Chances are that the first “peer-to-peer” (P2P) communications application you ever encountered had nothing to do with VoIP. Instead, it was probably one of those systems for exchanging files (particularly music files) over the Internet without going through a website, such as Napster, Gnutella or KaZaA. Such applications create a sort of meta-network riding atop the Internet or other IP network, converting your PC into a “node” on the network that acts as both a client and a server, enabling users to connect directly to other nodes and trade media files. (Think of a wired version of a WiFi mesh.) The plug-and-play simplicity of P2P - not to mention its low cost - makes it very tempting to adapt it to consumer and even business voice applications, particularly for smaller businesses that can’t be bothered with the expense and expertise needed of deploying and maintaining a more sophisticated IP PBX.
Indeed, Frost & Sullivan’s report, “North American Enterprise Peer-to-Peer Telephony Solutions”, reveals that small businesses and “micro enterprises” with less than 20 users constitute 89% of the total number of establishments in North America and still remain hugely underserved by telecom solution providers. The report says that P2P telephony solutions “guarantee up to 80 percent cost savings by eliminating call servers and associated hardware”. The report also states, however that P2P technology really needs the backing of IP PBX system manufacturers in order to become a mainstream enterprise communication solution. P2P technology vendors must deal with the unique challenges posed by small businesses in terms of limited technology funds and competition from managed service providers. P2P vendors must be able to field an inexpensive, quality product that can overcome security, quality of service (QoS) and reliability issues, as well as the negative publicity image that P2P technology in general received in its “file-sharing and intellectual theft” days.
The report suggests that P2P vendors should partner with service providers, desk phone manufacturers, and software application developers so as to enhance the visibility of P2P products.
The inherent simplicity of P2P VoIP can be very seductive. After all, at times it seems that just about everybody in the world with a PC has downloaded a Skype client. Skype, the brainchild of KaZaA founder Niklas Zennström, is the largest VoIP peer-to-peer system in the world. It’s free too, unless you want to talk to people who still use Ye Olde public wireline/wireless networks (or vice versa), in which case you must use the relatively inexpensive SkypeOut or SkypeIn services.
Popular Telephony (news - alert) (http://www.peerio.com) has also had a run in this area with their serverless, patent-pending technology for peer-topeer telephony. Called Peerio, it “marks the next most significant step in computer networking evolution since the creation of mainframes and the subsequent migration towards existing client/server architecture,” if they do say so themselves. Admittedly, Popular Telephony has been actively developing scads of products and solutions in this area, such as Peerio Core, an advanced middleware for P2P networking; Peerio, a reference design for a P2P telephone device; Peerio Call Control, an XMLbased implementation of key PBX features; Peerio FWT, an open-source TURN protocol implementation; Peerio Biz, a white-label P2P feature-rich softphone; and GNUP, a lightweight webactivated callback bridge and billing software package.
One interesting freebie competitor to Skype is the Global Village Internet phone service (news - alert) (http://www.globalvillage.com) a division of Boston-based Zoom Technologies (news - alert) (http://www.zoom.com), the famous analog modem maker that now designs and produces VoIP Gateways, ADSL modems, cable modems, dial-up modems, Bluetooth products, and other communications devices under the Zoom, Hayes and Global Village brands.
In the 1990s, you bought a service and you got a free modem. In the 21st century, you purchase a Zoom DSL modem and you get the free Global Village service. To be specific, you can make free calls to other Global Village subscribers, all of whom have a unique 7 digit phone number. To dial another Internet service, you must first dial a “1”, then a 3-digit “area code” followed by the number on the other service. For example, to call someone with a FWD (Free World Dialup) number, you simply dial “1 393” followed by the phone number. To call someone with a SIPphone number, you would dial “1 747”. For calls to the PSTN, you can opt for a plan where you pay only for calls you make, or U.S. customers can opt for an unlimited U.S. calls plan with a flat-rate monthly fee.
Speaking of SIPphone (news - alert) (http://www.sipphone.com), it’s another freebie P2P service that uses the SIP (Session Initiation Protocol), the favored call control protocol for VoIP. To use it you rely on the usual suspects: either a hardware adapter or download their free softphone, a broadband connection to the Internet and, to make free in-network (SIP-to-SIP) calls, both sides of the call must have a SIPphone adapter or softphone. Naturally, you do have to pay to call users who have conventional telephones, which involves purchasing “SIP minutes”. To receive calls on your SIPphone from PSTN phones, you’ll need at least one Virtual Number ($12.00 for 3 months, or $35.00 for 12 months). Calls to your Virtual Number are free to you.
Commoditization and its Effects
The Frost & Sullivan Report mentioned at the beginning of this article suggested that P2P telephony vendors should concentrate on diversifying their distribution channel by reaching the mass market via both retail and online stores. Zoom has done this to some extent with their “buy a modem and get our Global Village service” strategy.
The scary part about commoditization is that, in the “race to the bottom” (price-wise), one ends up with essentially free voice service. Value-add features - what were called “enhanced services” in the old PSTN - were originally designed to keep voice customers from leaving a carrier or provider; i.e., “reduce churn”. It was always assumed that voice was the real revenue-producing “killer app”. Now however, as unlimited local and domestic long-distance calling makes its appearance, those new and exciting services may become the bread-and-butter of the whole telecom industry. As the “gee-whiz” aspects of IP Communications get lost in the machinery (along with electricity, plastic and LEDs), low-end P2P systems will find a home at retailers, while higher end IP PBX systems stake a claim in larger enterprises and vertical markets.
Retooling for Success
Peer-to-peer systems particularly irk those PBX makers of old that used to charge $50,000 and more for big card cages. With the writing on the wall, however, many are venturing into the field.
For example, Avaya Inc. (quote - news - alert) (http://www.avaya.com) acquired Nimcat Networks, a developer of embedded, peer-to-peer IP communications applications software such as its nimX embedded software for enterprise IP phones. Nimcat’s technology boosts the endpoints’ intelligence and eliminates additional hardware, such as call processing and application servers, thus simplifying installation and slashing start-up costs.
Avaya Labs has been working on both a system architecture and enabling technologies so that distributed enterprise mobile workers can link up in a hybrid peer-to-peer network over long-range and short-range wireless connections at the application layer.
In the meantime, Avaya at the 2006 VoiceCon show debuted its peer-to-peer SIP solution, one-X Quick Edition. Quick Edition delivers voicemail, auto-attendant functionality and sophisticated call management features including Call Forward, Conferencing, Park, Page and Retrieve, allowing even small businesses to appear to be a large, professional organization. Remote branches and teleworkers can be linked together via Quick Edition, yet the system allows for central management. Adding additional phones is as simple as connecting them to the network. Since each Quick Edition phone backs up the others’ features, the failure of one phone will not affect the others.
Whenever one of the “big boys” enters the peer-to-peer VoIP arena, they tend to avoid “pure” P2P technology, since they want to be able to leverage existing legacy PBXs and other equipment already on the customer premise. That’s no problem since SIP allows you to use IP as a pure transport layer, so you can create a centralized call system, a distributed server model, a peer-to-peer model, or a hybrid of any and all of these.
For example, SessionSuite IP Telephony Enterprise Edition by BlueNote Networks (news - alert) (http://www.bluenotenetworks.com) enables interactive IP communications within enterprises or extended communities, enabling the extension of voice and video services to teleworkers, remote offices, mobile users and nomadic “road warriors”. The high availability aspects of the product allow enterprises to maintain normal business operations during weather emergencies, natural disasters, security crises, and health emergencies. It’s not quite “pure” peer-to-peer in that a server is necessary, but it’s less expensive than a full-blown, old PBX system.
BlueNote’s SessionGateway is used to bridge VoIP and PSTN/PBX infrastructures, allowing VoIP users to place and receive calls with users of the PSTN or legacy PBXs. More than two dozen soft phones and hard phones are supported. The software even allows an organization to build its own Internet-facing telephony system, ’a la Skype, so the company’s customers and partners can be part of the company’s pseudo-local exchange, along with the teleworkers and remote offices.
Iwatsu (news - alert) (http://www.iwatsu. com) has also adopted a stance somewhere between the old world PBX/communications server and a radical P2P system. Their Iwatsu Enterprise 3.0 Communications Server expands to 1024 ports and easily deals with any of the four dominant communication protocol schemes (SIP, VoIP, TDM, and H.323), and it operates as a media bridge gateway that converges and transmits both voice and data traffic. The system supports P2P communication so that IP phones can connect to each other directly over the network, bypassing central system resources. Any Iwatsu ADIX system can be upgraded inexpensively to an Iwatsu Enterprise 3.0.
Even standards such as Megaco/H.248, a joint effort of the ITU and IETF that defines the operation of media gateway controllers and media gateways, supports both peer-to-peer communications and centralized communication systems.
Security, Security and More Security
Since quality of service appears to be less and a less of an issue as more and more bandwidth and advanced networking monitoring technology becomes available, the most pressing issue in the peer-to-peer world will undoubtedly remain security. Ironically, whereas centralized communication server architectures are susceptible to denial of service (DoS) attacks, SIP-based systems running in a distributed, peer-topeer network are far more resilient, since there is no single target that can become the principal point of failure.
Of course, only time will tell, as millions of business owners flock to their local store and return with the latest “telephone system- in-a-box” special offer.
Richard Grigonis is Executive Editor of TMC’s IP Communications Group.