Industry insiders blast myths of IP telephony

Recognizing Murphy’s Law (if something can go wrong, it will), Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto took its IP telephony project very seriously, planning for every situation that could disrupt communication with the outside world.

But it seems the institution was caught off guard somewhat by the upshot of proper preparation: The IP phone system worked as planned.

“We had to migrate 30 servers, six of them critical, and it came off without a hitch,” said Dr. Lynn Nagle, Mount Sinai’s CIO, after a seminar about IP telephony in March. “I think it was because of the diligence behind the planning.”

Planning is an important aspect of high-tech undertakings, but before the preparation stage comes the fact-finding mission, wherein IT managers learn the difference between vendor-driven hype and fact. Nagle and other IP-savvy pundits presented their views on this matter at an IP telephony seminar in Toronto last month, sponsored by network gear maker Nortel Networks Corp. and incumbent telco Telus Corp.

Concerning the notion that IP telephony is easier to manage than traditional voice infrastructure, “the management component is really quite complex,” said Jeremy Unwin, Telus’s representative. “It is easier in that you can collaboratively bring things together, however, you have to be very, very careful about quality of service management with IP telephony.” He explained that IP telephony means the enterprise’s network carries both data and voice. As such, it’s important to ensure that voice packets get priority over data, lest telephone calls become garbled.

As well, despite prognostications that PBXs are doomed to fade away in light of voice over IP (VoIP), the traditional exchange will in fact survive, said Dr. Jim Metzler, an industry analyst with Ashton, Metzler & Associates, headquartered in Sanibel, Fla.

“I seriously believe PBXs will go the way of the mainframe,” he told the seminar audience, explaining that some companies use mainframe computers for specialized work. Metzler said the PBX would likewise remain with us, finding a home in branch offices, or refurbished to work in concert with IP backbones.

Metzler also said IP telephony is about more than signalling protocols and quality of service. It’s a political matter, too. Apparently the oft-noted tug-of-war between telecom and datacom managers for control of the voice network is no myth.

So who’s winning the battle? “In my experience, it’s the data guys,” Metzler said. “Voice is just one more application to them.”

However, “what I’m seeing more often now is IP telephony driven by senior management, pushing to have the two at least play nice in the sandbox.”

Metzler said cross training is key. “IP telephony will be successful if the same people can spell ‘SS7,’ a voice signalling technology, and ‘OSPF,’ a routing technology.”

Regarding the belief that IP telephony reduces long-distance call charges, Unwin said that’s a myth. Carriers offer rock-bottom toll prices these days, so even though inter-office VoIP systems bypass the PSTN, this end-run doesn’t seriously reduce long-distance expenses.

As well, if you think IP telephony has nothing to do with clothing choices for the workplace, Nagle might suggest you think again. She got this idea from one hapless Mount Sinai tech worker, who learned the hard way, “when you’re pushing 400 pounds of half-a-million-dollars worth of equipment down a ramp, be sure you have rubber-soled shoes on.”