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VoiceCon: My day with Deke

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Viewing VoiceCon through the eyes of a network strategist.

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 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.


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