Mention IP telephony and all manner of companies suddenly appear out of the technology ether. While the technology itself is yet to become pervasive among end users, that hasn't stopped voice communications from becoming the next next big thing in IT. But with so many players making their way onto the IP telephony field, it seems inevitable some will fall by the wayside. The question is, which side will win - those with a legacy in data where network management provides the key skill set, or those for whom voice is a richly understood concept?
"If we examine today's wide area communications environment, it can best be described as an access jungle," says Nadia Toumi, general manager for voice technologies at IPL Communications - the master distributor for Avaya voice and data in Australia. "Many different network service types connect to many different types of gateways."
The complexity that often surrounds IP telephony rollouts, as well as the myriad of competing technologies, has in the past made it difficult for vendors and their channel partners alike to build confidence in the market. It hasn't helped that initial forays into IP telephony were less than successful.
"Some users are still sceptical because they had it [IP] first go and the quality was not good," says Logitech Australia managing director Marco Manera. Logitech purchased Labtech in March with an eye to bringing VoIP (voice over IP) products into the consumer market. "But the quality has improved to equal that of most normal communication today."
Not surprisingly, organisations are also reticent to abandon their traditional phone networks, which these days enjoy 100 per cent availability, for a solution that is by comparison still in its infancy.
"Some companies have been very aggressive in rolling out a product that has proven immature. It has created a lot of nervousness and I know a lot of customers that have implemented IP telephony and gone back to PABX," says Craig Neil, managing director of NSC. Avaya's only Gold Partner in Australia, NSC is involved in a number of large trials throughout the country with companies such as America Online (AOL) and Eagle Global Logistics. Neil believes the way to overcome end-user nervousness about IP telephony is to provide the proof of concept firsthand by IP-enabling traditional PABX systems.
"Customers who spend millions in PABX infrastructure understandably don't want to throw it all away, but a lot of customers have updated their PABX to support IP," he says.
Keen to provide the ultimate proof of concept, IP telephony networks are being rolled out and utilised by vendors and integrators alike and each organisation is keen to capitalise on its core competency.
"The big companies are not going to put all their eggs into IP infrastructure," says Barry Southern, Nortel Networks' Asia-Pacific president. "But they will put their toe in the water. So at the end of the day their decision [to take on the technology] lies in the quality of service. That's the trick."
Slow and steady
Gary Maddern, NEC's channel business manager, believes the move to IP telephony will be a slow and steady one.
"It is an evolutionary rather than revolutionary process," he says. "Companies want to see how the technology works without a substantial investment in infrastructure."
The challenge for IP telephony is to make up ground on the features offered by traditional systems. "The gap still remains in the feature set," says Agile Communications managing director Simon Hackett. "It has to work as well as an office phone outright to gain acceptance. It will, but the PABX industry has a 15-year head start."
Agile Communications is a South Australian IP-based telecommunications carrier that has built the first publicly available non-Telstra network in regional Australia. Agile employs Cisco's latest VoIP products, running a network that stretches from Adelaide to Mount Gambier. The technology means one server can handle voice calls, dial-up modem access, fax transmissions, ISDN data calls and interactive voice response, with voicemail soon to be added.
"We built it, so we control the running costs," Hackett says. "Our intention is to offer flat-rate, long-distance calls across the region."
An additional advantage of the new network is that the technology merges PABX with IP systems. "The technology is capable of letting you plug a PABX straight into the 5400 and the system thinks it is plugged into Telstra," he says. "IP will wind up being an enormously popular way of building new phone systems, but today the trick is convergence."
Nortel believes it is the features offered by voice that will differentiate the success of market offerings. "If voice was simple, all of our data competitors would be doing it now," Southern says. "But we have over 100 years of voice capability and we are turning that skill to the IP telephony arena. We have been able to port features onto our VoIP solutions so that the touch and feel of the devices are the same [as traditional devices]. Users have the exact same feature set."
Data versus voice
With convergence the word on everybody's lips and so many vendors involved in the technology, the debate over the success of voice and data companies continues.
"The real fact is if you come from a PABX heritage, you have an entrenched point of view to defend," says Kip Cole, Cisco's channel manager for Australia and New Zealand. "Every vendor understands IP will be the basis of convergence of the voice and data network environment, but there is a lively discussion on just when that is going to be. At Cisco, we say that is today."
Nortel is unfazed by this argument, saying customers prefer to know there is a seamless path to IP telephony that protects their current investment in technology.
"That is the key underpinning message," says Southern, adding that the vendor's solution is not really convergence, since it writes voice onto one LAN and data onto another. "It is important for customers to realise it is not a hybrid solution, it is the evolution of telecommunication."
Call it what you will, but it is still too early to tell which approach will succeed or fail in the market. But features are all but useless if the data cannot move adequately across the network. What's more, while cost savings were initially supposed to drive the move to IP infrastructure, it is now accepted that applications will propel the market.
"The driver for IP today is an application-centric network and voice will only be a small portion of the traffic transferred over the network," says Roland Schramme, Siemens' vice president for business development, Asia-Pacific. "It's not voice over Internet. It's operating the network and delivering the services. As soon as you put services on the infrastructure, the [financial] outcome for the operator is a lot better."
Converging technologies, network management and bandwidth all play a sometimes complex tune in the quality-of-service dance.
"The challenging deployments relate to installing IP telephony into an existing LAN or WAN infrastructure," says NSC's Neil. "We have to prioritise the management of calls across the LAN, auditing the system to check the switching and the bandwidth. That's the way successful deployments are done. We also implement quality-of-service management tools to measure the performance of a network. Those implementations that come unstitched are those that are rolled out without testing," he says.
"I liken it to a blind man looking at an elephant," says IPL's general manager, Paddy Neill. "Depending on what part you examine, you see a different thing. But converged solutions such as Network Alchemy from Avaya incorporate standard telephony so it will work even if users are not connected to the network."
IP telephony's continuing bugbear is its complexity, and with so many options in the market, it can sometimes be difficult to separate the good with the bad, until it is too late.
"There are a lot of companies out there doing voice over IP, but the question is, how many are doing it well?" asks Agile's Hackett.
"If you have sufficient bandwidth, you can make this stuff work very well. Otherwise, you are always pushing it uphill. The bandwidth required compared to a traditional circuit switch system is less, but you still have to install enough bandwidth."
Nortel admits IP's latency remains one of the barriers in terms of mass deployment of the technology, but the "enormous benefits" of IP will drive the market, particularly as bandwidth becomes more accessible.
The good news is that the complexities mean resellers have become very important in reaching key markets, particularly small and medium enterprises.
NEC has been building its business in the channel at 20 per cent per annum in the IP telephony area and recently launched a channel partner program. "Our partners will be our major access into the small and medium enterprise market," says Maddern.
Similarly, Avaya's recently released Network Alchemy platform will rely on resellers to take the product into the marketplace. At the higher end, resellers are also proving their worth.
"When resellers deploy IP networks, invariably they will be on data networks so the skills have to be there," says Nortel's Southern. "We use 3D Networks as our master distributor, which makes it easier for us to ensure our distributors have all the required skills."
"Voice over IP needs channel partners to help get more traction and more exposure in more places," says NSC's Neil. "There are still a lot of larger customers that want to deal with the vendor, but that is changing. The channel has a lot more of the skill set in its workforce."
The move into IP telephony by Cisco means much of its branding has been brought out of the server room and into the visibility of the end user - as a handset on the desk.
"We have to take care not just of the IT issues, but of end-user issues," says Cisco's Cole. "That's where we need the channel."