Voice-over-IP update: Evaluating the products

Summary:Mulling over voice-over-IP (VoIP)? Here are key steps involved in setting up a VoIP system. We also look at what's on offer from four major vendors.

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technologies have been with us for quite some time now, which means the hardware and software have had time to be developed and most of the bugs ironed out. There are also recent convergent technologies and multimedia extensions that can be added to complement most of the VoIP solutions on the market today, this includes instant messaging, live collaboration, and multi-user conferencing.

These convergent technologies -- combined with the relatively low cost and increasing speed of Internet bandwidth and the number of enterprises taking up dedicated VPN tunnels to branch/head offices -- mean there has never been a more perfect time for VoIP to flourish. The traditional PABX as we know it is in its death throes, definitely heading the way of the old manual switched network. No more rooms of operators sitting there plugging wires in and out of manual switch boards to connect calls; this is the digital era, and most systems eventually in one form or the other will be converted kicking and screaming whether they like it or not. Voice communications are at that stage now. VoIP deployment in some respects looks almost as tough a decision to make as a move to IPv6, but eventually it has to be done. Will you be a leader or a follower?

This review will concentrate on the technology itself and how it has developed to where it is today, as well as looking at what some of the major vendors behind VoIP products currently have on offer. There is an overwhelming plethora of options, from downloading software and installing it on a PC that has multimedia capabilities (such as CoolTalk or Microsoft NetMeeting), to rolling out massive enterprise-wide telephony infrastructure changes including special routers, switches, cabling, gateways, power solutions, PSTN/digital interconnects, and custom IP handsets, not to mention the associated redundancy infrastructure, servers, and embedded software such as voice mail, call logging, and system management.

This write-up will focus on the mid level, which is where most organisations would look at starting. These solutions allow for future scalability and expansion as well as servicing the needs of most SMEs.

There's an awful lot of jargon and technical language involved in VoIP, so if you find yourself getting lost, check out the glossary.

Will I save money?
Probably the most attractive feature of VoIP technology to the bean counters is the ability to bypass toll (STD and international) calls. This saves money by routing calls away from the public switched telephone network (PSTN) and running them over a WAN connection instead. This saves monthly telephone bills, and is particularly applicable if the company runs branch offices as it allows them to interconnect all offices via the Internet or an IP-based VPN. With most offices now running some form of broadband, the connection is already there to use. This also suits companies with a lot of teleworkers, who can use consumer broadband or small office data solutions to access the enterprise's VoIP gateways and network remotely.

Although these cost savings may be attractive, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to VoIP technology itself. While many vendors initially came to market in the early days touting toll bypass savings as a major benefit, they are now realising the technology brings a wide range of expanded possibilities that result in potential productivity gains.

Especially prevalent these days are organisations developing specialised applications to run on "smart" handsets (some handsets really are virtual thin clients). This enables those developers to leverage into vertical markets such as medical, government, and hospitality. Other benefits include internal management of the company telephony system, more accurate call logging/management, voice mail, integration with existing directory services, and the ability to manage the phone system using the organisation's data network systems policies and procedures. Workers can also collaborate remotely on projects, and handle conference situations using technologies such as simultaneous presentation, video/voice conference, and instant messaging.

Topics: Networking

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