For Tech's Sake: VoIP: Reality amidst the hype

Gary Arlen

Despite the growing trend to pronounce the "Voice over Internet Protocol" acronym as a nasally "voip," purists still prefer to enunciate the letters V-O-I-P when they abbreviate the emerging technology.

However they say it, "VoIP" discussions almost always are accompanied by the term "hype" ? which almost rhymes, if you pronounce both of those four-letter words with a combination Cockney and New Joisey accent.

VoIP has been deemed one of the most significant technology trends confronting government IT managers (Washington Technology, June 7). Yet after two years of the aforementioned hype, the Commerce Department is the only sizeable federal agency to acknowledge a widespread VoIP deployment.

Vendors such as Cisco Systems Inc. and Avaya Inc. ? which offer significantly different approaches in their VoIP solutions ? acknowledge that most of their installations in government offices are still largely trials numbering dozens (sometimes up to 100) stations. They keep hoping that these trials will roll into wider-scale deployments.

The Defense Department's recent certification of VoIP as an authorized solution has encouraged Internet telephony advocates.

Vendors and their IT partners ? plus legacy telecom carriers ? are talking about ("hyping") their sales "wins" at the Homeland Security Department (including the Transportation Security Administration) and among state and local government customers, where the appetite for cost savings is even more profound.

For example, Cisco's VoIP customers include the Arizona Auditor General's Office and the Ohio National Guard. Avaya says it has signed up law enforcement training centers and homeland security agencies for its VoIP service.

The Air Force is conducting a major study of VoIP, with suppliers hungrily awaiting that global opportunity if a decision is made (date unknown).

Yet details remain scant about VoIP usage within federal or state/local agencies. For now, the paucity of data is being attributed to pilot deployments at intelligence agencies (handled by the vendors directly rather than through integrators). Such secure installations are typically secretive.

Predictably, suppliers are upbeat about the longer-term potential for the transition from legacy switched network telephony into the more versatile world of VoIP telephony.

Vendors, integrators and the handful of customers who will talk about VoIP experiences point out that the quality of service is rarely a barrier anymore. The herky-jerky audio nuisance of early VoIP technology has generally disappeared, as have latency (lag-time) constraints.

Although economic benefits ? namely the lower cost-per-minute of long-distance connections ? were once touted as a major driver for VoIP services, that factor is negligible in government sales, where existing networks such as FTS2000 have virtually eliminated price burdens.

"Voice" as an "Application"

Now the VoIP onslaught centers on security and reliability. The current agency evaluations face an unprecedented array of hurdles since the convergence nature of VoIP brings traditional telecommunications managers as well as information technology and network operations experts into the decision-making mix.

"We refer to 'voice over the network' as just one more application over properly engineered data circuits," said Scott Spehar, vice president of the federal area for Cisco Systems. Like other suppliers, Cisco is positioning VoIP as an "application" for existing IT networks. "We're finding that the upfront engineering experience ?results in a much cleaner installation."

That means a VoIP deployment must be preceded by an aggressive evaluation of existing facilities and connections: a burdensome process that requires the cooperation of often-skeptical staff members from various support units.

Spehar said that during the current slow migration toward VoIP, customers are developing hybrid strategies to transform existing circuit switched telecommunications facilities into switches, PBX (private branch exchange) and other hardware.

"As the marketplace transforms itself with more VoIP technology, it will not be viewed [merely] as a coordination of electrical circuits," Spehar added, alluding to the traditional switched telephone network.

Rather, he says, VoIP will be "an application that rides on the network" with reliability akin "to the five 9's" of computer services. Spehar's comment cunningly digs at conventional telecom suppliers. He said that it is "more elegant to carry voice over a data network than to carry data over the voice network."

"There's a reduced level of complexity," he said.

Lisa Crisp, vice president of Avaya Federal, and her colleague Dave Ensor, vice president-solutions architecture/public sector at Avaya, another VoIP supplier, have a different perspective, although they echo the belief that Internet telephony will be perceived as an application for existing IT systems.

"We separate the voice paths from the signaling control," said Ensor. "Using the data channel, we can send the control and voice path anywhere, which opens up new processes."

Avaya's approach ? built on the company's legacy from its AT&T and Lucent heritage ? is largely constructed from telecom protocols, compared to the route that Cisco and other data communications suppliers are taking.

"People hang onto the legacy [of traditional phone service] because it's not broken," Crisp said. Hence, Avaya, like other VoIP promoters and their reseller partners, are pushing the "application" approach as a way to leverage the legacy infrastructure.

"If it's working, let's add to what it can do," says Crisp.

With these divergent alternatives, it's little surprise that government customers ? like their commercial sector counterparts ? are taking their time in evaluating the VoIP hype before plunging into this "opportunity."

Calculating the Process

Avaya's Ensor acknowledged the need for education and a deliberate migration toward IP telephony.

"We've taken the approach that you cannot have people go into a new technology in a flash cut," he said. Citing customers' embrace of conventional phone features such as call forwarding, Ensor said that "having [customers] understand the difference [of] voice as an application, independent of infrastructure, ? is our biggest challenge."

Well, maybe not the biggest challenge. A recent Yankee Group study of VoIP adoption in commercial enterprises, found that 76 percent of prospective users are concerned that high upfront equipment costs offset cost savings, while 59 percent cite barriers such as installation, configuration and training costs. A

nother critical group ? 49 percent ? mention the "single point of failure" as a key impediment to their embrace of VoIP.

On the other hand, buoying the hopes of the VoIP dreamers was Yankee Group's finding that "only" 45 percent mentioned network security as a barrier.

Today's over-hyped rites of VoIP initiation are forcing agency IT and telecom managers to evolve new collaborative processes.

"That's part of the cultural challenge," said Avaya's Ensor. "The process enabled by VoIP is viewed in the IT shop as a 'headache, more work.'" He defensively points out that one of the bigger challenges is "not to allow the IT guys veto power" over VoIP deployments.

Despite the technology transition and reliability hurdles, the drive toward unified Internet telephony appears inevitable. Eventually. It will take more time than today's hypesters are promising.

After all, implementing VoIP gives data/telecom naysayers another product about which they can "gripe."

And that definitely does rhyme with "hype."

Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications Inc., a Bethesda, Md., research firm. His e-mail address is GaryArlen@columnist.com.

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