VoIP talk tops NetWorld+Interop


A lean but vibrant NetWorld+Interop last week drew IT executives focused on exploring specific new technologies, with VoIP high on their lists.

While the show's attendance figure was projected to be between 17,000 and 20,000 - compared with 20,000 last year - the mood was upbeat, and attendees seemed primed to track down products they need for specific projects ranging from Wi-Fi installations to beefing up security to expanding storage. The number of vendors exhibiting jumped from 258 last year to 350 this year, show officials say, and the show occupied 150,000 square feet, up from 125,000 in 2003.

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No technology drew more attention than VoIP and convergence. Sessions on the topic were standing-room-only, as attendees sought answers to their deployment questions and demanded more from vendors. Management, price, reliability and interoperability all cropped up as issues that customers face when they consider implementing VoIP.

Easy VoIP rollouts just aren't reality today, show goers said.

"It's not as easy to deploy and implement as vendors would have you believe," said Andreas Antonopoulos, an analyst with Nemertes Research, who presented advice collected from IT executives who are veterans of VoIP deployments.

Top among users' gripes are the lack of management tools for controlling voice quality as it crosses networks, Antonopoulos said, although vendors are trying to respond.

For instance, Computer Associates used an unannounced VoIP-management product, Smart BPV (Business Process View) software, to monitor the N+I show network, producing displays of virtual LAN, wired, wireless and voice network statistics. The formal launch of the product is set for CA World in Las Vegas next week.

Smart BPV watches for specific packets, ports and protocols to identify voice traffic and collect data such as response time, echo and jitter for integration with the company's Unicenter Service Level Management software.

CA said the integration will let help desk staff address voice/data network issues by identifying the source of problems.This is just the type of data sought by Ron Pike, telecommunications manager for EDAW, an urban planning firm in San Francisco, who is installing a 600-phone VoIP network with ShoreTel gear.

"They need to improve network status reporting," he said, particularly reports on VoIP phone traffic broken down into voice packet load and signaling load. "I need a dashboard for real-time information."

The problem extends to VoIP vendor Cisco, which has network performance management vendor NetQoS working on ways to measure IP voice traffic on Cisco's corporate network. NetQoS said it will add the performance tools to its commercial offerings.

Another big issue with customers is reliability, despite steps taken by vendors. Will Schoentrup, technology manager for Tommy Bahama clothing company in Seattle, said his company is undecided about whether to buy traditional or IP PBXs. Reliability is the company's main concern - especially from upper management. "They pick up the phone and they want a dial tone," he said.

This concern is shared by the vice president of network architecture for a global financial company who spoke on condition of anonymity. "What if the WAN link went down? That would mean no phone service," he said. Nevertheless, he added that Cisco's failover technology makes it safe to deploy IP voice gear to the firm's branch offices. The financial company is testing Cisco's Survivable Remote Site Telephony, which routes calls to the public phone network if the IP WAN link doesn't work. If it's successful, IP telephony could save the company $1 million per year starting in 2005, he said.

Financial auditing firm PricewaterhouseCoopers just bought conventional PBXs rather than IP PBXs even though it recognizes the potential to save money, said Peter Brown, head of internal firm services for global IT in New York. By the time the new boxes reach the end of their life, IP voice may be ready, he said. In the meantime the company saves $400,000 per year trunking VoIP links.

VoIP top 10 list

A survey by Nemertes Research of 45 IT execu-tives familiar with con-versions to VoIP yielded these tips, in order of importance, for anyone undertaking such projects.
1. Educate users before installing the VoIP gear.6. Upgrade the entire network as needed beforehand.
2. Mandate training for end users.7. Conduct a baseline network assessment.
3. Don’t automatically choose Cisco gear.8. Evaluate power require-ments for handsets.
4. Don’t underestimate the time and expertise needed.9. Don’t overestimate cost savings.
5. Be sensitive to tension between voice and data staff.10. Keep quality standards as high as for traditional phones.

The cost of VoIP equipment is also a hindrance to adopting the technology, customers said. For example, the University of Southern California, which has 25,000 phones, is avoiding a universitywide VoIP deployment because of cost, said James Wiedel, director of networking for the school.

"Phones break all the time. [IP telephony] won't work for us if we have to use some IP phone model that costs $500," Wiedel said. USC is looking to buy new TDM PBXs for now, using IP to trunk traffic between the PBXs.

Vendors also need to develop low-cost, analog-to-digital converters for devices such as videoconferencing bridges, so they need not swap out their old analog gear when they adopt VoIP, Schoentrup said.

Makers of voice gear need to embrace standards that promote interoperability between vendors' gear, customers say.

"This is a real issue with corporate America and all its buyouts," said John Haltom, network director of technology management for Erlanger Health Systems in Chattanooga, Tenn. "If our board decides to buy another hospital, how will we integrate the phone systems?"

This includes integration with older PBX systems so that, for example, message indicator lights on IP phones can be triggered by legacy PBXs, said Haltom, who is implementing a 1,200-phone IP voice rollout.

Equipment makers are working on the problem. At N+I, Extreme Networks and Avaya demonstrated that Extreme's Epicenter network management and configuration tool can monitor and do some configuration of Avaya IP phone gear. Avaya demonstrated that its MultiVantage management software also can manage Extreme switches.

In another area, customers say vendors need to better train value-added resellers, the front-line troops installing and troubleshooting many VoIP projects. "Cisco has the technology and ShoreTel the same way, but they don't have a lot of VARs up to speed in the Seattle area," Schoentrup said.

Bob Longhini, a veteran of a VoIP implementation, is considering a VoIP pilot that could lead to a 1,400-phone rollout over three years if it is approved, he said. Longhini, computing technical services IT supervisor at Jennie-O Turkey Store, a $1 billion turkey processing subsidiary of Hormel in Willmar, Minn., said the key is to keep up as the technology grows and to jump in when it meets the needs of individual customers.

"That's why I'm here [at N+I]," he said, "to help get me up to speed."

For their part vendors put a more positive spin on VoIP.

Keynote speaker Michael Capellas, CEO of MCI, said IP voice and video services are imminent and will become commonplace. "[Ultimately] we will completely embed telephony into the desktop with full streaming audio and video capabilities," he said, describing an MCI/Microsoft collaboration service announced at the show.

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