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VoIP Is Here What Are You Waiting For?

By Ron Lott, Sun Microsystems

 


Moving toward a converged, reliable digital system opens up a world of opportunities for the enterprise and creates a truly global office for users. While challenges still exist in the adoption of VoIP, the benefits of this technology over traditional voice networks are many from increased productivity and operational flexibility, to greater cost reductions and investment protection. The first steps in accepting VoIP systems as tomorrows enterprise communications infrastructure are understanding exactly what VoIP is, what your options are, how it can benefit the enterprise and its end-users, how to choose the right vendor, and where its going from here. There is no question that VoIP is the next great revolution in voice communications. In fact, industry analysts believe that by 2008, corporate IP telephony will reach $5.5 billion worldwide. So what is everyone waiting for? Lets get on with it...

The Groundwork Has Been Laid
While it is certainly in its early stages of growth, much of the foundation from which VoIP will take off, in terms of its infrastructure, and its growing recognition as a business necessity, is in place. In fact, todays traditional circuit-switched telephony already employs some of the same network elements as pure VoIP systems. Whats more, traditional Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) carriers are acutely aware of the tremendous financial and technical efficiency of transmitting data as digital packets. And, in the enterprise, as businesses are faced with increasing competition and a simultaneous need to reduce costs, the efficiencies and risk management capacity that VoIP can offer are truly compelling.

With that said, there is great potential in the marketplace for an open-standard VoIP solution a solution that can transform an enterprises communications infrastructure and that can scale to meet its telecom needs going forward.

VoIP 101 The Options
First, its important to realize that Voice over IP comprises much more than just voice. Today, the technology supports a comprehensive integration of voice, e-mail, fax, instant messaging, video and more, significantly increasing its value over Private Branch Exchange (PBX) infrastructures. These old-fashioned PBX configurations rely on circuit switching technology, meaning that every time a telephone call is made, a virtual circuit must be opened between two endpoints. VoIP, on the other hand, transmits the voice as digital packets, just as e-mail and Web browsing is transmitted. While, in the past, this method of transmission was a sticking point with potential users, todays more robust and proven technologies can effectively route and prioritize packets delivering them in near real-time.

So what options exist for an enterprise considering deploying a VoIP solution? Here are three approaches:

A Hybrid Approach: The Hybrid PBX system, in which IP-enabled PBXs combine IP technology with traditional Time Division Multiplexing (TDM) technology, essentially connects an existing traditional infrastructure with IP-based telephony. This option is effective for the short-term, enabling users to leverage existing investments in PBX equipment.

A Pure Approach: Instead of using legacy equipment, such as PBX and trunklines, a Pure IP-PBX system routes all calls over the LAN/WAN, converting all telephony to data transmitted over the corporate IP backbone or Internet, only connecting to the PSTN when IP routing is not available.

A Hosted Approach: An IP Centrex or similar, hosted IP telephony system does not require companies to invest in any sort of PBX or other equipment to obtain the benefits of VoIP. The equipment providing the call control and service logic functions is owned and operated by the service provider and maintained on the providers premises. IP Centrex services are interoperable with both traditional analog equipment and IP-based equipment, making them immediately available to the enterprise without any change to existing infrastructures. This option provides a transitional step toward an in-house VoIP system.

Greater Operational Efficiencies
VoIP technology, by its very nature, is more flexible and extensible than traditional voice transmission technologies due to its distributed and disaggregated architecture. This design, in which application layers are separated into different components that can be integrated or substituted as needed in the overall system, significantly improves management of the system (enabling remote and centralized management) and allows it to be more dynamic, adaptable and customizable overall. For instance, a VoIP system finally makes it easy to accommodate adds, moves and changes in telephone extensions (the bane of many a businesss existence), which in turn greatly reduces a corporations costs in terms of skill sets, training and personnel.

Adding to VoIPs adaptability is a core foundational technology called SIP (Session Initiation Protocol). SIP is the accepted standard for all major communications equipment manufacturers, and many software companies. Based on the notion that over time things such as client devices, services and underlying infrastructures will change, SIP separates the signaling from the hardware and media. As such, SIP allows voice calls, video conversations, etc. to occur between infrastructures that use different communications platforms, telephony clients, and even networking infrastructure. This adaptability to change is a key selling point for businesses that want to protect their investments.

Increased Productivity
Because VoIP combines voice with numerous value-added features such as e-mail, conferencing, fax, and mobile communications, VoIP significantly enhances productivity by centralizing and simplifying all communications. Additionally, the distributed architecture of VoIP technology requires less real estate and overhead, and allows a business personnel to work anywhere, anytime with the same user interfaces and features.

Greater Cost Reductions: Lower TCO And Higher ROI
There is no question that VoIP delivers greater cost effectiveness and better utilization of IT dollars than traditional voice networks. By consolidating multiple communications technologies voice, data, and video into one system and by consolidating multiple applications such as e-mail or IM VoIP immediately reduces overhead costs, eliminating infrastructure and maintenance redundancies.

Additionally, with the toll bypass, communication costs are significantly reduced by the simple fact that calls over the Internet or corporate backbone do not incur a surcharge beyond what the company pays for its corporate data network. Imagine the costs savings for a business with branch offices, as calls from one branch to another can be made as if both offices were located in the same location.




The Perceived Challenges
From its very beginnings, VoIP has faced the issue of quality of service (QoS), often being labeled as not yet 100 percent carrier grade, as compared to the PSTN. This concern is being eliminated based on the growing reliability of IP telephony systems, and the fact that many of todays VoIP systems provide the capability of routing calls over traditional TDM networks, should the IP telephony network fail.

Closely tied to issues such as interoperability with data networks and QoS, another challenge for VoIP is security from toll fraud to eavesdropping to DDoS/Viruses/Worms. This challenge can be addressed by enterprise IT managers placing particular importance on the security of the underlying infrastructure they choose as the foundation for their VoIP networks, as well as their companys adherence to enterprise security policies, processes and procedures.

Yet another challenge for the migration to IP telephony is the question of expense. After reviewing the advantages, its clear that the expense of migrating to VoIP is low compared to the savings it can bring. Collapsing voice services into existing data network helps reduce capital outlays and operational expenses associated with the administration and maintenance of traditional circuit-switched voice equipment and wiring. Plus, there is toll bypass as yet another reduction in business expenses, not to mention the increased productivity and workflow efficiencies that ultimately help improve a business bottom line.

What about 911? Emergency 911 calls are yet another hurdle VoIP adoption faces. Not all VoIP providers provide 911 access, and most dont offer the phone number and address notification that TDM networks provide. While full 911 functionality remains an opportunity for market differentiation among VoIP providers, many industry experts agree that progress is being made on this front and will be within reach in the coming years.

Who Ya Gonna Call?
If the advantages of VoIP are too compelling to ignore, its important that you know what to look for when selecting a potential VoIP vendor(s). Here are some guidelines that will steer you in the right direction:

Look for a vendor:
with extensive experience in the telecom industry, including experience building systems for both traditional and VoIP telephony alike.

that supports open, integrated, IP-based environments (hardware- agnostic, binary-compatible, open-source) as opposed to one that favors proprietary, vendor-centric, end-to-end solutions. This is critical for investment protection and future upgrading.

with a range of best-of-breed partners that can provide access to key functionality, applications and new services (such as wireless VoIP).

that can enrich an enterprises legacy investment by offering solutions that connect existing technology to the power of VoIP.

that builds its systems and solutions with security in mind, from the inside out. Are the systems based on a highly scalable and reliable OS? Are they built using a secure application programming language and protocol?

The Future Of VoIP
So where is VoIP headed? Straight to the top of companies technology priorities. As adoption increases, so too will the functionality that VoIP can provide from fixed/mobile convergence, in which cellular devices are free to roam from GSM to VoIP within a home or enterprise, to IP conferencing, to other enhanced services, such as gaming and other entertainment applications. There is no time like the present to take advantage of this burgeoning technology. Consider the advantages, and then consider your options and your potential vendors. Youve got nothing to lose and everything to gain. IT

Ron Lott is in VoIP Market & Industry Development for Sun Microsystems. For more information, please visit the company online at www.sun.com.

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