Exploding VoIP myths

23 Feb 2005

There are some resounding brand names in the world of voice and data convergence over smart, high-speed networks where 19th century telephony meets 21st century digital video — and business processes and their associated communications mesh together. Avaya, Cisco, Nortel, Siemens, 3Com are a famous five, all with a significant presence in this market. Historically they come from the telephony and PBX world, and the newer IT and data networks stream. Despite the occasional (and traditional) rumblings from rival reps about flaky computer systems or clunky, old-fashioned phone systems they have all joined in market embrace of the new generation of communications that is digital all the way. In that context, IP is the language they all share.

“Any lingering myths about IP telephony being unreliable are some years out of date and are based on early-day implementation of the technology that has gone through several generations since,” says Ray O’Connor, country manager of 3Com, one of the pioneering companies in the field. 3Com took its engineering pedigree in network switches into the convergence area nearly a decade ago. “We have more than 70 sites in Ireland in the public and private sector, and we can happily claim that there are no quality issues. 3Com is very clear that VoIP has to be first and foremost a phone system; reliable, clear and competitive. But it is also obvious that the true promise of IP telephony is in the smart applications that it makes possible.”

Many smart features were available on traditional PBX platforms, such as voicemail, automated routing based on user-defined rules and so on, he accepts, but others are only possible in a fully digital system. Unified messaging can link voice, emails, instant messaging (IM) and even fax in one mailbox, but a digital system can offer similar services with a much higher degree of complexity and flexibility.

He instances smart ‘find me, follow me’ services that can ensure that any kind of standards-based communications. Voice, emails, SMS, IM and fax can be relayed to the recipient anywhere, any time in a form appropriate to the device the person is carrying at that time. It can also, of course, have rich content attached or linked for retrieval when required. “Perhaps the real point is that the rules can be altered quickly and easily by the user — it can alert me through every possible channel from my top customer or my boss, leave everything else in the inbox.”

But telephony features segue easily into more corporate needs in the digital world. Secure and auditable voice recording, for example, as required by financial dealing rooms and emergency services, is easily incorporated and automated over a network. Click entry of a code or special key combination can be programmed to instigate any task, from an emergency alert to a door/gate opening command or an alarm reset. “The applications that can be integrated are quite literally limitless.”

One feature that is identified by almost all industry voices as the base for many killer applications — as well as being one in its own right — is the concept of services and rules based on ‘presence’. In essence, this means that all services on a system are aware of whether a user is present or absent, and respond accordingly. This is much smarter than simply noting that the person is ‘logged on’ because the underlying rules are infinitely variable and easily set or revised by corporate policy or individual users. So you could be available to your own colleagues or friends, invite a voice or email from others yet allow certain callers. Importantly, your colleagues can see at a glance what your status is — so no telephone tag — while setting up teleconferences, meetings and so on.

“The next phase is converged communications — from email and SMS to mobile, soft phone and anything else that develops — with all of these interfaces consolidated for the users in a single channel behind, perhaps, a single address or identity,” says Roger Jones, Ayaya’s EMEA business development director with special responsibility for convergence. Most vendors are developing in this direction and Avaya is working towards the “personal workspace” where each user sets up a unique combination of corporate rules, personal rules and preferred ways of working and communicating and so on.

“It can have a web front end for ease of control, adjust dynamically to where you are — at your desk or on the move.” Jones is very clear that VoIP and its associated services will find their future development in easier, smarter, reliable communications whether in business or in personal use. All of that can then be integrated with business processes, from customer relationship management to legislative compliance.

He is also confident about the reliability of IP telephony today: “We are happy to guarantee the famous ‘five nines’ reliability and better with our new generation of distributed PBX products — what comes in the boxes gets more robust and more secure all the time.” Where problems occur today, he suggests, is in failure to re-architect networks for voice. Network design is a crucial issue, even in a greenfield situation and always in adding VoIP to a legacy network.

This point is echoed firmly by John Stone, chief technical officer of Cisco Systems in Ireland: “The trend for the past few years has been to invest in the resilience and security of our data networks and we take the famous 99.999pc reliability of traditional phone systems for granted in regard to our data. Where the network investment has been made, providing for the special requirements of VoIP and video is not an issue. Security is a growing consideration, since VoIP is a very publicly visible aspect of your systems and a malicious denial-of-service type attack on an organisation is a real possibility. But in larger organisations and call centres, for example, internal firewalls between sections are becoming common and VoIP servers should be similarly protected from intrusion or attack.” He also points to the rapid adoption of VoIP by telecoms carriers and public service bodies internationally as an underwriting of the technology.

According to Stone, in terms of convergence, VoIP technology is proven, rolled out worldwide and now is the time to look at layering video on top. “The video phone vision of science function is already here. What we are looking at in business terms is the cost justification and the network and bandwidth management problems that video brings with it. It is actually easy to bring to each desk – if the handsets are video enabled as in points then a simple PC camera link provides the facility. Handsets with their own screens are effectively plug and play but most organisations would still find such a dedicated instrument hard to justify on cost grounds, certainly for wide deployment.

But the IP phone-plus PC solution comes in at around €150 per desk these days, so any other issues have to be up at the network level. In fact the technology is there to manage bandwidth on demand for video and increasingly it is becoming a valuable tool for collaboration, whether person to person or in multipoint conferences that can then be moderated through any of the participating PCs.”
Bandwidth overload is not a problem, he points out, since at a set threshold a video attempt would simply get a screen message offering to proceed voice only or prompt when the video service is available. In fact, Stone suggests, video is a good example of how IP technology has moved on from the point where it was principally seen as a way to reduce an organisation’s internal communications costs. It is now a platform on which to build rich, value-added features and services.

“We have now reached a stage where VoIP is mature as a technology but what is not at all mature is the leveraging of that capability for a full range of organisational and personal benefits,” comments Damian Murray, sales manager of enterprise communications at Siemens Ireland. “Technically we have reached second generation VoIP or 2G IP for about two years but the market appetite — even in large and sophisticated enterprises — is still at a sort of ‘1.5gIP’ stage. We have contact centres, for example, which are spread seamlessly over multiple sites and countries but managed as a single entity through a single central control platform.”

He argues that 2G IP vastly expands the potential value of VoIP with smarter applications and integration of communications with business applications and processes. Enhanced collaboration and co-ordination will improve productivity, efficiency and supply and value chains. Two years ago, Siemens introduced OpenScape — claimed to be the first 2GIP application –an open system that provides users with consolidated access to all enterprise communications resources, including voice features and services, email, IM and multi-resource collaboration.

“Think of all your personal systems, both communications and other working applications, seamlessly blended between office and other locations, fixed and mobile, dynamically adjusting all the time to your preferences and current situation. This can all be presence based,” Murray argues. Because everything is IP-based the systems can talk to each other, he explains, and each user’s set can be infinitely personalised yet fully co-ordinated with the organisation’s processes and policies.

Nortel is one of the historic names in voice telecommunications but has firmly embraced the digital age. “We can now enjoy the same flexibility with voice that we have become used to with email and web access. For example, I have just been staying in a hotel where I used my soft phone over a broadband connection — and callers assumed I was at my desk in Galway!” As sales engineering manager for enterprise VoIP and convergence solutions at Nortel, Pat Dempsey’s enthusiasm is for the range of possibilities opened up and for the liberating effect of being able to work any time, anywhere with a personal choice of device. “VoIP is now just data, so the network can be public or private, mobile or wireless or fixed. You can work with what suits you or your current situation — PC at the office or at home or on the move, PDA, BlackBerry, smart phone or soft phone. In other words, distance is dead.”

On the more technical side he points to session initiation protocol (SIP) as a powerful new standard: “SIP provides common ground between traditional voice and data, enabling people to connect and collaborate far more powerfully yet more simply than ever before. We can see if people we want to talk to are available before we pick up the phone and we can multitask — not only just talk but also share and update documents at the same time. This is where voice is becoming more closely integrated with automated business applications and workflow rules, and can also ensure fast failover to a human being when decisions need to be taken.”

By Leslie Faughnan