Skype Slips Into Business

Users of Skype and other consumer-focused peer-to-peer VoIP networks are bringing the tools to work. But rather than banning the technology, some companies have embraced it. Here's why.

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Proxima's CEO recently purchased a dual-mode PDA phone so he could use Skype's Pocket PC client over Wi-Fi -- and uncovered a potential problem with peer-to-peer calling. The PDA lacks the power required to make Skype calls. "If you are the originator [of a call], your machine is doing all of the processing," Ehr says, and conference calls increase the workload even more.

The Downside of Free

Skype and similar programs also lack centralized management capabilities, such as the ability to review and retain call detail records, and they may represent security risks, says Lazar. "For companies subject to Sarbanes-Oxley or HIPAA, that has been the showstopper," he says. For other organizations, however, the choice is less clear.

Marvin Wheeler, chief operations officer at Terremark Worldwide Inc., a collocation services provider in Miami, says he sees remote users increasingly calling in over services such as Google Talk or Skype. "For spot use, it's great," he says.

Peer-to-peer voice services are still consumer-focused and offer few features to support business needs. Most lack a well-designed, central directory, so each user must maintain his own list of user IDs. Skype users must set up a prepaid account to cover per-minute SkypeOut charges or monthly fees for a SkypeIn number. Skype does allow administrators to set up a common pool that specified employee accounts can draw against, but invoicing and detailed call billing aren't available, and individual user IDs must be configured and administered individually. "I need an account. I want to be invoiced," Ehr says.

Wheeler is wary about the security implications of peer-to-peer calling. "For consumers, [the networks] are great. On a business level, you have to watch them. There's also a business risk involved," he says.

With Skype, for example, calls are encrypted, but the encryption scheme has not been subject to open, public review. Skype, which uses multiple ports to get through firewalls, is particularly difficult to block. It also offers an application programming interface (API) that developers can use to create presence-aware applications that can traverse the Skype network. Since Skype supports file transfers, it's possible that "Skypecasts" could transfer copyrighted content into or out of the enterprise, says Lazar.

However, security concerns may be overblown. "If the flaws were easy to exploit, someone would have figured out how to do it by now," Lazar says.

Michael Jackson, director of operations at Skype, says the latest client disallows access to the API by default and allows the file transfer feature to be disabled.

Calling for Convergence

Eventually, integrated clients within businesses will become common, says Lazar. For example, products like Avaya Inc.'s Converged Communication Server and Microsoft's Office Communications Server 2007, slated for release next year, offer a similar experience to services like Skype for internal calling. However, such products typically won't work with public peer-to-peer systems such as Skype.

With the gradual adoption of a unified client for internal use, users will benefit from using presence awareness with VoIP calling. As was the case with IM systems, however, administrators could face the prospect of having two integrated communications clients on user desktops -- a private one for internal use and a public one for free, peer-to-peer calling outside of the company. Eventually, clients for internal use may offer some degree of federation with public peering services such as Skype, Lazar predicts. But in the interim, peer-to-peer VoIP services are likely to continue gaining ground, particularly in organizations that haven't yet moved to IP telephony and in small and midsize businesses where the auditing and controls are less strict.

The benefits are just too compelling for users to ignore, says Stofega. "It's a cheap, simple application that gets the job done."

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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