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Network World - IP telephony is extending new features and capabilities to mobile employees and road warriors, and revolutionizing the way teleworkers connect and work with their counterparts back in the office.
In this test we compared the telework offerings of five leading IP telephony vendors under real-world IP WAN conditions. We found that the vendor packages - from Alcatel, Avaya, Cisco, Mitel Networks and Nortel - vary in their security infrastructure; recommended equipment; breadth of new applications and features; price; and quality of voice communications.
Kudos to Nortel, the Network World Blue Ribbon winner with its MCS 5100 - a new SIP-based IP PBX and applications platform. Nortel earns high grades for its collaboration features, including videoconferencing, instant messaging, whiteboarding and Web co-browsing.
Avaya and Mitel also scored well. While neither offered as rich an application package as Nortel, Avaya's teleworker package delivers excellent call routing and mobility features, while Mitel's PC software included impressive call-handling capabilities. We also gave Cisco high marks for its call-routing capabilities.
We defined our review criteria in four general areas (see scorecard, below).
• Telephony features and collaboration features.
• Hard phone and soft phone performance.
• Configuration, integration of components, setup and monitoring of teleworker connections.
• Security provisions for protecting the teleworker's IP connections.
In this test, each vendor first had to set up a full working IP PBX in our lab. Then they had to set up whatever remote-site equipment and software they recommend and offer for telecommuters. A Cisco IOS-based router infrastructure connected the enterprise IP PBX LAN with the "remote" teleworker site, simulating connectivity through one or more ISPs. A special simulation system, from PacketStorm, applied consistent WAN impairments to all passing voice-over-IP (VoIP) traffic. (See How we did it).
What features matter to a teleworker? We decided anything that enhances productivity, lessens the physical remoteness of the teleworker, or enables closer communications and collaboration with fellow workers back at the office was a good candidate.
Nortel's Multimedia PC Client, with an integral component called the Personal Agent, addressed all these areas. Presence - where the real-time status of workgroup or department members are propagated to all other members - is well implemented and effective. Other nice features are call routing, which lets you define various call-handling responses based on factors including who is calling, videoconferencing, instant messaging and whiteboarding. There's even "Web-push co-browsing," where multiple remote users can concurrently browse the same Web sites.
The Avaya features, included in the $150-per-PC Mobility Package, include a soft phone and routing features that connect and transfer calls to the teleworker's cell and home phones. There's also IM and a unique feature that integrates phone numbers embedded in Web pages with the soft phone, so you can click on and dial any phone number you see while surfing the Web. Other well-done, useful features include the six-party audioconferencing and integration of the Avaya applications on the desktop with Microsoft Outlook.
Mitel's Your Assistant software provides a more-modest feature set, but Mitel is regularly adding more to the package. We were impressed with the call-routing capabilities; call logs and click-on dialing; dynamic audioconferencing of up to eight parties; and the Quick List of close associates, which lets you import contacts from Outlook. The software is well organized, intuitive and customizable.
Cisco's features are distributed over several disparate applications, including the soft phone and the Cisco Personal Assistant. There is also access to the vendor's Unity unified-message store via the Web interface. Unity provides a text-to-speech capability for retrieving e-mail by phone. Cisco's call routing is among the richest of all the vendors reviewed, providing the broadest set of rules-based call handling. For example, you can have your calls go to voice mail in the morning and then sent to your cell phone in the afternoon. There's also a noteworthy personal address book tied into telephone functions.
Alcatel says it has several new messaging and collaboration applications coming out early next year. But for now, we tested the features of its soft phone package, OmniTouch MyPhone. The software lets the teleworker closely associate his IP soft phone with other public switched telephone network (PSTN) connections, including cell phone. An impressive feature is the ability to pass a live call from the IP connection to a PSTN phone if IP call quality degrades.
As most of the teleworker calls we tested used standard vocoders and VPN tunnels, the per-VoIP-call WAN bandwidth consumption was similar across the board. For example, with the overhead of the VPN tunnel included, a typical G.711 call took about 105K bit/sec in each direction. A compressed G.729 call, also through a VPN tunnel, took about 46K bit/sec.
The exception was Mitel, which does not carry its IP hard phone Real-Time Protocol (RTP) streams in a VPN tunnel. The VoIP connection is authenticated and the RTP streams encrypted, but without the VPN overhead bandwidth drops nearly 20%.
Call quality varied significantly in some cases. Avaya's less-expensive IP phones, the 4602, priced at $195, delivered poor-to-fair call quality with compressed G.729 vocoding. Call quality with Avaya Model 4620 IP phones, twice the price of the 4602, consistently yielded good calls. Avaya says the two phone models implement vocoding algorithms differently, which is not typically the case with VoIP products from the same vendor.
The soft-phone call quality was generally worse than with hard phones. The mediocre headset we used for all our soft phone calls no doubt contributed to this result, but we advise readers to consider offering their teleworkers the option of an IP hard phone, too, even though they might use a soft phone.
Nortel had the best soft-phone call quality, with good-to-excellent ratings for both G.729 and G.711. Avaya's was good to excellent with G.729, but only fair with G.711, which was surprising. Alcatel's soft phone yielded fair-to-good call quality with G.711 and poor-to-fair for G.729. Cisco's soft-phone call quality was poor with G.729, but fair with G.711. Mitel offers a soft phone for teleworkers, but wanted us to test with just its IP hard phone at the teleworker site.
IP hard-phone call quality, in most cases, was good to excellent. In Mitel's case, we rated IP hard phone call quality as good with G.711, but perceptibly better, good to excellent, with G.729. Nortel's hard phones yielded good-to-excellent call quality in all cases, as did Cisco's.