The benefits that an IP-based infrastructure can bring to the enterprise, such as solving network management headaches and providing flexibility to react to changing business requirements, are well understood.
But many IT directors are now realising that the most significant advantage of an IP – or “packet-switched” – network is its provision of a platform for advanced converged communications.
The convergence of data, voice and video onto a single IP-based network can help enterprises reduce the complexities and costs associated with both fixed and mobile communications, and increase employee productivity and business flexibility.
Ovum analyst Chris Lewis said, “CIOs have unanimously bought into the general principle of an IP-based infrastructure. They fully understand that these networks are solving a lot of headaches and will allow them to react more flexibly to changing business requirements.
“More importantly, CIOs recognise that IP networks are a means to reduce their annual IT spend. As a result, many are keen to migrate their communications to an IP-based infrastructure.”
IT decision-makers and CIOs are now looking at how to capitalise on the opportunities presented by an IP network infrastructure for both voice and data applications. The benefits are myriad, and IP is not only changing the way that employees communicate with each other, but also how and where they work.
Converged communications offer new ways of working. Steve Jarvis, director at telecoms consultancy Improcom, said, “Convergence provides the ability to offer consistent customer service and client interaction across the organisation in a way that was not possible before, such as for remote workers and employees in satellite offices.”
One of the main drivers of converged communications is IP tele¬phony – also known as voice over IP (VoIP). Although VoIP is a technology for carrying phone calls over IP networks, such as the internet or an IP-based corporate intranet, it also facilitates the adoption of advanced voice and data applications. These include videoconferencing, application sharing, multi-channel contact handling, on-demand speech recording, unified messaging, voice messaging and e-mail messaging.
VoIP reduces communications costs, simplifies internal communications, supports flexible working, increases productivity and improves the quality of customer service. VoIP can also make home and remote working not only a possibility, but a success.
A survey by VoIP information provider Imago Communications shows that of 50 UK-based IT directors who have deployed IP telephony, 65% are using IP telephony systems to facilitate voice service. But 41% are also using IP telephony for desktop video, 41% for mobility, 35% for telecommuting, and 29% for web and on-demand conferencing.
The VoIP for business market is set to grow from about £450m at the end of 2005 to almost £1.8bn by 2010, according to research firm Yankee Group.
Adam Malik, commercial director at IT event organiser Imago Communications, which conducted a survey into VoIP adoption, said, “The vast majority of VoIP users claim to have met 50% or more of their targets for cost savings and performance improvements, and over 50% of VoIP owners expect to increase their VoIP investments.
“The survey also shows that not only is the IP telephony market growing, but it is maturing as organisations look to their IP networks to deliver an increasing variety of multi-channel services.”
One of the simplest examples of the benefits of converged communications is the softphone: software loaded onto a PC or laptop that turns the device into an internet phone, allowing users to make cheap voice calls over the internet or corporate intranet. Many softphones offer advanced services, such as caller ID, call forwarding and call barring, and can be downloaded free or for a small licence fee.
Although Skype is the name on every¬one’s lips, there are plenty of other companies offering this technology. Vonage is the pioneer in the US, and suppliers such as Alcatel, Avaya, Ericsson Enterprise, NEC, Nortel, Mitel, Siemens and Zultys (for Linux) offer softphones for the enterprise.
While softphones can be bought cheaply and installed speedily, call quality and network uptime can suffer. Users also complain that it is not the same as picking up and using a traditional phone.
A number of companies also offer fixed hard phones: IP-enabled desktop telephones, similar to the traditional phone. While more expensive than softphones, they offer a more permanent solution with better call quality and reliability, as well as the familiarity of a traditional phone.
VoIP desktop phones enable the traditional range of enterprise telephony, such as voice messaging, caller ID, conference calls, and so on, as well as more advanced functions, such as voice message, e-mail or SMS alerts.
The choice of VoIP handsets is growing, but Cisco currently dominates the market with a range of different styles and handset functions. Other suppliers, including Aastra Telecoms, Avaya, Motorola, Nortel, Polycom, Siemens, Sipura, Snom and Zultys, offer IP-enabled desktop phones from £80 upwards.
One of the biggest impacts of IP communication is the replacement of the traditional PBX (private branch exchange), which provides telephony functions throughout the enterprise, with a new generation of IP-based PBXs.
Ravi Rajagopalan, European director of technology and solutions at communication systems supplier Lucent, said, “CIOs are eliminating the traditional PBX in favour of IP-based machines. Traditionally, enterprises would spend a lot of money wiring the office for PBX services – and configuring it to offer services such as voicemail, call diversion, and so on – which was a huge cost. Then they had to maintain the PBX, put new users in and take old ones out, constantly.”
IP PBXs are unrecognisable from the PBX of yesteryear. Rather than a box that sits in each building to control the telephony system, an IP PBX is essentially software that sits within the network. It can be owned either by the enterprise, a telecom company or a hosted service provider, and offers all the functionality of a traditional PBX.
The main advantage is not just cheap VoIP calls, but flexibility. Network capacity and phone stations can be added or removed, and new services introduced at the flick of a switch. Employees can hotdesk, taking their existing number, without any need to rewire the office.
This centralisation of PBX functions onto the network also means that multi-site organisations can eliminate and consolidate their traditional PBXs, as well as their maintenance and repair.
“Organisations with multiple sites and multiple PBXs to manage are taking that intelligence and centralising it into one IP PBX on the network, which reduces costs,” said Roger Jones, business development director at Avaya. “But as well as voice services, an enterprise can centralise e-mail, conferencing, collaboration and so on, and deploy these services to employees anywhere: at home, when travelling, or in a different office.”
Suppliers offering IP PBXs include 3Com, Avaya, Cisco, Equant, Intel, Lucent and Swyx Communications, and they are transforming enterprise telephony.
Equant, for example, recently struck a five-year deal with aircraft maker Airbus to supply an IP telephony system with 30,000 extensions across two sites in Toulouse, France, and 10,000 extensions at two sites in the UK. Cisco will provide the network backbone and 40,000 IP telephone handsets.
One of the Toulouse campuses is 12 miles long, and the nature of Airbus projects means that different teams need to come together dynamically and disband on an almost daily basis. Transferring phone extensions to wherever an individual was working on any particular day would have been almost impossible with a traditional telephony system. But with IP, staff can access their own phone extension and features wherever they are on campus simply by keying in a unique number into any nearby handset, which automatically transfers their telephony identity to that phone.
The switch to IP is also changing conferencing and collaboration applications. IP enables multi-¬modal communication, so users can combine or move effortlessly between, for example, an instant messaging conversation, voice call, and videoconference at the click of a button.
Avaya has integrated its IP PBX into Microsoft’s Live Communication Server to offer converged voice, instant messaging and collaboration applications on the desktop. Users can see who is available at any particular time and by which channel they want to communicate. A mouse click can then initiate any combination of voice call, video call, conference or instant messaging conversation.
Videoconferencing is also benefiting from IP. Equant, Microsoft, Global Crossing and Cisco offer high-bandwidth, conference room standard videoconferencing equipment and services, while desktop-based videoconferencing services are available from providers such as Webex, Cobweb Solutions, BT, Avanquest and Citrix.
A growing list of companies also offer combined conferencing and collaboration tools, including 3Com, ACT Teleconferencing, Avaya, Equant, GlowPoint, Interwise, MCI, Polycom and TeliNet.
Converged communication is reaching the mobile world, with handset manufacturers – notably Cisco, Motorola, Nokia and Toshiba – offering converged GSM/GPRS and Wi-Fi dual-mode phones.
Such handsets use the traditional cellular network outside the office, but switch to the IP-based wireless local area network or Wi-Fi network as users enter the office. Using IP to carry some or all of the calls not only results in mobile cost savings, but also brings the concept of a single handset, and therefore phone number, regardless of location, a step closer.
Although dual-mode phones will be important in future, the technologies are still immature. The challenges include the quality and speed of switch-over, dual-mode device battery life and limited bandwidth within the office.
The benefits of IP are clear. But whatever converged services firms are looking to implement, making the right choice is the biggest challenge. IT directors need to consider the circumstances and needs of the business and its future strategic roadmap.