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Feature Article
May 2003

The Smart And Safe Way To Transition To IP Telephony


When IP-based telecom solutions first became available in the mid-1990s, predictions for market acceptance were very aggressive. Some analysts predicted that 5 to 10 percent of the market would adopt IP-based telephone systems by the year 2000. The reality was less than 1 percent. Hindsight being 20/20, we know that there are a lot of reasons why the adoption rate has come nowhere near the initial predictions. From the Y2K scare to the tech industry�s bubble bursting, economic factors dramatically affected IP telephony�s rise to power, but what has held it back the most has been acceptance of the technology itself.

Today, analysts estimate that by the year 2006, as much as 40 percent of all new PBX telephone stations sold to enterprises may be IP-based. This is an ambitious leap from today�s estimated 12 percent installed base of IP systems, but there is no doubt that it is beginning to take hold.

Traditional PBX Versus IP-PBX
Perhaps it is just human nature not to want to jump in to find out if you can swim, but wade in gradually, testing the waters as you go. Or perhaps it�s a new conservatism driven by today�s economy that says, �If it ain�t broke, don�t fix it.� Or, perhaps more simply, knowing that telephones are the core of their communication and having experienced downtime with their computers, users are simply afraid to take the leap of faith to an IP-based system.

The rock solid reliability of traditional TDM-based PBX systems cannot be argued. They almost never go down, and when paired with durable digital telephones, they offer all the telephony features anyone could need.

The reason that IP-PBX systems go down more often is that they operate in a pure IP environment, based upon PC server technology, using a single network of communication devices and wiring for both data and voice traffic. This network consolidation is designed to result in decreased network administration, thus making deployment of services and applications easier. However, being a server-based application, it does not have the reliability of a traditional PBX system.

That�s not to say that today there aren�t IP-based systems that are impressively reliable. Even so, they simply cannot match the 24/7 undaunted reliability afforded by a traditional TDM-based PBX system. For decades, traditional TDM-based telephone systems have kept working day and night through disasters of all kinds, manmade and natural, and through untold abuses by employees (such as teenagers working the phones at the local pizza place) to environmental (the dirt and grime of an auto repair shop for example). In many businesses, you�d be hard pressed to find users who can remember their telephone system ever being down, but if you ask them if their computer network has ever gone down, well, it�s another story.

Investment To Move To IP Telephony
It can also be expensive to move to an IP-based system. Viewing IP telephony strictly from a financial decision, does it make sense? Don�t we all want to make most long-distance calls for free anywhere in the world? It sounds good enough until you look at the fact that you have to replace your existing telecom system and start all over.

Even after spending the thousands for the new IP system plus the time and effort to re-train employees to use the new system, does it mean you can really make long distance calls for free anytime, anywhere? Unfortunately not. With most systems, users actually need one at each end of where calls are being made. If users have satellite offices all over the world, especially in places where things like T1 lines are virtually unheard of, it can make sense, but for most systems, there still has to be an IP telephone system in each office. One way to work around this is to set up remote IP telephones that act as extensions on the main system back at the headquarters office, which is effective on some systems, but doesn�t work on others.

Moving to a completely new system also means the users need re-training, which can be costly and result in time away from their other work.

Users also need to make sure the system either has an integrated voice processing solution or find one that�s compatible. So IP is not necessarily an inexpensive proposition, nor can it do everything that a TDM-based PBX can, at least not today.

Hybrid Systems Provide the Best of Both Worlds
Despite the reality shock, the promise of IP telephony is very alluring -- and it can deliver if implemented correctly. IP telephony has the potential to not only deliver free long distance, but a completely integrated and unified communications system with full anytime, anywhere mobility and near 24/7 reliability. So what is today�s answer to IP telephony?

A hybrid system provides the best of both worlds, mixing the best of a traditional TDM-based digital telecommunications system with IP telephony where it makes sense for the enterprise. With an IP-enabled digital communications system, users simply get the 24/7 reliability, durability, and virtually industrial strength of traditional PBX systems, but all the benefits of IP telephony applications. The blending of a hybrid system does away with the financial issue of having to forklift to a completely new system while delivering today�s promise of IP in a non-threatening way that is unlikely to bring down your entire network. Adding IP telephony to a traditional PBX system protects the enterprise�s investment in existing voice, video, and data networks and represents a low-risk, less-disruptive migration path.

But how does it work? IP-enabling existing PBX systems provide VoIP trunk access and remote telephone user applications over IP networks, which supplements access through the public switched telephone network. The IP-enabled PBX architecture typically involves the addition of IP trunk cards and IP station cards, with Ethernet interfaces, to existing PBX systems.

Hosting telephones connected through one IP network, either locally via a LAN or remotely in any location via a private Intranet or the public Internet, provides the flexibility of distributed configurations and remote telephone users. The IP network will provide all the call switching, regardless of whether calls originate from the public switched telephone network, digital or analog telephones, or IP telephones.

Choosing a hybrid system allows users to move into IP at a reasonable pace, testing the waters, seeing how users and budgets benefit, and allowing time to determine if an IP-only system is truly the right solution for their enterprise.

The Channel: A Critical Component to IP Acceptance
It sounds pretty easy to add IP telephony to your existing telephone system, so why aren�t more users doing this? In some cases, it�s because the distribution channel is struggling to play catch-up in understanding the hybrid play. There are interconnects struggling to become data players, and data players struggling to understand the traditional telecom world. And it�s not just a learning curve -- it�s a whole new way of doing business.

Traditionally, in the telecom world, interconnects have sold their customers on a fairly substantial initial investment in a telephone system that came from a single manufacturer. After the installation, they are �on call� to handle their customers� changes, do repairs, and upgrade the system when new capabilities are needed, but are typically not providing service on a daily basis.

This is completely opposite of how the data world operates. The upfront cost is a pieced together system, depending on what the customer wants, with devices potentially coming from various manufacturers. PCs are a cheap commodity today, and network components, such as routers, can be had for less than $100 at Best Buy. The data vendors aren�t making their money upfront on equipment. Unlike interconnects who are hunters and gatherers always focused on making more sales, data vendors work really hard on selling a small number of clients and then farming each one, ostensibly for the life of each company.

For the channel to successfully sell IP-only or IP-enabled systems, they have to blend their cultures into a completely new selling and servicing environment. Manufacturers on both sides are realizing this, even as they create their own blended cultures of telecom and data technology, and are putting into place programs to help bridge the gap. In addition, savvy interconnects and data vendors are reinventing themselves and the way they do business, but it is taking time.

So What Does The Future Hold?
While it may be years before organizations fully exploit the potential of the Internet and IP network technology, having a hybrid system provides a new way of communicating and conducting business. The successful implementation of IP telephony will not require business users to conform to the technology, but rather the technology will conform to the users and how they want to interact with the world. Adding IP telephony to the traditional PBX has the potential to change the way enterprises communicate with their customers, vendors and each other. The successful manufacturer will have to both provide a sensible migration path for the enterprise as well as deliver the promise of IP to the end-user -- not just the protocol itself.

Michael Durance is vice president/general manager of Toshiba Telecommunication Systems Division. Toshiba Telecommunication Systems Division is a leading provider of business communication systems for small- to medium-sized enterprises. Based in Irvine, CA, Toshiba TSD markets its Strata CTX, Strata DK, Strata CS and Stratagy systems through its network of more than 500 authorized dealers. For more information, visit the company on the Web at telecom.Toshiba.com.

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