Don't Plunge Into VOIP

But at my back, I always hear Time's winged chariot hurrying near; And yonder all before us lie Deserts of vast eternity.

—"To His Coy Mistress," by Andrew Marvell, 1681

I always loved that verse, partly for its metaphysical beauty, but more for the misuses to which it's put.

Can it be seen as a poignant admonition to not waste a moment of your short life and to, instead, leap at every new opportunity that life offers you, as the writers of high-tech ad copy would have you think?

Well, yeah, kind of. But it was written as a seduction poem, one of a whole class of verse ostensibly created to persuade 17th century lasses to say "yes" to more things than would really be wise.

In the IT world, that same argument—buy now or the pace of change will leave you behind—is applied to whatever technology is hot at the moment.

Voice over IP (VOIP), for example, has been something of a perennial suitor whose fussy nature has pushed it back into the pack of technologies vying for the CIO's attention, despite its potential. The quality of service it delivers has been improving, however, and new VOIP router packages from Cisco and others are making VOIP nearly practical enough to fall for.

It has its attractions, after all, though they're largely unproven. If you can replace your old PBXs with newer equipment that will make your old network do double duty as a voice carrier, you not only cut the volume and cost of your phone traffic, but you also eliminate the need to support both voice and data networks, while adding functions like unified messaging and Web-based call centers.

Evolution, Not Revolution

Gartner Inc. expects most companies to begin a migration to IP-based telephony between 2003 and 2005, but it loudly warns that VOIP "remains an emerging, evolving technology, and the transition to it will come gradually, despite attempts by Cisco and others to talk up the market."

VOIP still lacks important features like security measures that can ensure that your IP calls aren't being intercepted as well as simpler functions, such as the ability to look someone up and initiate an IP-based call.

Enum, a protocol finalized by the Internet Engineering Task Force more than a year ago, is an attempt to solve that problem by offering a standard way to build directories that list IP telephony and e-mail addresses plus fax and cell phone numbers within IP-based networks. Another developing specification, Session Initiation Protocol, is designed as a standard way to signal the start of a VOIP phone call or chat session.

Without systems like those and directories that use them, it can be difficult to identify whether a call has to be routed through a traditional PBX, a VOIP gateway or over the network to a phone your router knows is connected by VOIP.

In addition to the technical limitations of VOIP, the way in which vendors sell it is nonstandard enough that users who don't go through a rigorous (read: slow) competitive analysis and request-for-proposal process risk paying 25% to 60% more for VOIP systems than they should, Gartner warns.

Still, a migration to voice over IP makes sense.

But only when you, and your network, are ready to deal with the new problems that will, inevitably, pop up. Among other things, if you already get enough complaints about the reliability of your data network (justified or not), why up the ante by putting voice traffic on the same backbone?

Better to focus on the basics and make sure the network itself is stable by upping your bandwidth and stability using optical Ethernet or other solid networking technology that may be less sexy than VOIP, but infinitely less flighty as well.

There is, after all, a limit to how far you should twist the purpose for which anything was designed, without redesigning it first.

KEVIN FOGARTY is a former editor at Computerworld. Contact him at kevinjfogarty@yahoo.com.

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Outsourcing Remedy

PacifiCare's IT outsourcing plan includes the following elements:

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Base: Survey of 400 U.S. wide-area network managers, asked which technology dominates in their WAN

Source: IDC, Framingham, Mass., March 2001

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Voice/Data Integration

Asked about their plans 12 months out, many companies say they have no intention of integrating voice and data wide-area network traffic.

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Source: IDC, Framingham, Mass., November 2001

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The Nightmares

152 IT managers identified the following items as their worst nightmares about network equipment:

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Human error
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Security breaches
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Server failure
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Power outages
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Poor service from outside providers
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Natural disasters or other catastrophes
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Staffing problems
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Inability to anticipate, avoid or respond to network downtime
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Adverse effects of downtime on company operations

Source: NetBotz Inc., Austin, Texas, May 2001

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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