Keep Your Eye on IP Telephony

UC systems, which already come with built-in IP integration, are gradually taking on the characteristics of a more distributed, embedded architecture that fits nicely within the peer-to-peer, software-driven, Web-enabled networking that IP allows.

The parallel but closely related IP telephony trend is having a major impact on the Unified Communications (UC) market. So-called IP "soft phones," for example, can reside nearly anywhere, be it on audio-equipped desktop PCs, remote notebooks, or even PDAs.

These virtual phones can be moved more easily and reconfigured inside corporate telephone networks that extend across geographic locations, including employees' homes.

"We definitely see a lot of customer excitement about what's possible with an IP connection," says Karen Bissani, a product manager for Cisco's Unity software.

"We're seeing islands of IP pop up in these worlds of PSTN [Public Switched Telephone Network]," adds Mike Prescott, Active Voice's vice president of marketing. "Over the long haul, IP is going to help us do what we want to be doing, because it helps us overcome the distance barrier and the conceptual barriers between different systems. A lot of the reason people are jumping into IP right now is almost a fear of the future. They realize it's going in that direction."

A Client-Centric Approach

Some vendors take a distributed, client-centric approach that requires installing the UC software on individual desktops and merging the message directories there. (It's sometimes called peer telephony.) Alcatel USA Inc. (Plano, Texas) and Active Voice are among those with client-based software. The benefits they cite are the usual ones given for distributed networking: Enterprises can avoid creating a single point of failure in a new UC server or an existing e-mail server now performing double duty; also, they can avoid having to manage an additional, dedicated server.

These basic deployment decisions have political and managerial aspects that may tip the balance in some companies. A distributed UC architecture lets you avoid getting in-house telephony specialists involved, possibly avoiding institutional resistance and simplifying personnel commitments. Other companies may prefer their telephony people to run the show by deploying a PBX-centric system from the likes of Avaya and Nortel, leaving IT staff free for other projects.

Like many information technologies, UC is also available from network service. Consumers are the predominant market for such services, according to analysts, service providers and their suppliers. IDC says worldwide sales of service offerings will soon pass customer premises equipment (CPE) alternatives, reaching 36.6 million users by 2006. Home-based business people and corporate employees who want to manage their remote communications—even at their own expense—are typical customers. Providers are reportedly having trouble cracking the enterprise market because they can't get past corporate firewalls and other security concerns.


Saving on toll calls is usually the main motivation for converting to IP, with an IP-PBX and UC server often added at the same time to give users complementary call control and message management. "We feel that we're going to be saving $250,000 a year on phone costs," estimates Curt Fuchs, director of media services for the Columbia (Mo.) Public Schools, which is rolling out IP switches from Marconi plc (London, England), the Sphericall IP-PBX from Sphere Communications Inc. (Lake Bluff, Ill.), and Captaris CallXpress to 29 schools. "We have eliminated over 1,000 phone lines in our district, and we're not done," Fuchs says.

Steve Hays, vice president of information systems at G.A. Sullivan, an IT consulting firm in St. Louis, says he likes the easier manageability and scalability he gets from his IP network, which, like Fuchs', combines Sphericall with CallXpress. His IT staffers "don't understand legacy phone systems," Hays says. "Now, I don't need to spend $80 an hour on a telephone technician to do adds, changes and deletes—we do it ourselves."

Upgrading to all-IP allowed him to expand both services to a new corporate office for what it would have cost to add a legacy NEC PBX switch. Hays says he's considering simplifying maintenance by adding Sphericall's UC features but for the time being will stick with CallXpress, which he finds reliable save for such minor glitches as "Windows things where you might need to re-boot the server," he says.

Another company that scrapped a legacy PBX for cheaper IP switches and messaging is AIM Healthcare Services Inc. in Franklin, Tenn. The company, which audits healthcare providers, has been growing 70 percent a year, according to Andy Flatt, the company's chief information officer. "We move around a lot," he says. "We have a lot of facilities, so we needed something we could deploy quickly."

Why Choose UC?

Enterprises large and small typically buy UC systems for several of the following reasons:

Telephony Upgrade

Replace a legacy voice-mail system with a more open, standards-based model that has the latest voice and e-mail features.

Replace a legacy PBX phone system with a cost-savings IP telephony network that offers UC for less money than do non-IP packages.


Save time wasted having to get messages from multiple sources, especially while traveling or telecommuting.

Improve customer service or sales by being more responsive to customers with timely communications that suit individual styles.


Solution: Customer Interaction Center (CIC) from Interactive Intelligence Inc. (I3; Indianapolis) running on a Cisco AVVID-based IP network with Cisco's Call Manager IP-PBX. It provides UM to 900 Microsoft Exchange users spread out over more than 45 states. Installation by a local telephony integrator took around two months, with Cisco and I3 working closely together, according to Flatt. The company is happy with the setup but has had manageable performance problems in the Telephony Application Programming Interface (TAPI) that links the UM and phone systems. "If somebody moves, they pick up their phone and plug it in, and it works," Flatt claims.

Some observers concede that while IP telephony has come a long way from its debut several years ago, when it was plagued by Quality of Service (QoS) problems, many enterprise managers remain reluctant to entrust their phone lifelines to their data networks. Fuchs remembers lost calls, inoperative T1 lines, and fire trucks that pulled up at the wrong school because the 911 system couldn't recognize other schools' numbers. "There's nothing worse than when you have phones go down," he says. "The first six months were hell. Now it's running like clockwork."

Mike Crowell, technical services manager for the City of Salisbury, N.C., came to IP telephony from a different route a year ago when he upgraded a legacy Mitel PBX switch to a Mitel IP switch seven years after installing his first CallXpress server and separate Captaris RightFax server. "We did have some quality of service issues with the Mitel when we first implemented it," Crowell says. "I think Mitel was six months early with that system." He points out that CallXpress never went down, since it resided on its own server, but four special interface boxes were required to provide integration between the two.

"Quality of service needs to be in your foundation-level planning," advises Henry Dewing, a product manager for Intel Corp., which puts its Dialogic-brand telephony cards inside Intel white-box servers and sells them to UC vendors whose products straddle both worlds. In addition, managers should set realistic expectations before replacing PBX voice mail with a dedicated UC server. "Just replacing a PBX with an industry standard server, you get better total cost of ownership, but you're giving up some feature functionality," Dewing says.

He notes that the cost/benefit calculation is not always in IP's favor. "If you already have an existing PBX, it's hard to justify throwing it away."