Voice over IP: it's ready
By James Cope
(IDG) -- With the roof caving in from a torrent of rain and then a gush of more water bursting from a water main and the fire sprinklers, George Malgoza raced to his company's wiring closet and grabbed the data server under one arm and the phone system server under the other and carted them to safety.
Malgoza is vice president of finance and operations at Westye Group Southeast Inc., a distributor of SubZero and Wolf brand kitchen appliances, so he instinctively scooped up items critical to the company's business.
"I ran out of the warehouse like Indiana Jones, water gushing all around . . . and grabbed two servers, one under each arm," Malgoza says.
That was on the Friday before Memorial Day last year, when a storm dumped 2.5 inches of water on Westye Group's Orlando warehouse and showroom. By Wednesday, Malgoza had rented temporary office space and had his phone and data systems up and running.
Getting Westye Group's phone system back online in such short order wouldn't have been possible had he been using a typical private branch exchange (PBX) system, Malgoza says. Instead, he was using a Windows 2000 Server-based voice over IP (VOIP) phone system from AltiGen Communications Inc. in Fremont, California.
Malgoza says that even before the flood, his positive experience with the IP phone system contradicted earlier popular skepticism about the quality and reliability of the technology.
Like Westye Group, other corporate users, including manufacturing company H.B. Fuller Co. in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Archer Engineers in Lee's Summit, Missouri, say that earlier technology issues, such as echo, delay and jitter caused by network congestion and packet loss, are things of the past.
That's mostly because of advances in quality of service (QOS), says Kevin Wetzel, manager of global network services at H.B. Fuller. "QOS is what allows for real-time applications such as voice to coincide with other real-time and batch applications such as telnet and e-mail," Wetzel explains. "Without this, it's unlikely that you could ever provide consistency in the telephony environment."
Scalability, which some users had considered a problem just over a year ago, has also been resolved, says Wetzel. And he should know: H.B. Fuller is in the process of rolling out a global VOIP phone system based on technology from Cisco Systems Inc. As of the end of December, Wetzel says, his company had installed 475 VOIP phones; he expects to have 3,000 phones connected at 30 locations by May.
Where Intelligence Resides
VOIP phones, unlike analog phones wired to a traditional PBX, hook into an IP telephone data server through the same Category 5 cable that connects desktop PCs to a company's data network servers. All of the intelligence for the phone system, including extension numbers and individual preferences for speed-dialing and voice-mail handling, resides on the phone server. So when Malgoza's IT technicians plugged in the phones at Westye Group's temporary location following the flood, the settings for each phone were instantly restored.
Wetzel says he had considered implementing a standard PBX system. However, he discovered after testing and analysis that VOIP was not only equal to switched phone systems in terms of voice quality and functionality but also less costly to install and maintain.
In new buildings, companies need to install only network cabling, Wetzel says; there's no need to run special wiring for the phones. In those instances, payback on the phone system is immediate, he says.
Additions, moves and changes are easier and less costly, too, Wetzel notes, because the server automatically recognizes the media access control address of the IP phone and thereby sets its configuration - wherever the phone is located.
Moreover, managing the phone system doesn't require special staff. In a VOIP system, voice is just another form of data riding on the same corporate network as other data. Wetzel says he anticipates that H.B. Fuller will save $2 million during the next five years by moving to VOIP.
Plugging Into the Net
Mike Medsker, vice president of integrated solutions at Archer Engineers, is calculating his company's return on investment after installing the NBX VOIP system from Santa Clara, California-based 3Com Corp. in three buildings at Archer's new Missouri headquarters. Medsker says he's saving between $1,800 and $2,000 per month over and above the cost of the system, compared with the traditional system, which had 42 separate business lines coming into its previous location.
In the construction business, "requests for engineering proposals and bids are cyclic," Medsker explains, which meant that Archer had to have enough phone lines coming in to handle high call volumes during certain times of the year, although it doesn't routinely need that many. He says the 3Com system has enabled Archer to eliminate multiple lines and aggregate calls over a single T1 line, which provides a gateway to the public switched phone network as well as to the wide-area network linking three of the company's sites in the Kansas City area.
Archer's engineers frequently move between offices, depending on which project they're working on at the time, Medsker says. So now, instead of getting a new phone and extension number, and in some cases printing new business cards, an engineer simply plugs his phone into the network in his new offices. Both the phone and the phone number move with him.
Although the full functionality of VOIP may require special IP telephones that sell for $300 to $700 each, Altigen, Cisco, 3Com and other vendors have made provisions for connecting existing analog phones. Aligen's server has an analog gateway built into the server. 3Com uses special adapters that go between the phone and the network. Cisco's system cross-connects to existing PBX systems, as do those from Avaya Inc. in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, and Nortel Networks Corp. in Brampton, Ontario.
Will VOIP systems be more widely deployed during the next year or so? Probably, say analysts and IT managers who have examined the state of the technology -- at least in new office buildings or where companies are doing major upgrades to their phone systems. But don't expect corporate America to start ripping out those old, faithful PBX systems en masse -- especially those that are paid for and work just fine.
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