Hearing voices over network wires

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) has become mainstream. The question today is no longer whether enterprises should move forward, says Tracy Fleming, national IP telephony practice leader at vendor Avaya Canada Inc.

“It’s how are we doing to do this,” he says. But the “how” is important. VoIP raises many issues, from your network’s readiness for voice to security and emergency calling capabilities.

Kia Canada Inc. recently installed a Cisco Systems Inc. VoIP system in its new Mississauga, Ont., headquarters. Donald Knowles, MIS manager at Kia, thought it best to go with “the up and coming technology,” since he knew the company would have to live with the new system for 10 to 15 years.

The biggest problem was finalizing requirements.

“Every time we had a conversation (with Cisco) they would introduce us to new features which we decided we had to have,” Knowles recalls. By the time Kia clamped down on “creeping elegance,” only about eight weeks remained to get the system in and running.

Reaching capacity
AnorMED Inc. turned to VoIP because “our existing PBX system was at its capacity,” says Mike Engels, senior network administrator at the Langley, B.C., biotechnology firm. AnorMED chose a Cisco voice system to better utilize its data network and boost mobile communications. With soft phones on their laptops, Engels says, “our mobile workers are better able to stay in touch.” And in the office, moves, adds and changes are simpler.

An equipment supplier to the oil and gas industry, Kudu Industries has small offices around Western Canada and the U.S., and as far away as Colombia and Russia. VoIP lets them connect to Kudu’s Calgary headquarters easily and cheaply. “If you need to talk to accounts payable, pick up the phone and do it,” says Faron Fowler, systems administrator at Kudu. The call may travel halfway around the globe, but looks — and costs — like an internal call.

YourTech Online, a technical support firm in Kelowna, B.C., was switching incoming calls through its head office number to a server in Toronto that forwarded them to remote technicians. That was cumbersome and unreliable. Now a Mitel Networks Corp. VoIP system distributes calls to work-at-home employees across Canada. Steve Wandler, YourTech’s founder and president, says the company has a better handle on things such as which technicians are busy and how many calls are waiting.

Biting off the right amount
Sometimes VoIP fits into some areas — but not all — of a business. Edmonton-based Voxcom Security Systems implemented VoIP in 2003 to link remote workers into its head office phone system. After a fire in 2004 closed its head office for nine months, Voxcom added VoIP capabilities that will make it easier to relocate workers in a future emergency, and last year VoIP was extended to branches across Canada, better integrating them with headquarters. But despite rewiring following the 2004 fire, Voxcom didn’t choose VoIP for its head office and call centre.

“Because we’re a fairly centralized organization, running two cables isn’t much more costly than running one,” says Pat Sparrow, vice-president, operations.

Voice makes network reliability more critical. If you unplug a data cable for 10 seconds, “virtually no enterprise is going to notice,” Fleming says. “If that same office had 20 phone calls going on and I walked up and unplugged the cable for 10 seconds, a 10-second outage is enough to make you think the call has been lost and hang up.”

Before installing VoIP in Voxcom’s branches, Avaya Canada performed network assessments. Sparrow wonders why network tests are necessary as opposed to simply checking network configurations against known requirements. “I think there’s room for improvement in that whole concept,” he says. However, no upgrades have been necessary.

AnorMED added redundancy to its data network with a fully redundant core switch and dual fibre connections from the core to all peripheral switches to ensure reliable voice service, Engels says. Wandler says YourTech encountered a few network issues, including firmware upgrades for routers that didn’t work well with VoIP. YourTech’s VoIP system is hosted by a service provider with high-speed Internet access from two different providers.

Quality control
VoIP users have no complaints about call quality over local-area networks, but issues can arise with IP phones on home Internet connections. Wandler says home users’ problems can usually be resolved by working with their ISPs.

VoIP security has had relatively little attention so far because there have been no high-profile attacks on VoIP systems, but that will come, says David Endler, chair of the VoIP Security Alliance. Among the risks to watch are voice phishing (for instance, voice mail requests to call a toll-free number purporting to be the recipient’s bank) and denial-of-service attacks, which Endler says quality-of-service technology can help defeat.

As a security company Voxcom could be expected to be more security-conscious than most, but ”because of the way we’re utilizing it we don’t have any issues,” Sparrow says.

Engels says Cisco’s security module coupled with virtual private network technology for mobile users protects AnorMED’s system well. Wandler says similar technology from Mitel is enough for YourTech today.

But Winn Schwartau, president of security consulting firm Interpact Inc. in Seminole, Fla., says companies implementing VoIP should think more about security.

“You should have some data security experts involved in the architectural process, in the early design process and in the evaluation process,” he says, and evaluations should include penetration testing.

Traditional phones get power via phone lines. Data networks weren’t designed for this. So there are two ways to power a VoIP phone: plugging it into the wall, which means that unless phones have uninterruptible power supplies they won’t work in power failures, or Power Over Ethernet, a standard for transmitting power over network cables.

“We find it’s a little clumsy when you’re in an office setting and you’re hooking up your power adapters to power bars, to UPSes,” Fowler says. So Kudu has a large switch that supports PoE and feeds current to most of its phones. A few phones are plugged directly into the wall, and “that phone will go down instantly when there is a blip in the power,” Fowler says.

VoIP may be mainstream today, but that doesn’t make implementation trivial. There’s still work to be done. “You perform due diligence,” Knowles says. “You do your homework, you do your research so that you know what it is that you want.”

Opening the lines of communication
Mention open source, and most people think of Linux. But you can find open source software in many other areas too – including voice over IP.

“It’s probably way down there in the overall market share,” admits David Mandelstam, president of Toronto-based Sangoma Technologies Corp., which sells VoIP hardware and drivers that work with the open source IP PBX software Asterisk. But there’s a silver lining there, Mandelstam adds: “There are quite a lot of places to go.”

Asterisk — developed and supported by Digium Inc. in Huntsville, Ala. — is one prominent open source IP PBX. The other is SIPxchange, basked by Pingtel Corp. of Woburn, Mass.

Al Brisard, vice-president of marketing at Pingtel, says his company started making IP phones in 1999, and put the SIPxchange software into open source in 2004 as a way of combatting the dominance of large vendors such as Avaya Inc., Cisco Systems Inc. and Mitel Corp.

Customers like the flexibility of open source, he says. Pingtel’s other selling point is adherence to the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), widely viewed as the emerging standard for controlling VOIP calls and other IP connections.

According to Brisard, SIPxchange customers range from 35-user systems to application-specific implementations in Fortune 500 companies.

Mark Spencer, president of Digium, says interest in open-source VOIP technology is building constantly, and it can be found in companies of all sizes in practically every industry sector. “It’s really surprisingly broad, I would say.”

Digium counts the City of Manchester, U.K., among Asterisk users — the open-source software supports 1,500 phones. British Telecom uses Asterisk internally, as do several competitive local-exchange carriers (CLECs) in the U.S.

Mandelstam says entrepreneurs are using open-source software to put together VOIP systems for smaller businesses. And he says he knows of a 500-person call centre in Romania running on open source VoIP software. “There are a lot of people making lots of money out of open-source telephony,” Mandelstam says.

But what happens next remains an open question. “Either it will reach a plateau and sort of stagger along as a peripheral thing for hackers to play with as most open source projects do,” Mandelstam says, “or it’ll be successful. If it’s successful, we’re probably looking at something such as the demise of the traditional PBX system.”

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