Users weigh cost vs. security in VoIP implementations

LAS VEGAS — The high cost of conference calling and maintaining a receptionist at every office are two reasons for installing voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) in large companies, according to IT managers who have installed the technology in their organizations.

ChartOne Inc. of Burlington, Mass., which manages patient chart information for health-care organizations in the U.S., cut its conference calling costs to two cents from 17 cents per minute when it moved to VoIP. The company, which operates 10 offices in the U.S. and supports remote workers at home, is saving at least US$6,000 per month on onference calls, according to its vice-president of IT and systems, Henry Svenblad.

During a presentation at the Interop conference and expo here, Svenblad said when installing VoIP between his company’s offices, he learned networking staff need to understand the characteristics of voice over a wide-area network.

For example, he said, his staff learned the hard way that a VoIP call which should have taken 16 Kilobits per second (Kbps) of bandwidth actually took up 52 Kbps because of overhead. Even the (service) provider didn’t realize how much overhead that voice call had over a (virtual private network),” he said.

Employees working from home can be connected using VoIP over broadband Internet connections, but cable Internet service isn’t always reliable because it’s a shared medium.

Around three or four o’clock, when the kids come home from school and use their Xboxes, don’t expect to make any IP calls,” he said.

ChartOne was able to save money by having one centralized reception desk for its 10 offices, Svenblad said.

The experience was similar for Amerindo Investment Advisors Inc., whose chief technology officer, Alan Peterson, said his company was also able to operate a centralized reception desk for its offices in New York, San Francisco and London. Although Amerindo was able to make it easier to transfer calls and set up conferences when it moved to VoIP, the biggest driver was ease of use, said Peterson, who runs the IT and telecom systems by himself.

”We never went into the project to save money,” he said. “I did this to save myself a lot of headaches.”

Several vendors unveiled voice over IP products at Interop.

Spirent Communications Inc. of Rockville, Md. announced Avalanche 7.0, a testing appliance designed to help carriers and large organizations test networks for “triple-play” voice, video and data applications on a per-port basis for quality of service and security. During a briefing on the show floor at the Mandalay Convention Centre, Jack Douglass, Spirent’s director of business development for performance analysis, said organizations may have a good local-area network, but they need to know whether it’s adequate to support voice, video and data.

You can’t say, ‘I hope it works,’” Douglass said. “You have to understand how voice, video and data work on the same network.

The real value of voice over IP is when you integrate it with business processes, said Andy Mattes, president and chief executive officer of Siemens Communication Networks Inc. During a keynote address Thursday, Mattes said IP communications and wireless networks will help workers collaborate and save time, but companies must make sure they have security built in.

But for most firms, security is not about keeping external users out, because they need to collaborate with their suppliers and partners, Mattes said. The big security issue is keeping external users confined only to the systems to which they need access, Mattes said.

If you talk to the CEO of any car manufacturer, it’s probably the biggest worry that’s on their mind,” he said. “You don’t’ know where DaimlerChrysler starts and where the car seat manufacturer stops.

But not enough IT managers are aware of the security risks of IP telephony, said Andreas Antonopoulos, senior vice-president and founding partner of New York-based Nemertes Research Inc.

During a presentation titled “The Porous Perimeter: Secure Collaboration,” Antonopoulos said IP phones are really computers on the network, with the same security vulnerabilities as a PC, such as denial of service attacks and spying.

Here we have these amazing technologies, and what are we doing? We’re putting them in a form factor that looks like a phone. The problem is that this device is not a phone. It doesn’t operate like a phone. The network behind it is not the switched network, it’s not housed in secure facilities,” he said.

For example, it’s much easier to fake someone else’s caller ID with IP phones than with traditional time division multiplexing (TDM) phones, and it’s easy to hack into the software that disconnects calls, effectively turning the IP phone into a bug.

That thing that’s sitting on your desk — is that a phone or is it the latest and greatest surveillance device that can pick up a whisper from ten feet?

Interop wraps up Friday.

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