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VoIP vendors get serious about SIP

Mar 06, 20067 mins
Cisco SystemsNetworking

VoIP vendors poised to make news at VoiceCon this week say they will deliver on the multimedia and interoperability promises of Session Initiation Protocol with a lineup of products that use the protocol as a core IP PBX technology.

SIP has been hyped for years at conferences such as VoiceCon, but full commitment by top vendors has been lacking. The technology is lauded for its openness and flexibility, but vendors such as 3Com, Avaya, Cisco and Nortel balked at building pure-SIP versions of their gear, citing feature limitations.

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3Com and Cisco are expected to lead the way at VoiceCon with new versions of their IP PBX platforms that use SIP as the core call control technology. Avaya plans to introduce a SIP-based, peer-to-peer VoIP system that does not use a central server.

3Com’s NBX and Cisco’s CallManager 5.0 will run native SIP, and when deployed with other applications could let users integrate desktop productivity applications with VoIP and IP video and instant-messaging technology.

“The reason SIP is going native [on IP PBXs] is to get away from the kludgey external proxy servers that were needed to have SIP interoperability in the past,” says Brian Riggs, an analyst at Current Analysis.

“As service providers come out with SIP-based VoIP services, you can do away with voice T-1 lines and ISDN” and link directly into a voice provider via IP. “That can reduce costs,” he says. “There are also a lot of SIP-based applications being written out there; SIP on the IP PBX will be necessary to support those.”

The latest version of Microsoft Office, in which smart tags in documents can be tied to click-to-dial or other communications channels, is an example of this, he says.

Cisco’s release of CallManager 5.0, rebranded as Unified CallManager, replaces the company’s widely used Skinny Call Control Protocol with SIP. The new IP PBX release also lets organizations choose between a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 platform and a new, purpose-built Linux operating system for running the CallManager software. Cisco’s top five competitors in enterprise telephony – 3Com, Alcatel, Avaya, Nortel and Siemens – have introduced Linux-based IP PBXs.

“The timing for us is good” for Cisco to move to a SIP-based CallManager, says Glen Waltman, principal IT technician for Air Products, an Allentown, Pa., supplier of industrial gas and chemical products. The company uses CallManager 4.0.

“Telephony is becoming an application; the more you can get down to it just being an application on a blade or appliance, it should make it easier to manage and you can get more out of it,” Waltman says. “SIP seems to be the standard everyone is endorsing and moving to” in order to make that happen.

In addition to the new CallManager 5.0, Cisco plans to launch Unified Presence Server and Unified Personal Communicator, which will let users see the availability status of colleagues, and to combine voice, video, chat, e-mail and messaging into a single interface. Cisco says its presence server also can work with Microsoft’s Office Communicator client, and the company’s Unified Presence Server can interoperate with Live Communication Server (LCS), Microsoft’s presence and multimedia communication platform.

Cisco also plans to introduce integration with two other partner platforms: a dual-mode Wi-Fi and cellular phone from Nokia, allowing 802.11 CallManager connectivity on-campus and GSM voice off-campus; and Research In Motion BlackBerry 7270 handhelds, letting the devices run Cisco-based VoIP in Wi-Fi and cellular modes.

3Com’s NBX 6.0, an IP PBX for as many as 1,500 users, can support SIP-based IP phones from 3Com, including headsets that work with the vendor’s SIP-based VCX platform, targeted at companies with more than 2,000 users. SIP on the NBX will also let third-party SIP softphone software and desktop phones access the NBX and support all features of the device. 3Com says the NBX 6.0 will support its proprietary H.323-based VoIP protocol as well as SIP, so customers can upgrade without changing over all phones to SIP.

Among Avaya’s products scheduled to be introduced at VoiceCon is its one-X Quick Edition small-office phone system, which consists of SIP-based IP phones with peer-to-peer capabilities that do not require an onsite or remotely connected call server or PBX. The one-X phones plug into a small-office LAN with a DHCP server – organizations with as many as 50 users are supported – and auto-detect each other; extension dial plans can be set up automatically or configured via a Web tool, used to access configuration files of individual telephones. A maximum 20 minutes of voice mail is stored in flash memory on the phones, and data is replicated across the phones – the same concept as a RAID disk array. This allows messages to be saved in case one of the phones fails. A small public switched telephone network gateway attached to the LAN hooks into a voice T-1 for outbound and inbound calls. Later this year, Avaya is expected to offer the ability to tie smaller one-X phones to an offsite Avaya Communications Manager IP PBX.

For larger offices, Avaya is set to launch Version 3.1 of its Communications Manager, with new capabilities for keeping phones working if IP PBX hardware fails. Instead of just routing calls, the software lets users log on to the system from any IP phone and have all phone features and personal settings downloaded to that phone. This hot-desking feature in Communications Manager 3.1 was deployed in a pre-release trial at the University of Washington, which runs Avaya 8700 IP PBXs in the core and thousands of IP phones.

With hot-desking it is easier for IT and telecom staffs to manage simple office moves and relocations around campus, says Scott Mah, assistant vice president for IT infrastructure at the school. Hot-desking also is expanding the university’s ideas on how it could use remote IP telephony to handle potential disasters, “such as what we would do if our traditional campus workforce was impacted by a pandemic flu.”

Some converged applications at the show will complement Microsoft’s SIP-based LCS and Office Communicator client, but others will compete with this platform. Cisco is taking the former route, but Mitel is expected to release its IP Communications Platform (IPC) 7.0, a new SIP-based IP PBX, and Live Business Gateway, a proxy that allows LCS and Office Communicator to integrate with the Mitel voice network. Also, Avaya plans to update its Converged Communications Server, a SIP-based presence and communications platform that rivals Microsoft’s LCS and Cisco’s Unified Presence Server.

“There is less emphasis on dial tone and more of a focus on who can provide streamlined access to voice tied to sophisticated applications,” says Elizabeth Herrell, an analyst with Forrester Research. “As these products and platforms evolve, we will end up seeing greater competition between [telephony infrastructure] vendors and Microsoft.”

Current Analysis’ Riggs sees the battle as being narrower. “There’s going to be competition between Cisco and Microsoft,” he says. “The big battle going forward in telephony will be who controls the desktop client and the end-user experience.”

In the past, softphones were point products that emulated phones on laptops and PCs. But now the stakes are higher, and vendors are including voice, IM, presence and integration with enterprise applications.

“The desktop client will be a means of communications as important as the phone,” Riggs says.