• United States

Show spotlight to shine on IP voice

Feb 17, 20037 mins

Alcatel, Avaya and Siemens among companies airing new products.

This week’s VoiceCon show promises to have convergence-hungry attendees anxious to dig into a variety of IP telephony fare at a time when budget woes have lesser priorities stuck on the back burner.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – This week’s VoiceCon show promises to have convergence-hungry attendees anxious to dig into a variety of IP telephony fare at a time when budget woes have lesser priorities stuck on the back burner.

Companies such as Alcatel, Avaya, Mitel and Siemens will offer hardware and software aimed at letting users combine voice and data onto one network and take full advantage of converged applications. However, these vendors also will need to address nagging user concerns about IP telephony’s sturdiness and ability to reduce IT costs.

VoiceCon is one of the few IT trade shows holding its own in this difficult economy. Three thousand are expected to attend, which would be an increase of 300 over last year. The number of exhibitors is up to 54 from 44 at last year’s show.

As will be evidenced at the show, IP voice vendors are moving toward opening up and modularizing various parts of corporate telephony that are consolidated into one or two boxes in the proprietary PBX world. Equipment makers say this could help make corporate phone and messaging systems less expensive to buy and maintain.

One analyst says the move to modularity is a long time coming for telephony gear.

“Overall, the telecom industry has been about 25 years behind the PC industry,” says Brian Strachman, an analyst with Instat/MDR. Whereas many data networks have evolved into intelligent PCs at the endpoint attached to Intel-based servers, telecom products have remained “mainframe-like,” Strachman says, with centralized processing and “dumb” phone terminals as endpoints. Migration toward IP-based telephony, with voice as an application running on standard PC servers and over an IP network, could help businesses lower the price of voice system hardware and maintenance, he adds.

Alcatel is introducing its OmniPCX Enterprise, an upgrade of its OmniPCX 4400 phone switch, with native support for Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) and H.323. The box is an Intel server running Linux, as opposed to the proprietary hardware and Unix operating system used on the 4400 model. A digital card for the device will let Alcatel’s circuit-switched phones be used on the system along with Alcatel’s existing H.323-based IP phones.

Alcatel is not releasing its own SIP-based phone, the company says, but the OmniPCX Enterprise will work with other vendors’ SIP-based phones, and is certified to operate with Pingtel’s Expressa SIP phone and Windows Messenger, the SIP-based voice, video and instant-messaging client in Microsoft’s Windows XP operating system. Alcatel says the product’s nonproprietary hardware and software and its ability to be deployed on different types of SIP phones could help businesses lower costs.

Also, Avaya is introducing two messaging server products that could let customers deploy messaging anywhere throughout a company while supporting integrated voice/data applications. Avaya is migrating its Aria, Audix and Serenade voice mail platforms to its new S3400 Messaging Server, which is built on Intel hardware with support for Windows 2000 or Linux at the operating system level. The S3400 supports Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions and Simple Mail Transfer Protocol, which let voice mail messaging integrate with e-mail clients more easily. Lightweight Directory Access Protocol support also can let the device integrate with other user directories, enabling single sign-on to voice and e-mail, while making user accounts easier to administer.

The S3400 will support H.323 and SIP IP telephony protocols (expected to be available later this year), which will let the device be attached anywhere in a corporate LAN or over a WAN; traditional voice mail servers required ISDN or T-1 interfaces directly to a PBX.

Siemens is going along with the modularity trend by rebranding its IP PBX software as a separate platform it calls ComScendo. ComScendo will include all the features of the past HiPath 3000, 4000 and 5000 IP PBXs and will come bundled with those systems. Siemens says that future versions of ComScendo will give users the choice of deploying IP telephony call control in various server platforms, such as Unix, Windows or Linux.

Siemens also is introducing the optiPoint 400 IP phone with SIP and H.323 support, and the optiPoint 600 IP/circuit-switched phone, which works with Siemens IP and traditional PBXs. Also being released is the new optiClient 130 softphone, which gives users all the HiPath IP PBX features, plus additional capabilities such as organizing conference calls by dragging and dropping names from a directory application. A USB handset device for the optiClient 130 also is available.

Mitel Networks will announce a survivability feature for its ICP 3300 IP PBX that lets remote IPC 3300s continue communicating over ISDN lines in the event of an IP WAN link failure. Mitel will introduce a module for the ICP 3300 that will let Nortel Norstar circuit-switched PBX phones be used with the IP-based Mitel box. The module is based on technology from Citel, which makes a similar product for 3Com’s IP PBX.

In addition to the deployment benefits of these kinds of modular systems, Instat/MDR’s Strachman says IP voice technology can help companies administer large voice networks with fewer people.

“Over 20% of the [$5 billion] PBX market revenue comes from maintenance and services,” Strachman says. The fact that moves, adds and changes in IP telephony are similar to PC administration, and do not have to be done by specialized staff or consultants, is one of the cost benefits.

For three-year VoiceCon veteran Scott Bradley, director of telecommunications at Utah State University in Logan, the idea of using IP voice technology to extend his traditional telephony service to remote locations is appealing.

“Many of our [remote campus branches] could be incorporated into our campus phone system using IP,” Bradley says. The school is piloting IP PBX and phone equipment from Cisco in conjunction with a large on-campus PBX from Intecom, which supports more than 5,000 students and faculty. “If we can do that for a nominal price and give remote users seamless access to our phone system, then it’s worth it,” he says.

Bradley says he likes the fact that IP telephony will reduce administration costs and allow for less-expensive telecom gear based on commodity hardware. However, there are other issues he must factor in, such as the price he would have to pay to upgrade his LAN to support voice and concerns about voice over IP (VoIP) security and power. Other issues include where IP telephony would work best.

“There are two kinds of IP telephony in my view,” Bradley says: “inside the moat,” meaning large headquarters deployments of IP telephony to desktops, and “outside the moat,” where VoIP is used to connect remote offices. “IP telephony is more of an outside-the-moat application, for now,” he says.

Additionally, Bradley says, he has been disappointed with the amount of features IP PBX vendors have had to offer on their gear – typically fewer than 100 – compared with the 500-plus features he has available on his PBX.

“All those [PBX features] that exist today have been evolving over decades, and they’re all there for a reason,” Bradley says. But he adds that he has seen improvement in the market.

“Every year I come to VoiceCon, they seem to be getting closer,” he says, referring to vendors delivering products that he wants.