Answering the IP call

Global adoption of internet protocol (IP) telephony is growing with vendors eager to stress the potential benefits to SMBs — particularly in terms of cost reduction

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By  IT Weekly staff Published  December 23, 2006

Introduction|~||~||~|The adoption of internet protocol (IP) telephony globally just keeps growing. Several market reports reflect the strong presence that IP telephony already has in both the business and consumer sectors. For instance, research firm In-Stat reports that total IP phone annual shipments will grow from 10 million units this year to 164 million units in 2010. Similarly, analyst house Gartner says that IT services related to IP telephony migration will reach US$15 billion within the next five years. Business is booming for both networking and communications vendors who are offering an array of IP-based products and solutions, particularly when you talk about the corporate sector. One reason for the huge interest in the technology is its promise of lowering operational expenses for any organisation —the message that vendors are now trying to sell to small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), who are prime candidates for such cost-cutting solutions. “We are definitely seeing, specifically in SMBs, more interest in bringing in additional value. IP telephony is a technology that brings in cost reduction, which is very important to SMBs, so that they can operate effectively and efficiently, bringing them applications and tools to make people more productive,” says Ibrahim Choueiry, regional director for Efonica Middle East, Asia and Africa, a VoIP provider in the region. “Two main drivers for enterprises or small businesses looking to move towards IP telephony are: can it help them save money and is the technology simple for their users to adopt?” says Abir Hnidi, general manager, UTStarcom Middle East. “And the overwhelming answ- er to both of these questions is yes. IP telephony can be a very cost effective solution for an enterprise to deploy and in most instances their current users are already familiar with some form of IT networking at work, making IP telephony an extension of what they are currently familiar with.” “SMBs are pretty much involved in IP telephony adoption. I believe that people are well educated now. People do understand the concept and they have realised the importance of this technology,” says Hisham Amili, Mitel Network’s general manager for the GCC region. “A lot of customers right now are doing two things. Depending on the country and the deregulation and their business environment, our technology offers the combination of migration. “Companies are buying the technology and using it today as time division multiplexing (TDM) standalone but IP-ready, so that, whenever the services are offered, they have protected their investment and they can use the benefits of IP telephony.” “There are some countries that are adopting faster than others and we see customers rolling out the technology from day one. We are giving the customers the advantage of doing the hybrid. They have the opportunity to mix and match and grow based on their needs and the deregulation happening,” adds Roger El-Tawil, channel and marketing director for IP communications specialist Avaya Middle East and North Africa (MENA). ||**||Lending a VoIP|~||~||~|Many consider voice over IP (VoIP) as the main feature of IP telephony. VoIP has the potential to reduce phone bills, particularly international and long-distance calls. Although many companies that have deployed IP telephony in the Arab region are using it to make calls between their office locations, the wider use of VoIP, in general, is prohibited or heavily restricted in most countries here in the Middle East. For instance, there has been much speculation in the past year that VoIP services will soon be legalised in the UAE, following the entry of the country’s second telecom operator, du. But hopes for VoIP’s legality was squashed just last month after the UAE Telecommunications Regulatory Authority declared that that the UAE market will not be opened up for the provision of VoIP. The use of such technology will remain the exclusive right of the country’s two licensed integrated operators: Etisalat and du, it stated. Other countries in the region have also taken steps to block unauthorised VoIP services, such as Skype, altogether. Yet, despite the strict regulations imposed on the use of VoIP in the region, many vendors believe that there is still room for businesses to deploy IP networks and benefit from it. “There are a lot of advantages involved. It is cost effective as far as the business is concerned. Secondly, whoever tries to implement IP telephony solution in a network does not only do it to make a telephone call,” says Taher Khan, systems engineer, 3Com Middle East. “The main concept of IP telephony is to have integration with their business applications. Making a telephone call is the first step. There are a lot of other things that drive the IP telephony concept towards business profitability,” he explains. “The power that IP telephony brings from the application — mobility, being able to reach anybody in the enterprise regardless of device and location; and unified communication, having your voicemail received in your inbox, your faxes received in your inbox — bringing all those type of productivity applications is driving some of those benefits,” El-Tawil (pictured right) says. “In the SMB environment, they are trying to compete and given the right tools help them be more efficient, do things that are better, cost and be more available to their customers. Cost reduction is something that is on their radar screen,” he adds. For vendors, cost reduction is the main selling point they can offer to SMBs because, with an IP-based phone system, the support services cost incurred with traditional PBX systems every time a company wants to change, add or move a telephone line is eliminated. With IP telephony, phones can be moved to different locations because the VoIP’s system software is capable of automatically recognising it. In relation, companies that have deployed IP telephony have seen that they needed less outside help in maintaining and servicing their telephony solutions as compared to previous circuit-switched based private branch exchanges (PBXs). “SMBs that have connected their computers to the internet or installed a wireless router should be able to successfully deploy a basic VoIP system,” says UTStarcom’s Hnidi. With IP telephony, employee productivity increases through better flexibility and mobility. A company that has a highly mobile sales or service force can easily realise the benefits of an IP telephony system. For instance, employees can remotely configure their office phone to forward calls to their mobile phones when they are in the field, to their home phone after office hours, and to their voicemail during weekends. “There are other benefits like computer telephony interface for making outbound calls to customers,” stresses 3Com’s Khan. “Then you can have conferencing setup, you can have the voicemail, CRM [customer relationship management] applications, which involves the complete integration of the customer database with the telephony system, so that would help the sales person to make calls immediately to the focused contact without going into the details of what type of company is this, or what type of business they are involved in. It is a business-driven technology.” Some IP telephony systems also feature smart unified messaging that provides text to speech conversion. It allows users to access their e-mail messages remotely and if, for instance, they are driving, it can be read out loud to them through their mobile phone. Voice and data convergence also provides the quickest way to implement new and emerging applications, instant messaging and collaboration across the organisation. As vendors make their code more available to third-party developers, SMBs can expect more niche applications to emerge. ||**||Consolidation|~||~||~|Consolidating your communications on an IP network can open the door to productivity-enhancing business applications, such as inventory management syste- ms, or make sales data immediately accessible to your sales staff,” says Yousef Khalili, regional manager for commercial business at Cisco Middle East and Africa (MEA). There are several IP telephony solutions in the market that are designed to meet the requirements of local SMBs. “Much of UTStarcom’s solution set is designed for the VoIP service provider,” says Hnidi. “However, SMBs will find that the UTStarcom F1000 and F3000 WiFi VoIP handsets are ideal for SMBs who want to give their employees mobility in an office setting, but don’t wish to pay for a cellular contract.” Cisco offers its Unified Communications Solution, which is an integrated set of voice and data networking products, services and finance options that have been designed to specifically meet the requirements of SMBs. “The CBCS provides the foundation and applications your business needs to be more competitive, responsive and productive. It enhances the way you do business by providing products and tools to help you lower your operating expenses, improve your operational efficiencies, respond rapidly to future challenges, and help ensure easier security and regulatory compliance,” says Khalili. According to Khalili, there are several compelling features that make Cisco’s Unified Communications Solution appealing to SMBs. “The Cisco Unified Communications Solution features intelligent call routing, which allows incoming customer calls to be routed to the employee most qualified to respond to the request, using the communications devices that make employees most accessible,” he says. “In addition, it offers unified messaging, which helps employees prioritise voicemail or check e-mail from a computer or IP phone. It also makes employees more accessible wherever they may be. For instance, even if I am away from my desk and someone calls my office number, the call is automatically forwarded to my mobile phone,” he adds. Cisco also offers wireless-enabled IP phones that let employees stay connected even when they are travelling around the work site. Using a phone, PDA or even softphone running on a laptop, they can receive and place calls, check voicemail, or even participate in a conference call from almost anywhere. 3Com, on the other hand, offers a line of IP telephony solutions for SMBs called the NBX (Network-Based Exchange) IP Telephony system. NBX offers a suite of integrated applications, such as automated attendant/ voicemail, voicemail-e-mail integration and automatic call distribution (ACD), a newly redesigned NetSet browser-based administration, and ease of installation and management for SMBs. “NBX is the type of product which is ready to use, meaning you don’t need to add any more components to the system in order to make it work,” says Khan. “It comes built-in with a four-port telco analog ports, which will connect the telco lines to it. It has a 10/100 fast ethernet port, which you can connect to any power over ethernet (PoE) switch where you will be connecting all your IP ports and users.” “It is an all-in-one solution, which means it comes with voicemail and Unity for the users, without any extra cost. It ships with the computer telephony interface, which means that you can integrate any business application with the 3Com NBX IP telephony system. You can have the conferencing solution, so you don’t have to rely on the telco or some outsourced service for the conferencing. “You can have a free-of-cost four-party conferencing to it. It has the unified messaging, which again is free of cost, where you can have the voice, and normal data e-mails converged on the same e-mail client,” he goes on to say. On top of that, every purchase of the IP telephony box comes with one softphone license. A softphone is an application that can be installed on a computer and has the same exact features of an IP phone. It allows a user to be connected to his office and use the same office phone number extension he has in his office even while traveling. Additionally, 3Com has recently released a unified switch that converges wired and wireless networking functionality, and includes PoE to support VoIP telephony on a single platform. The 3Com Unified Gigabit Wireless PoE Switch 24 is purpose-built for organisations that have between five and 250 users. The company says it is ideal for SMBs that have limited resources dedicated to managing and upgrading their network. Avaya’s version of IP telephony for SMBs comes in the form of its one-X Quick Edition IP telephony solution, which is a session initiation protocol (SIP)-based peer-to-peer solution that is simple to set up and use. All the software is in the phone, with no need for a communications server or advanced installation skills. The phones, which are simple plug-and-play devices that can be easily attached to the user’s local area network (LAN), automatically “discover” each other, start-up their features, and provide back-up for one another. In minutes users can access the most commonly used telephony applications, including voicemail, conferencing and auto-attendant. And as an office grows, new employees can be added to the system by simply adding a new phone. “We try to develop technology that enables and speed up adoption of IP telephony. What we do is we offer them a migration path to migrate from their legacy system to their IP telephony systems protecting their investment,” says El-Tawil. “Our products have a road- map, an investment protection approach, meaning if you are an SMB today and you want to grow into a medium enterprise, the product will grow with you and will integrate to an enterprise platform,” he adds. Mitel Networks flagship IP communication platform for SMBs is the SME Mitel 3300 CXi product. It offers full IP security including firewall, date router and NAT. SMB users can also take advantage of the 16-port Layer 2 data switch, which supports industry-standard power for telephony devices enabling a further reduction in the cost of deploying VoIP into small offices. The 3300 CXi allows customers to choose their own data router and firewall products. Small businesses, keen to maximise their existing investment in IT, can use the Mitel products to integrate e-mail services popular with SMBs, such as Hotmail, as well as Microsoft, Lotus and ACT environments. The 3300 CXi provides IP-PBX capability plus a range of embedded applications including standard unified messaging, auto-attendant, ACD and wireless. Operating across virtually any LAN/WAN (wide area network) infrastructure, it provides seamless IP networking allowing for full feature transparency within distributed environments by supporting various networking standards. With the 3300 CXi SMBs have the opportunity to IP enable their legacy PBXs, says Amili. “It protects existing investments while delivering all the advantages of a converged infrastructure,” he adds. For very small companies, Linksys offers a new line of SIP-based telephony products. The new line of IP telephony solutions called the Linksys Voice System 9000 (LVS 9000) includes an IP PBX/Key system, a wide range of IP desktop phones, an analog gateway for connection to the public swit- ched telephone network (PSTN) and a selection of authorised internet telephone service prov- ider (ITSP) offerings for the small business to choose from. It is specifically aimed at the very smallest of businesses: those ranging from one-person outfits based in a simple home office to small companies of one to five people, with room to grow to 16 users. “There are more than 35 million small businesses worldwide looking for custom IP communication solutions that are custom built for their needs,” says Tarun Loomba, Linksys senior director of product marketing. “To date most small businesses are forced to use enterprise or consumer voice solutions that are either too costly or difficult to use or not robust enough to support their needs. “The new Linksys IP PBX and IP phones bundled with our authorised service provider partner’s offering were developed for the small business in mind. The LVS9000 will make the deployment of full featured voice networks easy to install and simple to use at a price small businesses can afford.” Once a company grows to more than 16 workers, for example, Mohammed Hoda, regional manager of Linksys MEA, recommends users progress to a Linksys One hosted-IP communications system that includes both voice and data services. According to Hoda, it is the ultimate “all-in-one box” service, offering just one converged services infrastructure for everything: phones, data networking, internet and business applications. ||**||The key factors |~||~||~|For SMBs wishing to implement IP telephony within their organisation, it is easy to be caught up in the technology’s “wow” factor. The best way to ensure that a company is investing in the right solution is to identify, first of all, the reasons why they need the technology. “Most SMBs know the potential IP telephony delivers to improve business productivity. Even so, there are many factors to consider when evaluating an IP telephony solution. Not only should an SMB understand the full range of advantages the technology can provide, but they also need to have a basic understanding of how it works and what features are necessary for a small business,” says Amili. “We first need to understand why a customer would invest in IP telephony. This is a very important question that would lead us to understand whether we are positioning the technology to the right customer or not, or whether IP telephony would be a costly solution to them as compared to the TDM or not. The need for the technology would depend on his business. If this technology is providing value addition to his business, then definitely it would not be a costly solution,” says Khan. “For our region, I think we need to choose a product that gives them investment protection, particularly if they are looking for a combination of IP telephony and TDM. Not all of the users will require IP telephony. This is something that they need to look at,” adds El-Tawil. There are various approaches to IP telephony, the most common of which are the hosted or equipment-based solution. For SMBs migrating to an IP-based network, they should look at what method best suits their needs, according to Cisco’s Khalili. “Hosted solutions are easier to deploy and manage. On the other hand, running the solution on-site gives added functionality that may be needed as you grow your business,” he says. “This is where an understanding of total cost of ownership comes into play. And before they decide on a solution, they should evaluate at least three vendor offerings and look at the pricing, available features and availability before deciding to commit to one,” he adds. Amili also emphasises the need to choose a system that will grow with the user’s business. “Because the technology changes rapidly, it must be easy to upgrade and have ample bandwidth and connectivity,” he says. Another important factor to consider, according to Choueiry is QoS (Quality of Service). “This is vital, particularly for voice,” he says. “You wouldn’t notice if an e-mail arrives late, but a slight delay in delivery of voice data is very much easier to detect.” “3Com has a very focused approach for that,” adds Khan. “We have started a concept called Voice Readiness. Custo- mers first need to understand whether their current infrastructure is a voice ready network or not. A voice-ready network refers to the capability of the infrastructure to carry voice traffic. Voice is a delay-sensitive traffic, not like data. It is a real-time delay sensitive form of traffic, which cannot afford any long delays in its communication. The infrastructure should be smart enough to prioritise voice traffic if there are multiple services running on the same infrastructure. It should have a proper QoS that could enable the voice traffic to remain unaffected if there is a bottleneck or a huge traffic flowing through the network that could affect the delay or the sensitivity of this traffic,” he explains further. For companies that are just opening up offices, Hoda recommends that they jump into the technology immediately. “I would recommend that if you are opening a new office and this is a feature that they require, which a legacy system cannot fulfill, they should look at IP telephony,” he says. “Because it is not just about saving the infrastructure cost, or saving the cost in terms of technical resources, but it is also about bringing in enhanced capabilities inside the system through the productivity of their business,” he concludes. ||**||

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