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Industry Insight
January 2003


Jim Machi

The Softswitch: Still Significant, Still A Mystery

BY JIM MACHI


The last time I dedicated this column to a look at the softswitch, it was June 2000. In the two years+ since then, a lot has happened, so I felt it was an opportune time to revisit the issue.

That particular article generated a lot of interest and discussion from our readers. Back in 2000 I thought the term �softswitch� was a bit overused and confused in the VoIP market segment. Over the last few months I have found it used somewhat less frequently -- most likely because of the slowdown in the entire industry. We�ll consider the �confused� part a little later.

It is nice to see that softswitches are still forecast to be a significant revenue stream in the near future. Frost & Sullivan (�2002 World VoP Equipment Market�) forecasts softswitch revenues to grow from $409 million in 2003 to $3,106 million in 2006. And although I believe the industry has about the same chance of reaching those 2006 numbers as my beloved NY Mets do of winning the World Series that year, there�s no question that softswitches are in for significant growth.

STILL A MYSTERY
Is the softswitch still as mysterious now as it was back in 2000? The other day, I examined a number of vendors� softswitch products via a quick Web site scan to see how they define themselves. Here are some of their marketing claims:

  • Integrated media gateway, applications, and Class 5 functions;
  • Class 5 softswitch;
  • Access gateway, Class 4, Class 5, media gateway;
  • Agents for signaling/control and servers for OAM and P/billing;
  • Call control, VoIP features, signaling interworking, and media gateway capabilities.
I would claim -- and I hope you agree -- that the softswitch definition is still fuzzy, broad, and mysterious. In many instances, it depends upon where a company plays in the network space and where it believes it can make money as networks continue to merge. Based upon this, I will stick by my original definition. A softswitch:
  • Integrates the Internet telephony and circuit-switched worlds;
  • Duplicates Class 4 and 5 switch capabilities;
  • Operates in the classic public network environment where call control is separate from media flow.
In reality, it seems that the softswitch vendors have accomplished Class 4 toll replacement, while Class 5 is still the end game. Recently, some vendors have released products that support the top revenue generating and/or most popular Class 5 switch features. Even so, there is still work ahead to support the thousands of Class 5 features in the new modular networks. The industry -- in particular, IP telephony -- would benefit from a clear definition with clearly defined softswitch functionality.

STILL SIGNIFICANT
Why is the softswitch so significant? Let�s take a qualitative approach to this business case to see if it makes sense. For a network designer, meeting challenges will require a number of things including optimizing the network, lowering total cost of ownership, and supporting value-added features. We will not solve these issues here, but let�s use them to solve the business case.

In terms of optimizing the network, let�s assume it�s a legacy, circuit-switched network, with proprietary systems that bundle all telecom functions into a big, expensive piece of equipment.

The softswitch concept was built on the idea of lowering costs by separating various functions (call control, switching, and media) to lower the total cost of ownership. Every piece of equipment does not need to be co-located.

To survive, more value-added features are supported to bring in more revenue. For example, one of my new favorite applications, becoming popular in the Asia/Pacific region, is SMS over fixed-line phones. I do not find this capability significant for an all-wireline phone network, but I do like the simplicity of merging this with wireless networks. Then a wireline phone could send a short message to a wireless phone. Since SMS traffic is already clogging the SS7 network, SMS offload over IP may drive significant IP investment in the foreseeable future. Applications such as this will drive capital expenditure budgets toward IP.

I believe the softswitch is the way to economically solve these issues. We will need a flexible architecture to build out pockets of new infrastructure, but we may want to consolidate the media functionality in a separate geography. We will not have to expand the circuit-switched network to accommodate this, but gateway functionality will be required. However, the network designer will have a hard time shopping for the necessary equipment based upon the marketing claims above.

One other point is worth mentioning. Open, standards-based building blocks have expanded over the last couple of years in both number and functionality. Densities have increased. And SIP has come into its own as a key protocol for media control (although issues still exist). I can now get 672 VoIP channels on a single board with echo cancellation and various coders. High-density circuit-switched boards are available as well. High-availability and NEBS-compliant chassis almost complete the picture. These building blocks will better enable integrators and independent software vendors to cost-effectively build softswitches.

The main issue going forward will be defining the softswitch. If the industry can really agree on its functionality, then we can move on to more interesting challenges.

You can check out for yourself the significance and the mystery of the softswitch at the upcoming Internet Telephony Conference and EXPO at the Hotel Inter-Continental in Miami on February 5-7, 2003.

Jim Machi is director, Product Management for the Network Processing Division of the Intel Communications Group. Intel, the world�s largest chipmaker, is also a leading manufacturer of computer, networking, and communications products. For more information, visit www.intel.com.

[ Return To The January 2003 Table Of Contents ]



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