Networking optimize

Four obstacles to implementing VoIP

While VoIP's popularity continues to grow, it still has some obstacles to overcome before it becomes ubiquitous in corporate environments. Deb Shinder lists the four greatest obstacles and discusses how they undermine one of VoIP's biggest advantages -- the cost savings.

As the lower cost of calls -- particularly long distance and international calls -- attracts more and more companies, VoIP's popularity in the business world continues to grow. According to iLocus Research's annual report on the VoIP industry (which the company has been tracking since the late 1990s), the IP PBX market grew 52 percent from 2005 to 2006, and the number of worldwide voice over broadband (VoBB) subscribers (both consumer and business) almost doubled.

Those growth statistics are impressive, but a look at actual percentages tells a different story. Less than half of businesses use VoIP, and less than a quarter of small businesses do so. If cost savings are so dramatic, why haven't more companies -- especially small ones that don't have millions invested in their traditional phone systems -- made the switch?

In 2006, VoIP Magazine predicted that half of all small businesses and two-thirds of large businesses would be using VoIP by 2010 -- although not necessarily exclusively for all their telecommunications needs. To get there, VoIP providers are going to have to overcome the obstacles that have so far prevented many businesses from cutting the telco cord and moving to IP-based phone services. Let's explore some of these obstacles.

Reliability concerns

The performance of the long-established public switched telephone network (PSTN) has "spoiled" telephone users. While consumers and employees accept that computers sometimes go down, their expectations of the phone system are much higher. When they pick up the phone, they expect to get a dial tone. Users won't tolerate less than rock-solid reliability from their telephone systems.

Companies depend on the phones to stay in contact with customers, partners, and vendors -- as well as within the company for communication between employees. A phone outage can bring business to a halt -- or, at the least, slow it down considerably and cost the company big bucks.

VoIP is far more reliable than it was just a few years ago. However, there's still a perception of unreliability that providers must overcome before cautious managers will take the plunge.

And there's another aspect to reliability. The regular phone jacks in a building don't require electric service to work (although equipment such as PBX does). That means you can still have phone service during a power outage.

VoIP depends on both electrical power and Internet service. Interruption of either means losing phone service. You can ameliorate the problem by having redundant Internet connections and power backup such as a generator, but this adds to the cost.

Network quality of service

VoIP is far more sensitive to network "glitches" than data transmission is. If the network drops data packets, it just resends them. If the dropped packet results in an e-mail delayed by a few minutes, users likely won't even notice.

But if delays in transmission or dropped packets cause a disrupted phone call, you can bet the call participants will notice -- and complain. The data transmission process is much more transparent; because phone calls are real-time communications, problems are "in the face" of the users.

IP networks are subject to many variables, including:

  • Packet loss due to network congestion or corruption of the data
  • Variation in the amount of delay of packet delivery, which can result in poor voice quality
  • Packets arriving out of sequence, which can result in discarded packets and cause more delay and disruption

In addition, the analog-to-digital conversion process can affect VoIP call quality, causing users to experience unpleasant distortion or echo effects. Another culprit is signal level problems, which can cause excessive background noise that interferes with conversations.

To help prevent such problems, the IP network must support quality-of-service (QoS) mechanisms that allow administrators to give priority to VoIP packets. This means a VoIP network is more trouble to manage than a data network, and it requires a higher level of expertise -- or at least an additional skill set -- on the part of network administrators.

VoIP monitoring and management solutions are available that make it easier to optimize voice services, but that adds to the cost of deployment. It also negates some of the cost savings that motivate the move to VoIP in the first place.

Complexity and confusion

The complexity and unfamiliar terrain of VoIP communications presents another big obstacle for many companies. Network administrators well-versed in running a data network may not know much about how VoIP works, what equipment is necessary, or how to set up and maintain that equipment.

In addition, VoIP terminology quickly gets confusing -- media gateways, analog telephone adapter (ATA), audio response unit (ARU), interactive voice response (IVR), etc. Company managers and IT personnel hear about different VoIP protocols -- H.323, SIP, IAX -- and don't understand the differences or know which one they need.

Already overworked IT staffs may not be eager to undertake the task of learning a whole new specialty nor the added burden of ongoing maintenance of the components of a VoIP system. They may not be sure how to integrate the VoIP network into the existing data network.

Of course, there are answers to these problems. Consultants with the requisite knowledge can help set up a VoIP network, or companies can use hosted VoIP services to reduce both the complication and the upfront expenses of buying VoIP servers. However, once again, this ups the price tag of going to VoIP and eats into the cost savings that are one of VoIP's main advantages.

Security

Finally, reports on the security vulnerabilities of IP networks have bombarded companies, and the risk of intercepted calls and eavesdropping are a concern. In addition, providing another layer of vulnerability to a data network integrated with the VoIP network is also a worry.

While malicious users can tap traditional telephones, it's a fairly difficult process that usually requires physical access -- at least for anyone other than a government agency. Traditional phone communications travel over dedicated circuits controlled by one entity -- the phone company. But when VoIP packets go out there into the "Internet cloud," they go through numerous routers and servers at many different points.

Encryption and other security mechanisms can make VoIP as secure or even more secure than PSTN. But once again, it's perception that matters. (And, of course, extra security mechanisms mean extra cost.)

Summary

VoIP is gaining ground steadily. However, before it becomes ubiquitous, the technology needs to overcome some obstacles. VoIP providers must not only address the problems of reliability and quality of service, but they must also reduce the complexity and confusion inherent in implementing VoIP and address security concerns. And, at the same time, they must keep VoIP costs lower than the costs associated with traditional phone service.

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Deb Shinder is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. She currently specializes in security issues and Microsoft products, and she has received Microsoft's Most Valuable Professional (MVP) status in Windows Server Security.

About

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

10 comments
Ron_007
Ron_007

Fax of IP is already out there. Just search for "FoIP FAX" and check out the hits. You touched lightly on my concern, data security. As you mentioned, VoIP capture is very simple, lots of paid and free ware to do it. And capture can be beaten by good encryption. But you did not specifically mention the other half of the security issue, the security of the VoIP server. As soon as you put your phone service onto IP, you have to be sure to properly secure, and constantly keep secure, another data server. It becomes another server to be patched, updated and maintained. It is another server on the network that exposes you to hackers. Like any other server, it is not a problem if you pay attention to its upkeep.

S,David
S,David

Something I have yet to see discussed is the impact on a combined data and VoIP network when everyone picks up their phone and tries to make a call. Will the QoS routines choke out the data traffic? In a company like mine, where the phone traffic is as vital as the traffic to our servers, this is not acceptable. So, I would have to significantly increase the size of my internet pipe in order to provide enough headroom for all the traffic. When the CEO's phone call gets blocked, he can, and will, walk to my office for a "friendly chat." I see no reason to rip out equipment that is already paid for and is almost six-sigma reliable just to be trendy. I plan to let the phone system do phone stuff, and the data network do data stuff for quite some time.

Ezrest
Ezrest

Instead of your four, I would suggest that usability is high on the list and when I cannot send a FAX on VoIP, then that is NOT usability. There is a handicap send ing faxes, it won't take them and until the technology is improved, it won't. I just cannot see people using the phone only when I would like to put in a backup modem on my 'puter for times when my ISP is doing maintenance and having the ability to send/receive faxes is critical in a home office. Get the services working and then talk about all the BS you do in this article, but until then, let's concentrate on the "Emperor's New Clothes"

Wayne M.
Wayne M.

One of the less obvious reliability problems is that if the network goes down, so does the ability to contact the support staff!

steve.davis
steve.davis

The thing preventing me from VOIP is price, that fact tha ATT will jack my DSL price about 100% if I don't use their phone service prevents me from using VOIP. Selling naked DSL at the same linked price would answer my problem. I have a feeling ATT is never going to do that.

Labrat636
Labrat636

This is not a problem. A simple FAX machine is an analog endpoint. Just jack it into an FXS port. Configure your dial-peers, and you're good to go. Although, IMHO, a FAX is really just data anyway, there should be machines out there that use an ethernet connection and TCP/IP. No need for an FXS port. Why convert the document image to digital then to analog and back to digital again? The analog step could be omitted completely. Reliability and QoS are my main concerns. A power fail transfer scheme is currently mandatory, and probably always will be. It is wise to hold onto a couple of POTS lines for this purpose. This is the age of convergence. Soon enough, the age of complete intergration will be here when these issues have been solved.

jbuckner
jbuckner

If you have a digital phone system then you probably have analog conversion boxes for your data lines already - These work great with VOIP. We have not had any POTS lines for seven years. Just call the vendor that begins with an N and ends with an X.

adrianfoot
adrianfoot

Anybody could go down the high street, buy an (inexpensive) phone and plug it in, no dhcp, gateway etc. No training either, that simple. Not any more, the phone is a computer a lot more expensive than the old two wire device and some times it is really hard to get the four wire IP device working, and certainly wont work a mile away on poor two wire cable, more like 60 meters on very good cat 5. Some IP phone systems don't give out two wire devices very cheaply or easily when needed ( as already mentioned for faxes ) But if they did you could have IP trunks with simple hardware. The IP trunks are the ones that (can) save the money in my view. Of course some people may use the special IP features, but most users only want a phone, they already have a computer.

cfriedrich80
cfriedrich80

I agree with this article. At my current position, we have huge issues with dropped calls, unable to hear the other party while one the phone, can't dial out are just some in growing list of issues. However, the functionality of the service are fantastic. Working in the IT department, I am responsible for desk moves and part of that is moving phones with it. Because most companies are currently wired for the internet anyway, rearranging the office is so much better because I don't have to worry about whether or not there is a phone jack on the other side of the room or under a desk, the data ports are always there. I honestly believe this will be the way of the future, but for now I think the technology is too new for it to be considered significantly better that a a regular phone connection.