VoIP: Making The Technical Case

Whether it is the owner/operator of a small VAR or the chief engineer at a larger solution provider, the job of that technical leader is squarely focused on driving leading-edge technology to customers and staffers without getting lost in the bleeding-edge world of vaporware and unproven products. With that individual in mind, the CRN Test Center has set out to help demystify the technologies that count in a series of features this year, providing channel CTOs with a road map to profits. First up is VoIP networking, which promises incredible growth for 2005.

Here Now And Growing
With major telcos, cable companies and specialized communications vendors all touting VoIP solutions, the adoption rate in the business world can only accelerate. A study by the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) predicts converged system adoption will expand at a 20.7 percent compound annual rate, resulting in a $5.6 billion market in 2008. The writing is on the wall: VoIP is the future.

VoIP also is unlike any other networking technology. Sure, IP-based telephony uses the all-too-familiar IP/Ethernet infrastructure that networking VARs have come to love, but the similarity ends there. To successfully deploy a VoIP-based PBX, solution providers must become experts on quality of service (QoS), bandwidth control and other technologies that bring the infrastructure up to the task of moving VoIP packets cleanly across the networking lines to ensure call quality and prevent dropped calls or packets.

Moreover, solution providers need to tackle new technological demands such as integrating systems with local telcos, managing plain old telephone service (POTS) lines and extending VoIP capabilities to existing IT applications. And they'll have to learn a new set of acronyms, ranging from CLEC (competitive local exchange carrier) to RBOC (regional Bell operating company) to PBX (private branch exchange).

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Getting A Start
When it comes to competitors, the biggest factor will be unseating traditional phone system integrators, which often have a completely different skill set than a typical network integrator. Legacy PBXs tend to use proprietary management consoles and proprietary hardware and limit integration with existing technologies.

A network integrator will have to take a different path to successfully compete with resellers of legacy telephone systems. First off, integration is the key, and the very nature of VoIP makes it a complementary technology for today's tech-heavy businesses. Network integrators can combine VoIP-based solutions with technologies such as instant messaging, e-mail and videoconferencing to create a unified, available-anywhere business communications solution. Add in integration with CRM packages, network auditing tools and Web-based technologies, and VoIP becomes the clear winner.

VoIP also offers a direct savings for larger businesses. In many cases, existing Ethernet cabling can be used to deploy VoIP phones. And softphones can be deployed as software elements on a business PC. What's more, the growth in wireless networking will enable the deployment of Wi-Fi-based VoIP handsets, adding mobility while eliminating the need for any hard wiring.

Legacy PBX integrators often make the majority of their profit from ongoing revenue from service contracts and by performing changes, adds and deletes. This is usually the largest maintenance element of a traditional PBX, and represents another area where VoIP-based solutions become more attractive. The change, add and delete functionality is greatly simplified by the PC-based interfaces offered by VoIP PBXs. Those tasks can be relegated to the customer, while the network integrator focuses on more profitable and higher-end integration and maintenance chores.

The Players And The Tools
The 600-pound gorilla in VoIP is Cisco Systems, which offers a rich, mature solution consisting of management software, PBX hardware and Ethernet phones. Another familiar name is 3Com with its NBX platform for converged VoIP communications. Other enterprise players include Avaya, Nortel Networks and Alcatel, while some of the more established SMB players include Centrepoint Technologies (TalkSwitch), VegaStream and Multi-Tech Systems.

Integrators will need to pursue several avenues to gear up for VoIP deployments. First is training and certification (see sidebar). Hands-on technicians must be educated in the support and deployment of any VoIP product; the simplest way to avoid failure is to sell what you know. Second, integrators must develop a bandolier of troubleshooting and validation products. Companies such as NetIQ, Ixia and Brix Networks all offer VoIP testing and management solutions. The key is to make sure the existing infrastructure is up to the task of running VoIP. Networks must be tested for QoS, jitter, packet loss and so on, and those tests will need to be done when a maximum of traffic is running across the network. Many major VoIP vendors offer testing and validation tools, which can help cut an integrator's initial investment while providing an adequate method to prepare for a deployment.

Many integrators will find the inherent complexity of integrating VoIP functionality into line-of-business applications both profitable and daunting. Luckily, this is another area where VARs have an advantage, since many are well-accustomed to deploying applications. By researching integration options offered by the various VoIP vendors, solution providers can be assured a higher level of success. What's more, those integration chores can lead to additional sales of upgraded software, along with associated training, maintenance and support for those products.

The Bottom Line
The latest VoIP products prove to be both stable and mature enough to gamble on. None of the technological challenges are severe enough to create dead ends, yet the relatively low adoption rate guarantees opportunity. What's more, VoIP is positioned to become the foundation for unified messaging, while helping to reduce operational costs—an argument most any business would embrace.