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Feature Article
May 2004

IP Telephony Ready For Prime Time With Large Enterprises


Ever since the first switchboard, large enterprises have ordinarily been first to benefit from new advances in telephony. While big business enjoyed phone systems designed for a staff of thousands, companies with less than 400 employees were forced to settle for scaled-down versions and a one-size-fits-all package of tools and features.

Alternatively, IP telephony cut its teeth in 1999 in smaller firms, which found it affordable, scalable, and easy to customize. Analysts report that by 2002, more small businesses choosing phone systems went with IP telephony than traditional solutions. They expect mid-size businesses to cross the �tipping point� in 2004.
Until now, large firms have not shown the same enthusiasm for VoIP technology. For companies with several hundred or thousands of employees, switching to a digital system seemed too complex and risky, with millions of dollars at stake should problems arise. Today, however, large and very large enterprises are now recognizing the advantages IP telephony has brought to their smaller counterparts. Now that they�ve seen the technology working well, more and more big businesses are focusing on its rewards instead of its risks.

This sentiment is bolstered by a new generation of VoIP systems based on carrier-class technology that can connect up to tens of thousands of users in many locations at once. By using these systems to converge voice and data traffic over a single network infrastructure, large firms with multiple sites can now enjoy dramatic cost savings and efficiencies that no traditional phone system can offer. With IP telephony, big companies with offices across the U.S. or even the world can eliminate virtually all inter-office long-distance charges by routing internal calls over their IP networks. The ability to leverage excess network capacity to extend voice communications simply and cost-effectively also lets large enterprises move efficiently into a truly global marketplace � a critical consideration as business trends like offshoring and outsourcing gain greater popularity.

Large enterprises are also ripe for VoIP because many are using PBX systems nearing the end of their six- to eight-year life cycle. While budget considerations previously kept them from supplanting these systems, large enterprises recognize they can no longer afford to keep them and still remain competitive.

Adding up all of these factors leads to one undeniable conclusion: there has never been a better time for most large enterprises to adopt IP technology.

When business depends on hundreds of employees handling thousands of calls, the telephone system must stand up to high demand. Fortunately, the latest generation of VoIP products is built to deliver high quality communications under heavy use. Still, some IP telephony systems handle the pressure better than others. As large enterprises plan to move to a converged voice and data infrastructure, there area number of criteria they need to consider.

Reliability: To be worthy of large-scale use, an IP telephony system must be based on stable, proven technology. Users have the right to expect that they will always get a dial tone, that their calls will always go through, and that they will always enjoy clear, static-free conversation. A solution that maximizes Quality of Service (QoS) for voice traffic guarantees the highest standards of performance.
Scalability: An enterprise-wide IP telephony system must provide the same features and functionality to tens of thousands of users in multiple locations, whether they�re working from home, at a five-person branch, or corporate HQ. A modular platform offers the most effective combination of scalability and high availability.

Unified Network Management: To make the most of a converged network�s potential to streamline operations and improve communication, voice and data applications cannot stand alone; they must interoperate smoothly. Usually, only a vendor with experience in both voice and data transmission can dependably provide this level of integration.

Security: The company�s IT staff should be able to oversee the phone system from a single central location, using the same software tools that detect an unauthorized computer on the data network to manage IP phone handsets. The system should also be designed to take advantage of distributed computing, with control functions dispersed across multiple servers, allowing the company to seamlessly reroute calls and ensure ongoing phone service in an emergency.

Open Architecture: No large enterprise can afford to be limited to whatever tools and features a particular vendor offers at any given time. Non-proprietary tools and software allow an enterprise to tailor its IP-based phone system to its needs. Only an approach based on open standards allows a company to maximize its technological investment and launch new applications as they become available.

A standards-based system is the most cost-effective, future-minded basis for delivering IP telephony, yet all standards are not created equal. The industry standard of choice is SIP, the first protocol to enable multi-user sessions regardless of media content.

As the underpinning of a telephone system, SIP allows users to receive voice messages by e-mail, forward instant messages to their personal digital assistants (PDAs), and receive Web pages on their mobile phones. As the heart of a multi-application communications environment, SIP can power a wide range of services, from long-distance telephony and rich media conferencing to call center applications and sophisticated resource management applications. Choosing a SIP-based telephony solution opens the door to all these uses without locking the large enterprise into a long-term contract with any individual vendor.

SIP is already broadly accepted � as the session control mechanism for next-generation cellular communication, the basis of Microsoft�s real-time messaging services, and the building block of MCI�s latest advanced telephony services. Its potential is still barely tapped.

Traditional telecommunications hardware vendors often offer migration paths to IP telephony, but stop short of a pure-IP solution. While they don�t force a forklift upgrade and can switch out equipment over time, their legacy products and protocols are barriers to creating a true end-to-end converged voice and data network.

By comparison, some data networking leaders combine the carrot of genuine IP with the stick of proprietary VoIP systems, forcing customers into a costly, disruptive network upgrade in order to create a pure IP communications infrastructure. They also make future-proofing the network difficult by requiring customers to follow the vendor�s schedule of services and upgrades, which may not coincide at all with the customer�s needs.

Only a vendor with a truly standards-based approach can provide a simple, efficient, affordable migration to a truly converged network over time � without disrupting the customer�s ability to function, and without requiring it to replace a perfectly functional data network with ample capacity for voice traffic. Moreover, only a standards-based solution scales easily enough to give the large enterprise the option of rolling out new technology as it becomes available. This �pay-as-you-grow� capability also reduces the total cost of ownership and lets the large enterprise migrate to a pure converged network gradually, with minimal risk to its daily operations.

Whether a company is totally replacing an outmoded PBX system, moving into a new facility, or adding new branches, implementing IP telephony is best done in stages. The right technology will allow the large enterprise to phase in small groups of employees � for example, one department or branch office at a time � over the course of several years.

This can be done using IP phones that work side by side with legacy analog equipment and a mix of media gateways that provide smooth connections to the public switched telephone network. Eventually, the number of people with IP handsets will outnumber those using legacy equipment. At that point, the company can affordably replace its remaining handsets with full confidence that the new telephone system is working as it should. Only standards-based technology that scales readily and interoperates easily with legacy PBX systems allows for this gradual, practical transition.

Because phone service is such a basic need in day-to-day business operations, companies must choose a vendor who will work closely with them throughout the migration process and ensure the new voice solution works properly from the first minute of cutover. In this way, the large enterprise will be ideally situated to optimize advanced call-handling features as well as expert, value-added applications linking voice and data. This creates opportunities to improve both internal communications and customer service in ways never before possible.

Case Study: Prudential Northwest Properties

Dave Hattey is the vice president and general manager, Enterprise Voice Solutions, at 3Com Corporation. 3Com is a leading provider of innovative, practical and high-value voice and data networking products, services, and solutions for enterprises of all sizes and public sector organizations. For further information, please visit www.3com.com.

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