More users turn to VoIP technologies

Last month, Avaya proudly announced that Merrill Lynch, one of the world’s leading financial management companies, had signed up for its Communications Manager IP telephony S8700 offering. The solution will be implemented across the financial institutions new corporate campus offices spanning three continents.

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By  Peter Branton Published  March 6, 2005

Introduction|~||~||~|Last month, Avaya proudly announced that Merrill Lynch, one of the world’s leading financial management companies, had signed up for its Communications Manager IP telephony S8700 offering. The solution will be implemented across the financial institutions new corporate campus offices spanning three continents. All facilities will receive Avaya’s IP Softphone, a product that gives employees access to the robust and secure features that IP telephony delivers, regardless of the employee’s physical location. For example, mobile employees will be able to make and receive calls remotely from a laptop or PC using the Softphone solution. When complete, the IP telephony system will serve over 10,000 employees at Merrill Lynch facilities in Sydney, Australia; Sao Paulo, Brazil; and several locations in the United States including its world headquarters in New York City. “Avaya’s IP telephony platform is a vital part of our world class technology solutions. It provides a clear productivity enhancement for our workforce,” says Greg Levine, first vice president for infrastructure and data services at Merrill Lynch. “We are delighted to expand the relationship with Merrill Lynch across multiple continents with IP telephony solutions. Merrill Lynch will deliver superior service to an expanding global customer base and support an increasingly distributed workforce using the communications solutions,” adds Lou D’Ambrosio, group vice president for global sales, channels & marketing at Avaya. ||**||Local action|~||~||~|While those that have been in the Middle East for sometime are used to seeing such implementations abroad, the relative immaturity of the local market and the time lag that sometimes slows the arrival of next generation technology to the region means they are given very little airtime. However, when it comes to Voice over IP (VoIP), the Middle East appears to be up there with North America and other developed markets. Evidence of this also comes from Avaya, which two days after it had unveiled its Merrill Lynch win announced that UAE call centre solutions firm Future Technology had signed a contract to complete an Avaya VoIP implementation over a wireless network at Aspire — the Qatar Sports Academy. The IP Telephony solution for the Aspire sports academy will include IP Phones, softphones, softphones over Pocket PC, Extension To Cellular, Wireless over IP and unified messaging. “This is a significant undertaking for Future Technology as we are breaking new ground in the region’s IT arena. Backed by our service team, Future Technology aims to help organisations enhance inter-company collaboration through the Avaya IP convergence solution,” says Daoud Eid, director, Al Yousuf IT Companies. “We anticipate this becoming a trend in the near future, helping organisations to solve mobility problems. The advantage of wireless VoIP is that it uses the existing wireless network. At Aspire, the Avaya wireless telephony solution runs on a third party wireless network, making it a relatively inexpensive solution,” he adds. Aspire has turned to VoIP to ensure that its IT infrastructure is as forward looking as it sporting aspirations, which will see it strive to produce world class athletes from the small gulf country. “The Academy is equipped with state-of-the-art facilities and world-class sports programmes. The agreement with Future Technology is in line with this commitment to cutting edge technology, as Avaya has the best IP telephony solutions and the latest technological advancements worldwide,” said Soubhi Abdul Karim, IT manager at Aspire. It is not just Qatar and its companies that are looking to embrace VoIP. Perhaps the most active country in the wider Middle East when it comes to running voice over data networks is Jordan. At the beginning of 2005, the kingdom’s telecoms operator, Jordan Telecom, announced five new services to mark the fifth anniversary of its strategic partnership with France Telecom. Among these new services was Livebox, which is a double play solution for residential and small office/home office (SOHO) users and forms part of the operators move towards an IP-based telecoms model. Livebox allows subscribers with an ADSL line to use a single line to access voice services as well as the internet, with a range of advanced configuration options and other services available over. “Double play means simpler, more cost effective communications for our customers and will be a first step on the road to multiplay services in Jordan,” says Nicolas Baudin, chief marketing officer at Jordan Telecom. “We see integrated, converged services as key to the future and the Livebox gateway that integrates both voice and data is a good example of where were going,” he adds. ||**||VoIP problems|~||~||~|While announcements such as Avaya and Jordan Telecom’s have certainly lodged converged networks in the minds of some local users in the past month, they pail in comparison to the surfeit of vendor hype that has propelled network convergence into the headlines in recent years. Both data infrastructure and voice network vendors have both been beating the VoIP drum in an attempt to get users to sign up. However, it remains to be seen how much of this hype stands up to scrutiny in the long term. There is a real danger that companies have been over-selling the benefits of the technology. If this translates into bad user experience, it could create a groundswell of opinion against convergence that could have serious repercussions well into the future. Chief among the vendor claims that are being hotly disputed by some analysts is that network convergence is a money-saver. The convergence vendor argument is that, despite the cost of upgrading to IP, by moving voice and data traffic on to one network companies can make savings on equipment and infrastructure over time as there is one rather than two networks to maintain. This seems a very obvious gain at first glance, but it has been questioned in some corners. “Convergence will not save your company money,” says Jean-Louis Previdi, senior vice president and research director, Meta Group, Europe Middle East Africa (EMEA). “You may reduce infrastructure costs by having only one network but that network will be much more complex now that you are running voice and data over it. This will have knock-on costs as you have to hire new employees and re-train existing ones.” Many studies have declared that convergence has decreased costs while increasing productivity. However, in these surveys companies rarely factor the soft costs into their figures. These include knock-on effects such as increased salaries and greater support complexity. These factors mitigate against the idea that the converged network is intrinsically more cost effective. There also is a general consensus that convergence technology is getting ahead of business need. So, while the technology may be available and it may be able to carry out some impressive tasks, if it does not fit the needs of end user’s business it will not rapidly recoup expenditure and will weigh a company down. Taking this argument further, despite its many frills, convergence lacks a killer application. VoIP, video conferencing, unified messaging, interactive voice recognition (IVR) and so on are all driving the technology forward but arguably none is a must-have application for most of today’s enterprises. Therefore a converged network cannot be described as an inevitable upgrade. Put simply, if a company doesn’t need the applications, then it does not need the infrastructure. The second disputed hype from convergence vendors concerns simplifying the network. It’s clear that any transition as big as bringing voice and data traffic together is going to create challenges and it is by no means an issue that is ignored by convergence vendors. “Convergence is number one in IP communications but it’s important that the network is thought through,” says David Tucker, senior director IP communications business unit (IPCBU), Cisco Systems. “Companies have to plan for convergence. Cisco has the tools to measure their voice and data traffic, determine the busy hours and call flows so you can size WAN connectivity according to a company’s needs,” Tucker adds. ||**||Challenges|~||~||~|As well as arguably suffering from over-sell, convergence has plenty of other challenges to overcome. In addition to the issue of perceived cost savings from convergence, another issue that currently attracts little controversy is the cost of the installation. This is a hefty expense, particularly if a company is going to rip out a PBX system. As well as infrastructure, users may have to replace handsets as well. Again, this can add up to a pretty penny, especially if in PBX handsets have been recently upgraded. Convergence technology has advanced at a hectic pace and this brings problems as well as benefits. The higher end features offered by IP telephony have not been standardised and therefore compatibility is patchy. Often the high-end features offered by handsets will only work with other products from the same vendor. This contrasts with PBX, where it is taken for granted that a handset’s features can be used on a TDM network. Another area where IP telephony is playing catch up is monitoring of calls. “Management practices in the data network need bringing up to date to match the high levels currently provided by the voice network,” says Michael Allen, EMEA director of performance solutions at Compuware. “For example, in the voice industry it’s quite easy and standard practice to want to know the quality of calls, connections and lots of other details about service levels. There is still work to do before this can achieved at the data level,” he explains. Perhaps an even more striking challenge in the region is the uncertain legal framework concerning using VoIP for commercial purposes. Naturally, there is reluctance to invest in a technology that has its wings clipped by protective legislation in many countries. And, although Jordan now appears to have embraced converged networks and Egypt has similar plans in the works since signing up to WTO regulations, the sounds from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and so on are still unclear. As such, while the convergence movement gathers pace and more vendors, countries and end users come out of the woodwork, end users that have yet to jump on the VoIP bandwagon would do well to heed Previdi’s advice. “Don’t look at the technology, look at the applications,” he says. “Don’t buy converged networking, buy IP PBX, IP phones or unified messaging applications, but only if these applications will enhance your business, and I emphasise the ‘only’”. ||**||

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