Feature Story

SIP’s Tortoise and the Hare Story

By Paula Bernier

AT&T recently floated the idea of decommissioning the PSTN. And there’s tons of talk about SIP adoption. Yet the uptake for SIP – at least within the customer premises – is not what many initially envisioned.

As Rick Pfleger, director of sales engineering at managed service provider VoIP Logic (News - Alert), notes, forecasts for SIP around the turn of the century indicated we should expect sudden and steep growth. But, for a variety of reasons, SIP-based PBXs and endpoints instead have seen a more gradual adoption.

“Everybody was expecting the hockey curve to be back in early 2000 and 2001 for SIP,” says Pfleger. “I was working for an equipment manufacturer in ’98-’99, and we were basically told by R&D folks: ‘SIP is the wave of the future. It’s going to revolutionize the world.’ Now we’re going on 12 years, and we’re farther along than we were, but SIP hasn’t dominated the world by any means.”

Irwin Lazar, vice president of communications and collaboration at Nemertes Research, agrees.

“For a while there was this idea that you would replace all your phones with SIP phones, it would cost $75 a pop and basically reduce the cost of your telephony implementation,” he says. “But the problem is the telephony vendors kept on adding features to their own phones, [and] they dragged their feet in supporting SIP. Those that did support SIP found that their feature sets weren’t comparable.”

The Standards Issue

Brough Turner (News - Alert), co-founder of wireless infrastructure upstart Ashtonbrooke Corp., and a telecom industry veteran, explains that in an attempt to allow SIP to support all previous telephony services, and to extend SIP to suit the needs of the mobile community, SIP has more than 10 years of additional features added to it. The result is quite complex, he says, and complexity results in interoperability problems.

The number of players in the SIP marketplace and the wide variety of gear (including application servers, media servers, etc., etc.) that plays a role in SIP communications only compounds the interoperability issue, adds Pleger.

“Never mind having one or two throats to choke when something goes wrong,” he says. “[Now] you have like 30 different people with their fingers in the pie, and they’re all pointing their fingers at each other when something goes wrong.”

Turner adds that while other technologies, such as 802.11, also have complications, organizations such as the Wi-Fi Alliance (News - Alert) act as a single, widely accepted body that has defined subsets and a testing procedure. SIP, he says, doesn’t have that kind of standardization.

“The bigger issue is what it takes to provide a solution – residential, enterprise or mobile,” continues Turner. “SIP is not a solution. And CPE by itself is not a solution. The only kinds of CPE that’s useful when sold separately are old analog sets (where the PTT/ILEC provides the rest of the solution) and mobile handsets (where mobile operators provide the solution). Fixed CPE with SIP might become a solution the way Wi-Fi has become, but only if there were a SIP equivalent of the Wi-Fi Alliance.”

But that seems unlikely given the interests of enterprise PBX (News - Alert) vendors, Turner concludes.

As for the service provider side, VoIP Logic’s Pfleger says that while some companies like MagicJack and Vonage (News - Alert) have been able to make a business out of selling VoIP services, others have flopped, or dropped such efforts.

“Look at Level 3,” he says. “Level 3 was probably one of the most profound ones. Their 3Tone platform was supposed to be SIP over IP, and nine months later they blew it up. They detonated it and gave it to NGT. They sold it off because they decided it wasn’t going to be as easy as they thought, and they wanted to get out before they spent too much money.”

The Big Picture

While the variety of SIP implementations is the most commonly cited reason for slower than expected SIP adoption, Pfleger adds that the telco mindset, the economy and Y2K also probably played a role.

“SIP is a fundamental change in how telephone companies do business,” he explains. “For over 100 years the intelligence was in the core, and the end device – the telephone that’s on your desk or in your home – was a relatively dumb device. It could be swapped out at any point with no impact to the network.

“SIP fundamentally changes that because with SIP you’re putting the intelligence at the edge; you’re essentially putting the intelligence at the customer prem in the home or at the desk of the business, and the core gets relegated to routing,” Pfleger continues.

Putting the intelligence at the edge makes some telephone companies “super paranoid” about potential security breaches, he says. However, he adds, that’s becoming less of a concern as companies like Vonage have begun to employ specialized software loads on vendor gear that make it impossible for devices to be re-provisioned without the service provider knowing it.

Telecom’s nuclear winter in 2001-2002, and the general economy’s severe downturn in more recent years, also probably played a role in slowing SIP endpoint adoption. The fact that many companies of various sizes put considerable resources into their traditional PBXs to guard them against the Y2K IT meltdown that never materialized didn’t help matters much either, adds Pfleger.

“When you spend that kind of money [like companies did upgrading traditional PBXs for Y2K], you’re not going to throw it away a year later or two years later, especially when you go into an economic recession like we did in 2001-2002,” he says. “The dot.com industry completely blew up and dragged everything down with it.”

The bottom line is that SIP will continue to make gains, but still on a gradual basis, while other technologies like MGCP and SCCP will probably hang around for at least a while longer.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

So, now that we’ve explored how SIP adoption has been slower on some fronts than originally anticipated, and the possible causes of that, what’s the bottom line?

According to our sources, the bottom line is that SIP will continue to make gains, but still on a gradual basis, while other technologies like MGCP and SCCP will probably hang around for at least a while longer.

Pleger says Cisco Systems (News - Alert) has had great success with VoIP in the enterprise employing its proprietary SCCP (aka “skinny”) protocol. At the same time, MGCP, an evolution of the initial H.323 VoIP protocol, is still around, he says, adding both of the above technologies rely on intelligence in the core.

“Nowadays SIP will be the winner, but there is still a strong following of MGCP and skinny customers out there,” he adds.

UC Could Seal the Deal

Chris Thompson (News - Alert), senior product manager at ADTRAN, says this SIP story was probably simply a case of people expecting too much from a new technology too soon. However, although SIP got bogged down with different interpretations and interoperability issues as companies strove for PSTN feature parity, he says, the UC aspects of SIP now are starting to emerge. Today, he indicates, companies are seeing the added value that SIP solutions from companies like ADTRAN (News - Alert) bring to the table. That includes unified communications and the ability to tie telephony systems in with databases to enable communications-enabled businesses processes and integration.

Meanwhile, companies like IntelePeer (News - Alert) are delivering hosted voice and rich media SIP trunking and communications services that enable carriers, businesses and software vendors to deliver voice and multimedia capabilities easily to any phone or network-connected device – and Intelepeer offers Microsoft (News - Alert) OCS and a software API along with the mix, says IntelePeer CEO Frank Fawzi.

Fawzi explains that the VoIP development platform IntelePeer provides enables the network and application to understand the endpoint so it can deliver enhanced features like find me/follow me and on-the-fly rerouting. That also enables more metadata to be integrated for greater functionality, he says.

So although SIP hasn’t achieved the initial rocket-like growth some initially expected, this protocol – and the endpoints and services that employ it – continue to make gains on a number of fronts. IT