VoIP call quality reveals network problems

Do you trust a computer to tell you how your chief executive officer’s new IP phone sounds?

Network testing and monitoring vendors are betting you will as they peddle new call quality management applications that pinpoint problems on converged networks. Despite increasing reliance on e-mail, voice remains executives’ method of choice for closing deals, and businesses embracing VoIP can’t afford to make assumptions about call quality.

Vendors such as Apparent Networks, Brix Networks, Empirix Inc., Integrated Research, Qovia Inc. and Spirent Communications are rushing to fill the void, often licensing algorithms for active testing and passive monitoring from call quality pioneers Psytechnics and Telchemy. “This is the beginning of a big push, though the standards for VoIP call quality measurement are still evolving,” says Eric Siegel, senior analyst at IT research firm Burton Group.

Consulting firm Frost & Sullivan reckons the emergent VoIP monitoring/management market hit US$50.7 million in 2004, and expects it to increase about six-fold by 2008. IP telephony is exploding, and upfront network assessments will only take a VoIP implementation so far. Unlike data, it has to work perfectly out of the gate.

“VoIP can be made to run as well and as reliably and as clearly as the best traditional phone network, but it’s not a static environment,” says Pierce Reid, vice-president of marketing for Qovia, a three-year-old start-up dedicated to VoIP call quality. “It has entropy. This can be accelerated by the employee who decides to download ‘Shrek 2’ at lunchtime.”

Network professionals with converged environments liken IP telephony to the cages of canaries that used to accompany the miners below ground. The birds keeled over when conditions in the mine became unsafe. Voice is revealing network problems that used to go unnoticed on IP networks, and the standard data fix — more bandwidth — doesn’t work.

“These real-time applications are showing us we have problems on the network end to end,” says Walt Magnussen, director of telecom at Texas A&M University in College Station, which uses Apparent’s AppareNet Voice software probe to support VoIP and video links to remote locations. “This new tool shows you where it is and what it is.”

VoIP call quality management includes active and passive approaches, and particular pro-ducts can encompass both. The active or intrusive approach is exemplified by British Telecom spinoff Psytechnics with its algo-rithms derived from years of subjective voice-quality testing. The method includes installing a thin client on various endpoints – such as phones, gateways and call servers – to take local readings and return a Perceptual Evaluation of Speech Quality metric.

Voice quality testing and monitoring don’t come cheap, which is one reason the vendors have, with few exceptions, focused on the service providers, testing laboratories and big integrators up until now. Some of the new enterprise-scaled products start in the US$30,000 to $40,000 range.

Qovia tells prospective customers that they can expect a good VoIP call quality management product to add 10 per cent to 20 per cent to the cost of a new VoIP system. It is worth the premium, says Mark Melvin, a senior solutions engineer at Apptis, a large network integrator using Qovia in Chantilly, Va. “The businesses that understand the value of network management will understand the importance and necessity of these tools. As you move from traditional to IP telephony, there are a lot more pieces to manage.”

The tendency has been to seek out VoIP call quality products in desperation, after an implementation had already gone bad. However, vendors detect a shift.

“Enterprises are budgeting for VoIP management upfront and bundling it in with initial deployments,” says Nick Orolin, a vice-president at Integrated Research, maker of Prognosis for IP Telephony for the Cisco environment.

Big voice-equipment manufacturers, such as Nortel with its Optivity Telephony Manager, are bundling call quality management into their VoIP platforms as well. With these tools, a more voice-oriented stress test could be done before upgrading another group of phones to VoIP.

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