Pick up the phone and, with the touch of a button, control your lighting or air conditioning. Track patients with dementia or offer organisations a single interface for voicemail, email, fax and video via unified messaging.
With applications like these, and whatever else the imagination can concoct, voice over IP (VoIP) is fast becoming a must-have in many market segments from healthcare to financial services and manufacturing.
"You can get access to specific information straight from the phone," managing director of Getronics converged communications practice, Rob McCabe, said. "There's such a raft of different applications you can develop with IP telephony as the infrastructure. The most important thing is offering a customer-specific, niche application."
By latching onto the technology, users can expect to save money, simplify network administration and improve productivity. While those are just some of the obvious business benefits, there are also some nifty uses.
For starters, it will let users screen calls; listen to callers and answer questions minus human intervention via a multimodal system; and alert recipients that someone else is trying to get through via a dashboard.
Indeed, some new features being developed in VoIP labs include technology that can intelligently decide whether the user should take the call.
Today, users have access to caller ID to determine whether to answer the phone. But Nortel is developing technology, using a Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) and a server-based user software agent, which takes things a step further and help determine how important a call is. Call features aside, there are already a number of large deals being struck locally. IP telephony is also attracting attention in the small to medium enterprise (SME) space.
IDC numbers for Q1 2005 showed most SME companies install a hybrid analog/digital and IP solution, senior telecommunications analyst, Susana Vidal, said.
"The war in the IP telephony market is far from over," she said. "Market share competition among leading equipment vendors is getting tougher, but competitors are now coming from different directions, especially in the SME segment with residential VoIP players moving up the value chain and open source IP BXs beginning to crawl into this market."
Let's talk numbers. IDC predicts the Australian VoIP services market will grow from $36 million in 2003 to $288 million by 2008.
Some top trends include open standards and the integration of VoIP services with business applications like CRM and ERP. Vertical applications will leverage the potential of VoIP technology.
Integration with the unified communication system was another top feature, Vidal said.
Local network service provider, Getronics, recently hatched a converged communications practice in a bid to meet demand for services like integrating VoIP with CRM and ERP, as well as more traditional IP telephony applications. The company had signed 14 customers and was looking to reach 20 within the year, McCabe said.
"There is a lot of talk in the market about what is the killer application, but really there isn't one," he said. "It's more about gaining an understanding of a customer's need."
There are opportunities to integrate IP telephony with video conferencing, unified messaging or intercom/paging as well as call management services, virtual contact centre and call accounting.
Other vertical applications include call management services, which offer simplified outbound dialling, enterprise applications-coordinated screen pops, call screening, call optioning and call log for analysis. Or an IP-enabled emergency response system which allows traditional under desk buttons to initiate a silent alarm and stream audio to designated destination phones, providing security teams with real-time information.
Getronics added value on the integration front, McCabe said, by taking the niche applications and implementing or modifying them to meet specific customer needs.
The company has also developed some of its own applications, including Global Financial Solution, an IP telephony solution for the financial services industry.
And while many companies are touting the benefits of VoIP, some top issues to consider include true costs, security and new applications.
While cost savings was considered the top benefit, worries over high costs also ranked as the top barrier to market entry, IDC's Vidal said. "Many users don't have a clear understanding of the cost benefits," she said. "It all boils down to a lack of education."
Other issues include ensuring proper voice quality and security concerns. As VoIP moves phone service from a separate telephony network to the IT network, it brings with it a number of general security challenges inherent in any networked computing environment including automation, action-at-a-distance, technique propagation and system complexity, NetIQ principal software architect, Jeff Hicks, said.
Today's computing environments, especially for VoIP, are extremely complex with multiple entry points to administer and manage.
"To handle these general security challenges, you must implement a set of security procedures. The first step is to manage vulnerabilities," Hicks said. "Keys include ensuring compliance to security policies, doing periodic scans, using notification and advisory services offered by your security vendors and keeping software patches up-to-date."
Digging deeper, VoIP is subject to new security threats including toll fraud.
"VoIP systems, which are part of the data network, offer much easier access to systems than traditional PBXs, which operate on a separate network and are generally managed by a separate group in the organisation."
Other security disruptions include denial-of-service attacks, call hijacking, redirection, call spoofing and SPAM over IT telephony.
Despite these concerns, one positive development fuelling the VoIP space and cranking up overall market awareness, Vidal said, was the partnership game.
This is the year of partnerships, according to IDC, as equipment vendors, service providers and system integrators ink deals. Netgear is one example of a company putting its VoIP ducks in order. It recently inked deals with three local service providers - Ace Communications Group, Broadband Phone and MyNetFone - in a bid to rev up its VoIP activity and deliver ready-to-use products.
Netgear's new wired two-port telephone router would come bundled with the latest VoIP offerings from the three local service providers, giving users cheaper phone calls and a host of other call features not available on traditional phones, Parker said.
While the market seems to be full steam ahead, it's been a slow, steady path for resellers. During the past year, traditional voice resellers have started to consider implementing the technology, IDC's Vidal said.
But partners needed a good dose of education on how the IPBX works in conjunction with the network, she said.
"Last year, the traditional voice players were not too interested, but they quickly realised this is a trend and that IP telephony migration is now underway," she said.
NetIQ managing director, David Taylor, said resellers could create significant services revenues on top of product sales.
In a nutshell, the products can predict a customer's expected call quality; generate customisable reports on current network devices to determine if they are capable of supporting VoIP; and project bandwidth requirements for expected call loads.
"There is a growing market for resellers who can offer services surrounding VoIP, particularly in the area of pre-deployment assessments," Taylor said.
Once the reseller had assessed the customer's network, partners could offer additional services including diagnostics and network troubleshooting, Taylor said.
They could include pinpointing call quality problems; cutting the time needed to resolve voice quality issues; alleviating skills shortages; and effectively managing VoIP networks so they deliver the service levels expected of mission critical applications.
Taylor said about 85 per cent of business networks could not handle the increased traffic generated by VoIP.
"Many fail to find this out before embarking on expensive training and pilot deployments," he said.
NetIQ is actively looking for partners that can deliver VoIP consulting services. Typically, problems arise at the pilot phase for two key reasons - and a partner can determine the situation and make deployment recommendations.
"People under configure or underestimate the requirements in terms of equipment and the type needed, which results in bad calls or dropped calls," Taylor said. "On the flip side, people overspend and over commit themselves, spending too much on equipment and getting more than they need."
Indeed, there were many considerations when preparing the network for voice, which translated into opportunities for resellers, Packeteer country manager, Bede Hackney, said.
It was only a matter of time before crude quality of service solutions for VoIP break something on the network, he said. "And that something could be just as important as being able to make cheap phone calls," Hackney said.
Existing wide area networks were built for a purpose - to distribute mission critical data throughout the enterprise. So what happens to those applications on a converged WAN?
Hackney said the problems went beyond VoIP.
"Many organisations implementing VoIP have also implemented Video over IP," he said. "Both use RTP [Real-Time Protocol], so router-based QoS can't tell them apart, but Video over IP uses a lot more bandwidth than VoIP, leading to degradation and drop-outs of voice calls."
Hackney said a reseller should realise that more sophisticated WAN optimisation solutions were required if the user was going to be able to load VoIP traffic onto an existing network.
Help came in the form of deploying WAN application management tools that deliver visibility, he said.
In a bid to educate resellers about network requirements, Packeteer has funded new business development managers within Express Data and LAN Systems.
"VoIP is one of the new applications driving WAN optimisation solutions, and the BDMs are out there spreading the word to resellers," Hackney said. Partners eyeing the security space could help organisations deal with VoIP challenges by putting general security policies in place, NetIQ's Hicks said.
Security recommendations included separating VoIP traffic where possible, using switches instead of hubs for more security features, and deploying firewalls whenever possible, he said. Make sure all IP phones have secure passwords, use encryption for all external calls and, if possible, for internal calls too.
"VoIP security presents challenges, but these challenges are manageable using careful planning and security awareness," Hicks said.
Senior systems engineer at Juniper, Brad Engstrom, said an integral part of VoIP deployment involved reviewing every single piece of equipment in the network.
This was a tedious job, he said, which required the expertise of a reseller.
Typically, the engineering and security aspects of a network deployment haven't intertwined - a fact that no longer makes sense given the complexity of voice.
"There's an opportunity for resellers to look at this holistically," Engstrom said. "There needs to be cross-pollination between those two teams. We need to say, 'Here's the security policies but how do they impact voice?' There are a lot of security devices in there based on policy, and those policies can mess up voice."