VoiceCon: My day with Deke

Viewing VoiceCon through the eyes of a network strategist.

As senior technology director for networking and telecommunications at the University of Pennsylvania, Deke Kassabian gets paid to figure out the best long-term path for the school's network. He spends a lot more time on forward-looking and R&D projects

Deke warned me: He wasn't like most of the other 4,500 attendees at last week's VoiceCon show.

As senior technology director for networking and telecommunications at the University of Pennsylvania, Deke Kassabian gets paid to figure out the best long-term path for the school's network. He spends a lot more time on forward-looking and R&D projects such as Internet2 than on mucking around in wiring closets or answering beeper calls after midnight.

"My focus will probably not be nearly as pragmatic as the usual network or IT director," said Kassabian, who has been with the university since 1995 and has attended VoiceCon several times.

I convinced Kassabian to let me shadow him for a day at the IP telephony confab in Lake Buena Vista and write a story about the event based on his observations. He was going to be at the show anyway to speak about the university's use of open source voice software such as Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) Exchange Router and Asterisk .

We met for breakfast Tuesday, with Kassabian grabbing a cup of coffee and leading me into a session titled "Firewalls in Converged Networks." SecureLogix CTO Mark Collier, whose company makes a VoIP-aware firewall, laid out the case for using such specialized devices to get around issues with network address translation and to protect networks from threats such as VoIP spam (dubbed "spit") and IP voice toll fraud that he guaranteed are on the way.

When it came time for the audience to quiz Collier, Kassabian was first in line, borrowing a quill pen from a fellow attendee and writing out a question on a note card about how organizations should deal with securing mobile users' access to VoIP networks. Naturally, Collier recommended putting a VoIP firewall between an IP PBX and end users. But he impressed Kassabian by also advising network administrators to make sure the softphone being used has encryption or strong authentication technology.

"He's with a company that promotes a very topological solution, and he could have said don't do VoIP outside that protected topology. But he didn't," Kassabian said.

Kassabian is adamant about the need for companies to approach IP telephony as much more than glorified plain old telephone service. UPenn is using and experimenting with IP telephony on many fronts. Several hundred IP phones and softphones are in use; UPenn participates with other schools in a project called SIP.edu that exploits SIP; and the school is accommodating students and others using Skype, Vonage and other IP services.

"We could buy SIP phones and enterprise voice servers, or buy IP Centrex from carriers, getting us a service that's very much like what we have today except that it runs on IP. That's a fine goal," said the 43-year-old network strategist. "But there is another goal. Allow voice to be naturally integrated into Web applications, e-mail, IM and more. Let users run softphone applications on their desktops, laptops and PDAs. . . . We need to treat voice as something that happens not only on fixed devices on fixed ports behind a firewall, reaching the world only through a [public switched telephone network] gateway."

Next we listened in on a keynote address from Craig Hinkley of Bank of America, which is rolling out VoIP across 2,000 branches this year, plus at corporate sites and call centers in the months and years ahead. Hinkley, senior vice president of network architecture and strategic direction, said the massive project's challenges go well beyond technology. He elicited knowing nods and laughs from an audience of some 1,300 attendees when discussing the uniting of voice and data experts within the financial institution, joking about how members of each previously separate group slowly stepped away from each other during one early meeting on convergence.

After Hinkley concluded, Kassabian told me that UPenn integrated its voice and data teams more than four years ago and confirmed that doing so is no easy job. "We slowly but surely have come together. . . . We have no separate voice operations group now, for example," he said.

We went our separate ways midday and reunited on the show floor at 4:15 p.m., at which time we searched for answers to Kassabian's most-pressing IP telephony questions.

Suddenly, the trade show floor seemed to revolve around Pennsylvania, as those manning vendor booths eyeballed Kassabian's show badge and started making their pitches to him. Brian Allain, president of VoIP security and management device maker Ranch Networks, quickly mentioned that he is a UPenn alum. Others brought up the Super Bowl runner-up Philadelphia Eagles and practically begged for business cards. (Kassabian declined, saying "I don't believe in them" and left it at that.) We informed vendor representatives upfront about the story I was reporting, sending some scurrying for their managers or public relations people and causing others to insist on not being quoted about the very products whose praises they sang to all comers.

Kassabian was impressed by the variety of IP phones on display, from new Cisco models with color screens (Kassabian has a Cisco 7960 with a monotone screen on his desktop) to those from Grandstream Networks, some of whose devices feature oversized numbers covered in clear plastic bubbles and prices that a press-shy booth occupant said are up to five times lower than those of bigger-name players.

Kassabian said companies have made significant progress in building applications that enable end users to manage the elements of presence, such as by setting rules for which incoming calls find a cell phone or get dumped into voice mail.

"These phones shouldn't be about making you available to everyone, but should be about 'how' you make yourself available," he said.

Kassabian complimented companies whose systems support a mix of legacy analog and digital phones, as well as IP handsets. "That's a good place to be," he told a rep from Teltronics, who said the company supports H.323 and is moving toward SIP.

"Older phones will be with us for a long time. I get worried about supplying an upgraded one-size-fits-all service, that it's not fair," Kassabian said, explaining that he wants to be able to offer services ranging from basic to premium and charge back to departments accordingly.

Show organizers plied attendees with munchies and beverages in the exhibit hall, which housed just more than 100 vendor booths. Kassabian ordered a red wine and said, "C'mon, let's have some fun with the BlackBerry guys."

Kassabian described himself as a fan of Research in Motion's (RIM) BlackBerry user interface. What he said he is not fond of is that BlackBerries work much better with popular corporate messaging systems such as Lotus Domino/Notes and Microsoft Exchange than they do with the mix of Unix, Internet Message Access Protocol and SMTP systems that UPenn and many other schools find more affordable. So he asked an eager RIM rep about whether any development might be underway to meet the needs of UPenn and others. Unable to assure Kassabian that help was on the way, the rep pointed to the product's Novell GroupWise support and shifted into a pitch about a new Wi-Fi-enabled BlackBerry.

Kassabian relentlessly asked vendors about their target customers and biggest installations. "Some of the products do some cool things on a small scale but might not be able to on a large scale," he said, noting that UPenn provides data, voice and video services to a community of between 35,000 and 40,000, "depending on how you count."

Many vendors said they were targeting small sites, although others claimed installations in the tens of thousands. When pressed, few could name names, sometimes referring us to their Web sites. Inter-Tel, which impressed Kassabian with what he called a well-thought-out desktop system for small and midsize sites, cited Chuck E. Cheese's as a big installation. Another vendor said it is supplying the New York City school system.

We wrapped up the day at Cisco's booth, where Kassabian examined the company's latest IP phones and chatted with a well-versed booth worker who highlighted the growing pool of XML-based applications that work on Cisco phones. Kassabian told the Cisco rep that he respects the vendor's efforts to get out in front of standards to meet immediate customer needs and its participation in standards groups, but expressed frustration that Cisco tends to delay support for standards such as Virtual Router Redundancy Protocol and SIP. "You guys need to make sure the best features from your pre-standard technologies make it into the standards," he said.

While Kassabian said he felt a wee bit guilty being on the outskirts of the Magic Kingdom while his wife and three boys were at home, he said, "we're not really a Disney kind of family." So ended our ride through VoiceCon.

Learn more about this topic

Open source voice software in use at Penn:

SIP Exchange Router (SER)

SIP Express Media Server (SEMS)

Asterisk

SIPfoundry

Vovida.org

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