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Tech Industry

Expect a Net phone evolution, not revolution

VoIP may be the future, but Jon Oltsik says it's a mistake to overlook that it remains a work in progress.

IP telephony has been the next big thing since the Internet boom.

Common wisdom suggested that you could save boatloads of money by stuffing long distance voice traffic onto the Internet and that exploding Internet growth would simply roll over the traditional Pubic Switched Telephone Network.

Yup, voice traffic was moving to packets, simple as that.

However, in spite of the ongoing hype, Net telephony, also known as voice over Internet Protocol, remains an early work in progress. Yes, VoIP is growing significantly, justifying the zillions of pundit forecasts and platitudes--but if IP telephony were a book, we'd probably be at Chapter 4 in the telecom equivalent of "War and Peace." Here's why.

The biggest short-term threat of all is simply the poor state of network security.

The first holdup is simple economics. In the United States, Internet bandwidth costs about $5 per megabit per month. Bandwidth pricing goes up precipitously abroad. A megabit of bandwidth costs about $10 a month in Singapore, $27 a month in Europe and around $300 a month in Australia. These numbers are the equivalent of a cold slap in the face, given those grandiose cost-saving visions that VoIP vendors trumpet.

Another gotcha is the lack of prevailing standards. With all the hoopla around the Session Initiation Protocol, you'd think it was set in stone. Nope. Each vendor has its own version of SIP, so any company with a heterogeneous environment--that is, every large enterprise--is afraid of the interoperability hassles.

IT people have simply been down this road too many times before. Rather than rip and replace the old TDM infrastructure, it's much more prudent to slowly introduce VoIP implementations and let the vendors sort through some type of standards detente.

IP telephony also creates a somewhat ironic bottleneck in the network itself. We all complain about "Ma Bell," but land-based dial tone almost always works. No one worries about voice quality or power--it just happens. Not so with VoIP. Network convergence has been a sexy topic for 10 years, but the fact is that most corporate networks were designed to simply pass data packets around willy-nilly, not guarantee carrier-quality voice service.

Most companies don't have the Quality of Service features throughout their networks necessary for latency-sensitive voice traffic, while even fewer own the Power Over Ethernet switches needed to keep the phones working during power failures.

You'd have to be crazy to bet your mission-critical voice traffic on a network void of this critical functionality. Remember that old business adage: "When phones ring, shareholders sing, but when phones are quiet, shareholders riot."

You'd have to be crazy to bet your mission-critical voice traffic on a network void of this critical functionality.

Finally, there is a definite fear about IP telephony security that has scared off many would-be customers. There are lots of threats to VoIP: from a bad guy hijacking the phone system, to eavesdroppers, to all kinds of nasty SIP-based worms that use IP telephony traffic to infect the entire network.

Yet the biggest short-term threat of all is simply the poor state of network security. Lots of networks contain vulnerabilities such as servers and networking equipment with functioning default passwords, critical services running on unpatched Windows servers, active user accounts of terminated employees, and so on. It's pretty scary to think that some low-level IT administrator could easily trash the computers and the phones. Try explaining this problem to the CEO.

My purpose here is not to trash IP telephony. I see lots of companies using the technology internally to connect geographically distributed campuses and centralize PBX functions. As broadband continues to proliferate, many carriers are jumping into VoIP and offering a "triple play" of voice, data and video services to consumers, and network-based business services to smaller companies. Visionary companies are taking the IP plunge because they plan on making Internet-based phones an extension of their business applications. Middleware products such as BEA's and IBM's Websphere already support the SIP protocol, a true sign of things to come.

No doubt, VoIP is the future. But all signs point to an IP telephony evolution, not a revolution. Telephones are a given, and the last person to get excited about them was the guy who said, "Watson, are you there?" As an industry, we ought to help our customers move through a thoughtful and pragmatic transition, not peddle techno-sunshine and snake oil.