Voice/data convergence is well under way. “Essentially the entire market is making the switch to IP telephony or Voice over IP,” says Mauro Lollo, co-founder and chief technology officer of the Toronto-based integration firm Unis Lumin Inc. “So, it’s no longer exploratory technology.”
For organizations on the IP bandwagon, knowing the challenges and paths to success is key.
As a real-time application, voice makes some stringent demands on the network. “VoIP has its complexities,” cautions Unis Lumin’s Lollo. “It has to be treated with kid gloves. The care and feeding of the system—but also the planning and implementation are exceptionally important to ultimate success.”
According to Lisa Pierce of Forrester Research, organizations need to think about the ways in which the VoIP system will connect to the outside world. Specifically, she notes that the majority of VoIP installations today are not connecting to the carrier using a session initiation protocol (SIP) trunk, which is the leading way to carry packetized voice in the larger world.
Most, she explains, are connecting using T1 primary rate interface (PRI) or plain old telephone service (POTS) analog lines. Pierce attributes this to the fact that “not every provider offers SIP trunking,” and those that do require that customer premises equipment (CPE) meet the carrier’s network specifications. “If the carrier hasn’t tested the equipment you’re planning to install, it isn’t safe to assume that it’ll just work because it’s SIP-compliant,” she says.
Chris Nantes of Toronto-based Nortel agrees that there can be interoperability issues with SIP trunking. “Even different SIP application servers can sometimes have slightly different interpretations of the SIP standards,” he says.
Ben Brauer, senior product manager for Response Point, Microsoft Corp.’s small business phone system offering created by a team at Microsoft Research, says that the “flavor” of SIP trunking that Response Point will support is SIPconnect. SIPconnect, promoted by the SIP Forum, is intended to minimize the amount of CPE needed to interface with a carrier’s SIP trunk. Brauer says SIPconnect is being installed by carriers now and should be available for use by the second half of this year. Service Pack 1 for Response Point, announced in March by the Redmond, Wash.-based company, will add support for SIPconnect. A summer release is expected.
When planning a VoIP rollout for a customer, VARs and integrators will need to find out what carriers serve their customer’s locations, which of those carriers offer SIP trunking, and what CPE is on those carriers’ approved lists. “I would say it’s part of your due diligence,” says Forrester’s Pierce. Also, investigate whether the carrier offers service-level agreements on uptime and quality of service (QoS).
Some VoIP deployments have gone off with few hitches, while others have been train wrecks. Why the seemingly random results? Certainly, technical competence in IP telephony is a basic requirement. Beyond that, however, much of the success (or lack thereof) can be attributed to taking the time to find solutions suitable for the organization in question.
Perform Needs Analysis Take inventory of your existing data network(s). Does it make a good host for a converged voice/data network? In most cases, upgrades will be needed. Cisco’s Eren Hussein says many organizations have a “mishmash of lots of different networks.” In many cases, when these organizations implement a Cisco unified communications or VoIP solution, Hussein says they are “consolidating a lot of that technology into one fabric or network.”
An important decision, in Pierce’s estimation, is whether to use an on-premise IP PBX or hosted VoIP. Hosted VoIP not only lowers the investment for the customer, but also eliminates compatibility issues between the IP PBX and the carrier, as the carrier is hosting that piece of the puzzle. (You still need to make sure that the individual IP phones you’re planning to use are on the carrier’s approved list.)
Unis Lumin’s Lollo says that “for a lot of very small organizations, a simple hosted VoIP solution might be an option.” But he also notes that “hosted VoIP solutions don’t necessarily deliver all of the potential features that you could get with an in-house IP PBX.” Lollo is referring to not just the basic voice or telephony features, but the ability to integrate with more applications within the environment.
If you’ve got technical staff properly trained on VoIP, you’ve spent enough time really engaging with the users in your organization, have planned in depth, and have followed through on the steps outlined here, how can you miss? Well, a VoIP rollout can be an iffy proposition. The key is to take as many steps as possible to tip the odds in your favor.
Alan R. Frank is a networking consultant and freelance writer.