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Is VoIP ready for prime time?


Is VoIP ready for prime time?

VoIP is starting to take hold, but most companies are watching their steps and testing the waters before diving in headfirst.

By Kevin Komiega,

Having data and voice communications travel on one network is a nifty idea. The convergence of the two traditionally separate networks into one promises a wide array of new applications, not to mention saving a buck or two on long distance calls. The days of data and voice dancing together as one are on the horizon, and the benefits may go beyond the monthly phone bill.

While the technology for transmitting voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) as been around for a while, the customer base, wary of cutting-edge promises that don't deliver, is just starting to get its feet wet in the new technology. The question is: Why switch to a new infrastructure when the current technology works perfectly well?

"Enterprises are attracted to VoIP because it offers them cost savings, but they will stay with it because of the types of applications it enables," said Larry Hettick, vice president of consulting at TeleChoice, Inc., a market strategy consultancy for the telecommunications industry. According to Hettick, the real savings is in increased productivity. "Companies are looking for applications above and beyond what their [private branch exchange] can offer today," said Hettick.

Bolstering productivity
Some of the allure of VoIP is in applications like unified messaging, which handles voice, fax, and regular text messages as objects in a single mailbox that a user can access either with a regular e-mail client or by telephone. Productivity savings come into play when an organization can move an employee outside the walls of headquarters to a remote location without missing a beat. The employee has access to the same applications and information as they do inside their office cubicle.

Hettick is careful to point out that VoIP and voice over the Internet are two different terms that are sometimes confused. The difference is voice over the Internet is subject to the quality of service of the user's Internet service provider and how much traffic is crossing the Internet at the time. These variables often cause poor connections.

VoIP, however, can be prioritized and the quality of transmissions held to a higher standard. "VoIP is ready for prime time," asserts Hettick. "If you have a corporate IP VPN set up, you can set up a VoIP system where your own quality of service is relative to your own internal data transfer rates. The early adopters in the enterprise space will be those who have a heavy need for both telephone and computer access: consulting agencies, insurance companies, travel agencies, particularly businesses with call centers," said Hettick.

Cray, Inc., a supercomputer maker based in Seattle, Wash., built an entire VoIP network -- consisting of a switched LAN infrastructure with WAN links between its main campuses -- from scratch. "We've done some semblance of converged networking since about 1990, and we thought that VoIP was a natural extension of that," said Tom Stephens, Network Group Leader for Cray. Stephens is responsible for the company's entire communications infrastructure. "We have VPN to the field offices. No VoIP there yet, though although we intend to try," he said.

He believes that VoIP has greatly improved Cray's data network. "The network really needs to be clean in order to do [VoIP], so that benefits data traffic too," explained Stephens.

Cray's VoIP implementation from Cisco Systems incorporates large core LAN switches, edge switches, and routers to connect Cray's campuses. "We tried to keep the design a simple as possible," Stephens said. Although he would not comment on the specific costs involved in implementing the entire VoIP project, Stephens did say that Cray got a complete data and voice network for about the cost of a voice-only network.

Weighing the benefits
Jared Huizenga, project manager for Sage Research, Inc., said that when considering investing in a VoIP network, it's important to weigh the perceived benefits versus the actual or realized benefits. "Since the technology is fairly new to most organizations, they are still trying to prove the actual benefits," he said.

Sage Research surveyed IT professionals from 132 small-to-medium organizations as well as 136 enterprise organizations (companies with more than 500 employees). Sage asked those that are currently deploying and planning to deploy VoIP what the perceived benefits of the technology were. Long distance call savings was the most often cited perceived benefit, cited by 81% of small businesses and 74% of enterprises. Other perceived benefits included converged technologies such as unified messaging and added features.

And while the technology has been around for several years, 70% of small-to-medium organizations currently planning for or deploying VoIP cited a lack of technological maturity as a challenge to deploying the technology.

The consensus is that most small businesses and enterprises alike will move toward a converged data/voice network, but they will take a phased approach. "Many organizations have already invested thousands of dollars into their existing PBXs, so implementing VoIP in a phased approach makes the most sense," said Huizenga. "Many are still in a trial period in which a small percent of employees use the technology."


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