Six quizzical VoIP issues

Previous pages: Can I trust Microsoft with VoIP?

Reliability: Microsoft and the fifth 9

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How secure is VoIP?

Do I need a $1,000 IP phone?

Will SIP ever be ready for the desktop?

6. How do I run my business on Skype?

Skype, which claims around 100 million registered names, estimates that 30 per cent of its installed base is made up of business users. The free VoIP tool is used widely by road-warrior employees with laptops, as well as small businesses and teleworkers.

Some companies are even patching together systems that integrate Skype into larger VoIP systems. Big cost savings can be gained this way by using Skype to connect branch offices, while still maintaining the feeling of working on a business telephone, as opposed to a PC-based softphone, which some employees may find unfamiliar.

One such company is Eastern Accents, a Chicago home furnishing manufacturer, which has a growing presence in China. It started using Skype to connect to China years ago, and recently took its telephony integration to the next level.

Elvin Rakhmankulov, the company’s director of IT, wanted a way to inexpensively and reliably connect its growing China operation with the company’s 200 employees in Chicago, and other domestic satellite offices. Eastern Accents has a 3Com IP PBX system, which easily ties together its U.S. branch offices over the Internet. Sites in Los Angeles and North Carolina get 3Com IP phones, which link back to Chicago.

When Rakhmankulov tried this setup to connect to China, he hit the wall. “The calls were not being blocked, but the latency, the speed of the network, was really slow,” he says. “Nobody knows for sure why there is so much latency for Internet traffic going into and out of China. But any Internet communication to China is a huge issue. When the signal goes from the United States to China, it really takes a while.”

Rakhmankulov discovered the free VoIP client worked fine, passing through whatever firewalls or other gateways without any perceived latency to the calls. “Skype does not need a lot of bandwidth. At the same time, it works with China very well,” he says. “The quality of the calls is very good.”

Employees used PC-to-PC Skype, but Rakhmankulov wanted to integrate communication line as part of the businesses phone system. “It would be much easier for most people because they don’t have to have headsets on their computers, microphones and all that stuff,” he says.

Rakhmankulov rigged his system by attaching the 3Com system to an appliance from VoSky, which lets employees make Skype calls from 3Com IP phones on desktops. When Chicago users dial eight and then the extension from a 3Com phone, it connects to the employee in China using Skype on a PC with a headset.

“Users don’t know anything about it in the background,” he says. “If they want to make an international call, they dial eight, and it goes through Skype. His next plan is to replicate the Chicago setup in the China offices so all employees can talk on actual phones, instead of a mix of PC headsets and handsets.

Overall, Rakhmankulov estimates he’s cut his telephone bills by a third, by using Skype to call China. Using Skype of the public Internet is also a big cost saver versus setting up a private point-to-point IP line to China for VoIP.

Experts say that tightly controlled Skype usage, such as the system at Eastern Accents, is what companies should strive for in using Skype. While it can be a useful tool, IT administrators should get out in front of Skype usage before discovering the software downloaded on laptops and PCs without authorization.

“Because the Skype client is a free download,” Gartner’s Orans says, “it is widely used and most businesses have no idea how many Skype clients are installed on their systems or how much Skype traffic passes over their networks.”

Skype currently has seven security bulletins on its site relating to known security flaws or exploits of the software. Exploits of vulnerabilities and bugs range from potential system crashes to execution of arbitrary code on a Skype PC. Skype’s P2P file-sharing capabilities compound the risks associated with the software.

The growing number of security holes in the program highlights the risk of not establishing and implementing an enterprise policy for Skype, Orans says. “If, after weighing the risks, a business decides to allow Skype use, it should actively manage version control of the Skype client, and its distribution to authorized users, with configuration management tools.”

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