Internet Insight: VOIP: Coming to a Desktop Near You

Until recently, VOIP (voice-over-IP) applications for the desktop were plenty scarce because developing them was a major integration headache. That's about to change for several reasons.

Productivity applications run at the desktop. That seems pretty obvious, and its been true ever since the PC became the productivity tool of choice. But until recently, VOIP (voice-over-IP) applications for the desktop were plenty scarce because developing them was a major integration headache. Thats about to change for several reasons.

First, Microsoft Corp.s Windows XP operating system is shipping with support for SIP (Session Initiated Protocol); second, service providers are building network-based VOIP applications that can be accessed from users desktops; and third, enterprise application vendors are integrating VOIP in their products. Together, these three forces will go a long way to make the use of VOIP pervasive.

VOIP has attracted interest and held forth the promise of being the "next big thing" since it came into use as a quasi-clandestine means of sidestepping long-distance toll charges in the mid-1990s. Sending voice in IP packets along with data over the Internets TCP/IP protocol is far more economical than circuit-switched voice communications. Whats more, VOIP traffic can also travel over a companys local-area or wide-area data network.

VOIP adoption has been hobbled by quality and reliability that have failed to equal that of circuit-switched voice. However, VOIPs quality and reliability have been steadily improving. Now, application integration is set to take off and with it, the growth of VOIP in the enterprise.

InfoTech, a Parsippany, N.J., research company, is predicting sales of IP PBXes to exceed those of conventional PBXes and key/hybrid equipment in 2005, thanks in significant part to the deployment of integrated VOIP applications.

A key force behind the surge is SIP integration in Windows XP. SIP is an Internet Engineering Task Force standard application protocol that sets up, modifies and terminates any type of communications session between two or more devices. A session could be a voice call, a videoconference, an instant-messaging chat, application sharing or a combination of those. Call centers and CRM (customer relationship management) applications are obvious candidates to benefit from SIP.

"Were looking at CRM packages, and SIP support is definitely high on our list, because we want to enable visitors to our Web sites to click on a screen icon and be linked via IP connection to a customer service agent for discussions and the exchange of data," said Mark Huang, project manager at Tower Automotive Inc., in Grand Rapids, Mich. "Although its in its early stages, SIP looks quite promising." Any dividends from a CRM application will come in addition to significant cost savings being reaped by Tower from VOIP calls between Towers design center in Novi, Mich., and a Tower plant in Monterrey, Mexico, according to Huang.

"XP will eventually be on 90 percent of PCs, which means developers will take SIP very seriously," said Robert Hammen, IT manager for Sells Printing Co. LLC, based in New Berlin, Wis. "When VOIP reaches critical mass three to five years down the road, itll have Microsoft to thank as programmers will have driven deployment by using SIP to develop a new class of applications."

"The ultimate goal for a company using VOIP is not just cheaper voice, its better voice," said David Cooperstein, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., in Cambridge, Mass. "And that means integrating voice with business-enhancing applications." In a recent 50-company survey by Forrester, 16 percent cited "better applications" when asked why they did or would switch to VOIP.

Service providers are gearing up for a burgeoning demand for VOIP-enabled applications that will run over their networks.

"Microsofts use of SIP is a huge advantage because their prominence will greatly accelerate VOIP deployment. All the software houses will have the client for development of new applications," said Jeff Dean, group product manager for convergence services at IP services provider Genuity Inc., in Woburn, Mass. Genuity plans to offer unified messaging services, IP Centrex—which enables users to replace PBXes and their features without buying new systems and without the geographic limitations of Centrex—and voice mail networking among vendors IP PBXes, in a phased introduction starting in a few months. Also getting into the act, AT&T Corp. plans to offer unspecified SIP-based services later this year, according to an AT&T spokeswoman. AT&T currently offers VOIP transport services as does WorldCom Inc.

"Now service providers can go well past offering VOIP transport services to develop network-resident applications and capabilities that offer solid business value to companies, their workers and consumers," said Tom Jenkins, a vice president at TeleChoice Inc., a Boston consultancy.

For those IT managers who prefer applications integrated with on-site IP PBXes or running on adjacent servers, there is good news, too. 3Com Corp. already ships its NBX IP PBX with a unified messaging package and is encouraging vendors to enable existing applications to work with VOIP systems. A spokesman from Alcatel S.A.s e-Business Networking Division, in Calabasas, Calif., said that Siebel Systems Inc. has customized its sales force automation application and that SAP AG has optimized its enterprise resource planning package to integrate with the vendors Omni IP PBX.

Sells Printings Hammen is paying attention. He has already deployed VOIP at the company and is saving money compared with circuit-switched calls. His private VOIP WAN links corporate sites via voice-enabled routers that funnel voice and data onto one connection. Now, he wants to provide access to VOIP-enabled central business applications via IP WAN links to workers in remote offices, at home or on the road. This would enable the companys sales agents and other far-flung workers to use their phones and PCs over an IP-based virtual private network to connect to a call center or access enhanced central applications.

"Im supereager to see whats coming down the pike [in] new business applications and network-based services," Hammen said.

A Voice of Quality

But even with all the progress being made in application integration, quality of service, availability, reliability and management, nagging obstacles to VOIP adoption remain. If these issues are not addressed, then many IT managers will shy away from the deployment of VOIP. The only takers will be those focused primarily on trying to reduce calling costs who dont mind some sacrifice of quality.

According to the Forrester survey, most IT executives said toll savings was the top reason to switch to VOIP. They also said quality, reliability, management and costs are the top reasons not to deploy.

Virgil Palmer, of Air Products and Chemicals Inc., in Allentown, Pa., is typical of many administrators. Palmer loved the concept of using an IP PBX to cut the $4-a-minute internal voice calling costs from his St. Lucia vacation spot of this past January—and from other far-flung locations that his companys 40-country data network doesnt yet reach. But he found little else to like about the IP PBX he tested in the companys laboratory.

"We wanted to see how sound the systems technology and management capabilities were and found they were not yet ready for prime time," said Palmer, Air Products director of global telecommunications and network services. "Users expect 100 percent availability from a phone system. The IP PBX fell short of that, and we werent happy with the call quality, either."

The company plans to sit on the fence and track the experiences of early implementers, Palmer said.

A few of the most-cited obstacles in the Forrester survey are being addressed by vendors via upgrades, with initial problems solved for some early implementers. Those problems can affect which IP PBXes users buy, as was the case for Sells Printings Hammen.

Availability and quality were at the top of Hammens wish list when shopping for an IP PBX over a year ago. To ensure system availability equal to his antiquated circuit-switched Fujitsu Ltd. PBX, he opted for a dual-processor, Unix-based Alcatel Omni switch over the equivalent: buying two single-processor, Windows NT-based CallManagers from Cisco Systems Inc.

Although that strategy addressed availability, Hammen had to upgrade the Omni software to eliminate problems with call quality, he said.

"We originally could hear clipping and noise from [voice] compression," Hammen said. "After the upgrade, nobody knew they were making a VOIP call unless we told them."

Hammens experience demonstrates that quality, although still perceived as a problem, is beginning to fade as a stumbling block. That can only be good news to IT administrators who are about to confront a wide range of choices in VOIP equipment, services and applications.

Bob Wallace, a free-lance writer, covers networking technology and can be reached at bwallace_ [email protected]