Convergence dilemma

IP telephony is being deployed at a rate of 25,000 to 30,000 IP endpoints per month in 2005 in many parts of the globe. However, in the Middle East, the story is slightly different.

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By  Angela Prasad Published  March 23, 2005

|~|Wael-Fakharany-website-2.jpg|~|Single IT infrastructure is no longer a luxury for companies, it is a necessity, says 3Com’s Wael Fakharany. |~|The number of organisations in the Middle East and around the globe overhauling their legacy telephone systems with an IP (internet protocol) PBX (Private Branch Exchange) is increasing. However, despite this growth, many enterprises are holding back when it comes to integrating their voice and data networks.

The primary reason for enterprises migrating to an IP PBX is to operate one common network. Instead of managing two separate networks for data and voice, businesses can save money on hardware and network data services by running both voice and data over the same LAN (local area network) and WAN (wide area network). This is the most accepted sales pitch as to why businesses need to replace their switch-based PBX system.

But the question we need to ask is the Middle East market ready for a converged network?

Corporations are aware of the less than 100% reliability of a data network and expect to experience some form of down time whether that be an application glitch or a WAN outage. Most organisations would agree that telephone as a business tool is critical when compared to e-mail, internet or business productivity applications. This is the reason why most enterprises elect to maintain a separate voice infrastructure.

Networking vendors such as Cisco Systems and 3Com will argue that more resilience and redundancy should be built into the data infrastructure to provide the reliability users expect from their telephones, however the cost of extra switches, routers and resilient links is likely to be more costly than maintaining two separate networks.

Initially, the convergence argument was the main reason many companies migrated to IP telephony, however there are now more compelling reasons organisations choose IP Telephony, even though the deployment is on a separate infrastructure. The most popular reason is rapid deployment. In a centralised IP telephony cluster, additional branch sites can be up and running within a few days when compared to traditional PBX switches, which often take weeks and require substantial low level programming.

3Com agrees that there is a dilemma in the market place when it comes to a converged network. However, it says 24/7 business demands are placing an enormous amount of pressure on IT managers to provide a single infrastructure, which can carry voice, data and video. The vendor believes true convergence began in 2004 and it will take off over the next two years.

“Single IT infrastructure is no longer a luxury for companies, it is a necessity. In today’s competitive business environment an IT manager cannot afford to have two separate networks for voice and data. There is more than just a high-speed network to move packets from one place to another,” says Wael Fakharany, regional general manager for 3Com Middle East.

Fakharany says that it is a normal human behavior to be careful of new concepts and change. Enterprises that have got a reliable voice system that is 15 years old feel there is no need to change it. “Which is fair enough. However, having said that, IT budgets are being cut and businesses are looking for a single IT infrastructure that is intelligent enough to pick up all their applications,” he adds. “The infrastructure becomes a strategic tool in driving the competitiveness of an enterprise. The picture is much bigger than just convergence. Adding applications on top of IP telephony is advantageous for enterprises. Voice is just a tip of the ice-berg. Applications are going to drive this technology.”

3Com also believes that regional governments are also helping organisation deploy the new technology by bringing in appropriate legislations. “Regulatory issues that were of concern in the Arab world are now being addressed. Now, there is a regulatory body. Vendors can work with this body and strike a deal,” Fakharany.

Emirates Bank, which has overhauled its legacy phone system with IP telephony, says the time was right for it to move to a state-of-the-art technology. The technology maybe expensive, but the bank says the investment is worth it. “Two years ago we set up a call centre using Avaya technology and although we looked at IP, we decided not to go for it then,” says Nadeem Busheri, manager of IT operations at Emirates Bank. “However, with the liberalisation of telecom laws in the region, we feel it is now the right time to migrate to IP telephony,” he explains.

The move to IP technology is designed to give Emirates Bank greater convenience and manageability. The financial institution needed a system that was functional and versatile to meet its growing needs. “Adaptability and convenience are the two main benefits from the IP telephony system,” says Busheri. “With an IP phone, you can unplug it from one desk and plug it in at another desk and it will recognise it and work,” he adds. The company has already built Avaya IP telephony into branches of subsidiary Emirates Islamic Bank.

Muhammed Aslam Malik, manager of network and communications at Emirates Bank, says IP is the way forward and not just for the bank but for business in general. “The future will be based on IP telephony,” says Malik. “We are moving to an era of Enum, which will tie all of a person’s identities, including fax and e-mail, to one number. We believe it is important to keep up,” he adds. Enum tallies each telephone number with a unique IP address, which will allow network elements to find services on the internet using a telephone number. This mapping also allows telephones to access internet services straight from the keypad.

The explosive growth in virtual call centres is another reason organisations choose IP telephony. Since IP has become the defacto standard for both data and voice, IP telephony allows call agents to be located geographically anywhere in the world and have the appearance of a single helpdesk or support centre. The ability to quickly deploy a large number of IP telephony call agents for a specific campaign and tear it down without substantial planning or technical resources is yet another compelling reason to choose IP telephony.

However, one of the biggest barriers facing convergence is the quality of service (QOS) requirements of IP telephony. Unlike traditional data, voice traffic is real time and any delays or interruptions in the flow of packets will cause voice quality degradation. In the early days of convergence, IP telephony was criticised of sounding terrible and was deemed unacceptable for business communications. These issues were primarily caused by organisations not understanding the QOS requirements for voice and not having sufficient bandwidth to accommodate both the data and voice traffic.

Initially, there were two methods of providing QOS for voice.
The earliest standard, which was called RSVP (resource reservation protocol), involved a high degree of router intelligence in all the devices connected between the two parties involved in the call. This method involved sending special signaling instructions requesting a bandwidth guarantee, however unless all the devices between the two parties could understand and act on the signaling messages the QOS would fail. This was a costly upgrade for early adopters and usually required a single vendor to supply all the equipment.

Subsequently, a better method of QOS was required and DiffServ was the answer. By marking or ‘colouring’ the stream of voice packets sent from an IP phone itself meant that the devices between the two parties did not have to participate in negotiating special bandwidth guarantees. It simply placed the ‘coloured’ voice traffic in a special priority queue, which meant voice packets got sent before data packets. Every major networking vendor has universally adopted this form of QOS.

3Com, which has recently expanded its session initiation protocol (SIP) technology to create convergence applications suite, says data infrastructure is now 100% reliable and there is no latency issues. There are voice standards that networking vendors have to adhere to in order to maintain a certain standard. “If vendors follow SIP then there are no issues with the quality of the voice simply because of the robustness of the protocol. We are spending significantly on research and development of voice because we view this as a big wave,” Wael explains.

Many discount toll service providers use another form of IP telephony called voice-over IP (VoIP), where the call is made using a standard telephone, but the call path is over an IP network. Usually that IP network is the internet. Unfortunately, the internet is made from several different carriers who deliberately do not look for ‘coloured’ packets and treat all internet traffic with same priority. It is for this reason that many discount calling card calls sound metallic and sometimes intermittently break-up.

However, not all VoIP calls travel over the internet. Large telco’s have their own network infrastructure and have the necessary QOS to prioritise voice traffic over data when correctly configured. It is almost impossible to detect the difference between a traditional switched TDM call and a VoIP call.

Gul Ahmed Textile Mills, which has installed Pakistan’s first IP telephony network in order to streamline operations and provide employees with a variety of working solutions over a unified IP voice and data network that links its various facilities, is happy with the technology. It has no major issues with latency. “We needed needed an infrastructure that was secure, flexible and scalable and Cisco’s technology met all our requirements,” says Syed Iqbal Shehzad, IT Manager at Gul Ahmed Textile Mills.

The solution was central to Gul Ahmed’s strategy to meet the new global competitive challenges facing Pakistan textile industry as a result of World Trade Organisation (WTO) abolishing textile export quotas. “We are committed to leading the industry in the use of information and communications technology to further strengthen our operations and enhance our position as one of the best textile houses in the world,” he says. “In just a few months, this solution has already increased our productivity by 60%.”

Previously, placing calls from one Gul Ahmed location to another took as long as 15 minutes, while customers and suppliers often could not reach the company because of constant busy signals. The new system has resolved these limitations, as well as the lack of scalability and high cost of ownership.

“Gul Ahmed recognised that in the increasingly competitive local, regional and global markets, intelligent networking offers the right platform for streamlining voice operations, bringing powerful IP telephony features to the desktop and optimising productivity and performance,” says Ghazi Atallah, general manager Middle East and Pakistan at Cisco Systems.

Convergence does not only apply to voice and data merging together. Technology convergence needs to occur across different vendors.

Several years ago, when IP telephony technologies were emerging, every vendor had a different approach to developing IP telephony technology. Large enterprise vendors such as Nortel and Ericsson had a significant investment and large installed customer base using traditional PBX switches. The IP telephony technology these vendors adopted was to add IP telephony functionality to traditional PBX switches.

This protected their existing customer base and gave them an opportunity to continue selling traditional PBX switches. These vendors had invested significantly in the research and development (R&D) and they wanted to make sure there was a return on investment (ROI).

Another group of vendors developed standalone IP telephony technology that did not require a traditional PBX switch. These vendors included Cisco and 3Com. Their solutions used a powerful PC based server and software to switch calls. This seemed like a good idea at the time, but the traditional switches had generations of development and supported many different features when compared to the emerging ‘Pure IP Based’ solutions.

Reliability issues plagued the earlier versions of the ‘Pure IP based’ solutions and only recently have these products matured to a point where they are able provide the reliability and resilience expected of an enterprise class PBX switch.

The PBX giants seeing these new emerging ‘pure IP-based’ solutions quickly released standalone IP products of their own, each with their own flavour of IP. There were companies like Cisco and 3Com, which had a rich pedigree in traditional data networks, producing telephone systems from scratch and although they fully understood packet-based networks, they lacked the experience and pedigree of the traditional PBX vendors. ||**|||~|Ghazi--website.jpg|~|IP telephony is important in today’s competitive business environment, says Cisco System’s Ghazi Atallah. |~|On the other hand, PBX vendors had limited knowledge when it came to packet-based networks, but were more in tune of the end user expectations when it came to telephone systems.

Today, traditional PBX vendors have reached a point whereby they fully understand the implications and importance of QOS and convergence and data providers have reached a stage where they understand the end user requirements.

For years, businesses have treated telephones as nothing particularly special. If they needed new phones, they ordered them from any retail store, which had a broad-range of hardware. The reason why this was possible was because a worldwide standard was adopted for traditional telephony. Every vendor who manufactured central office switches universally accepted the signaling, interface and infrastructure.

This is the biggest challenge facing the convergence of IP telephony today. Most vendors’ handsets are proprietary, which means that they will only work on the system the instrument was designed for.

However, the answer may lie in SIP, which has been developed to allow interoperability between different IP telephony systems. SIP describes an open standard of signaling, which promises to turn IP telephone handsets into a commodity device like the traditional handset. Unfortunately, SIP only goes so far, many advanced call features like call barge, supervision and conferencing are still unavailable because SIP only describes signaling and depends on middleware to provide these features.

However, despite these shortcomings, SIP is making inroads, especially in the service provider market where advanced enterprise features are not so important. In this market at least, it is now possible to purchase any SIP compliant handset and connect it to any service provider’s network.

So where does this leave the demand for technology convergence in the enterprise space? Nearly all tier-one vendors have enabled SIP functionality in their switches and systems, but only as a gateway function, SIP has not been extended to the handset in this space. If IP telephony is to become truly converged, it must be a combination of data and voice integration and vendor interoperability technology convergence. Until this happens, organisations will continue to invest in disparate systems and separate networks.

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