwidth consumption from VOIP calls; 36 percent worried about the reliability of their VOIP application during heavy usage; and almost half said the main challenge was in guaranteeing the quality of the VOIP calls on their networks.

At the same time, 36 percent of the engineers surveyed said existing monitoring systems were not adequate for monitoring VOIP performance.

Karen Dean, director of telecommunications at Black & Decker, in Towson, Md., agreed that VOIP management is an area where more attention needs to be paid. "One of the most underestimated elements of [VOIP deployments] is how you manage it," Dean said. "With IP telephony, theres a whole other list of tasks you have to do to manage it, including server management, anti-virus, patching. Phone people never had to do that [before.]"

Despite vendors claims that voice is becoming just another application on the network, it is anything but that. It is the first real-time, person-to-person application to hit the network. As such, it does not tolerate network problems such as jitter, latency, delay or out-of-packet sequencing the same way that other types of application traffic does.

"IT is in the mind-set of slow-moving, careful changes to support basic document-based applications. To have real-time communications collide with that puts everyone on the back foot," said Kerry Shih, chief strategist and founder of Communicado, a Costa Mesa, Calif., maker of management tools for VOIP.

But both small and large vendors alike are beginning to address the challenge of managing VOIP traffic in the network.

For example, at the late August VoiceCon conference in San Francisco, Microsoft acknowledged the need to provide more fine-tuned monitoring of VOIP call quality when it launched its Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 Quality of Experience Monitoring Server.

And smaller management tool providers are stepping up to the plate to deliver greater visibility into the performance of VOIP traffic on the network, as well as its impact on existing applications traffic. At VoiceCon, a handful of companies—including Communicado, NetQoS, Keynote Systems and Netcordia—launched new or enhanced management tools and services for VOIP.

Click here to read more about VOIP offerings from smaller vendors.

EMC also added its voice to the chorus with the announcement of new VOIP performance monitoring and reporting tools that it will resell from Integrated Research. The EMC Smarts VOIP Performance Manager and EMC Smarts VOIP Performance Reporter monitor quality of experience, mean opinion scores, jitter, packet delay, and real-time utilization and call volumes.

With the exception of Microsofts early foray and EMCs expanding effort, it is primarily smaller vendors that are leading the charge to arm enterprises with more sophisticated VOIP management tools.

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Although the big four enterprise management vendors—Hewlett-Packard, IBM Tivoli, BMC Software and CA—have some VOIP management capabilities, they are decidedly underwhelming, according to Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with Yankee Group.

"The investments HP, CA and the others have made in VOIP management are pretty small," Kerravala said. "I think it frustrates users to not have a viable company to go to." Those vendors have yet to step up because they dont see sufficient demand, which creates a chicken-and-egg problem, Kerravala said.

"Management vendors wont really develop robust management solutions until the implementation rates of VOIP increase," he said. "But without the management tools, I dont believe well see it being deployed [on a larger scale]."

For enterprises that are beginning to scale up the size of their deployments, the lack of credible tools from the bigger management vendors has not gone unnoticed, said Fred Knight, general manager of VoiceCon.

Still, not all network engineers think theres a lack of good tools to manage VOIP. "There are a lot of great tools out there, but nobody uses 20 tools a day," said a NetQoS customer who asked not to be identified. "You want one or two tools you can rely on 80 percent of the time. When you have a specific problem, then go to a tool kit to get what you need."

But theres always room for improvement, and a little extra diagnostic help would go a long way for the NetQoS user.

"What Im looking for is to include some kind of correlation or logic in the product to point the finger at the problem and give you the reason for it," the customer said. "A good network engineer can pinpoint a problem quickly, but if you have a tool that tells you exactly what the problem is, thats great—especially when you have something major happening."

In the meantime, whats key for ensuring good voice quality and performance is to understand whats happening on the network. "You want to see whats happening real time in your network; you want to get a good feel about capacity [at both the gateway and LAN level]," said the NetQoS customer.

But what company is in the best position to provide that kind of visibility? "I think the best-positioned in terms of being most effective are the Net­QoSes, Network Generals—the guys who are very good at analyzing and understanding network traffic—because [voice] is so latency-sensitive," said Tracy Corbo, an analyst at IDC. Beyond the challenges of spotty tool coverage and gaining visibility into traffic flows and performance, IT faces other issues in managing VOIP.

Among those is the issue of software patches, which contributed to the widespread Skype outage in mid-August.

"The industry needs to be responsive in deploying and testing patches that truly function and guarantee operation," said Jim Boulter, national voice technology manager for the USDA Forest Service in southern Oregon. "I dont think the VOIP industry has been quite as quick to latch onto that need."

Security is another issue. "VOIP call controllers are running on commodity operating systems," said Grant Dekker, chief technology officer for the Forest Service, in Washington, D.C., which has a sizable VOIP deployment. "They are under attack more often, so they need to be locked down tightly."

Click here to read more about VOIP security issues.

And outside of technology issues, skills specific to telephony and organizational issues will challenge IT to think outside the data-networking box.

"We recognize we need to develop that skill set in-house," said Black & Deckers Dean. "Finding people with [the right skills] is difficult."

"The technical skill set to support this is different from the PBX environment," said the Forest Services Boulter. "You need to be well-rounded and -versed in the applications and telecom to sustain it in a reliable fashion."

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

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