IP: Are you ready for the second-generation

Network equipment vendors say the enterprise should start thinking of IP (Internet Protocol) telephony as a method of gaining competitive advantages, rather than a cost-saving technology. But that message seems to be garnering mixed reviews from industry observers.

Network gear makers like Avaya and Nortel Networks say it's time to push the argument for IP telephony forward -- that the technology should no longer be considered a way to simplify enterprise communication infrastructure, or a method of making moves, adds and changes less costly. Rather, IP telephony should be considered a platform for productivity enhancements and fundamental business transformation that could help the user organization pull ahead of its competitors.

"The technology debates...are over," said Jorge Blanco, an Avaya marketing executive, during a speech at VoiceCon, an industry conference held in Orlando March 1 to 3.

The vendors call this the "second-generation" IP telephony message. It's about "getting down to business value and applications," explained Mark Bissell, director, product management at Nortel.

Conference attendees seemed mixed as to whether this second-generation IP telephony message made sense. For instance, Keith Barlow, network services manager for Salt Lake City in Utah, pointed out that his municipality is three years into a five-year project to update its wiring infrastructure. It's too soon to talk about any competitive advantages that IP telephony might offer.

"We'll definitely make the move" to IP, he said. "We're not going to buy another large [TDM] PBX. But until you get the infrastructure in place, you're not going to be able to do it."

Arvind Ahuja, product manager at Packeteer, which makes network traffic management software, said many of his customers are in the early stages of exploring IP telephony, asking some basic questions: "What is it going to do to my network? How will it impact my other mission-critical applications?" Ahuja said it's too early for vendors to push the IP telephony dialogue beyond these basics.

According to Ronald Gruia, a Toronto-based communication technology industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan, in Orlando for VoiceCon, network equipment vendors are talking up the advanced message for their own competitive reasons.

"You still have to drive down the message of what IP telephony is, but at the same time we've reached a plateau... All the vendors have the technology. This is a new level of differentiation. You have to talk about it."

Don Peterson, Avaya's CEO, seemed to agree with Gruia's assessment. After all, simplified moves, adds and changes are "not uniformly enough to drive a stampede to IP telephony."

The enterprise could learn a thing or two by considering IP telephony in a strategic, rather than tactical manner, Gruia said. "When you do an IP-PBX deployment, it's not just about replacing old technology with a new one....To get the full benefit of IP telephony you should look at how you're doing business now, and how you could use IP telephony to your advantage, to improve your business processes -- shorten the time to get back to a customer, for example."

One enterprise seemed willing to embrace the next-gen message from the beginning of its IP telephony implementation. In fact, GMAC Commercial Mortgage refused to install IP telephony across its 100-plus sites worldwide until it had considered the productivity enhancements -- or disruptions -- that the technology would bring, said the firm's CIO Niraj Patel during a keynote speech at VoiceCon.

The technology proved to be "a very easy business case for us," Patel said, pointing out that IP telephony spelled cost savings from more efficient networking, as well as productivity improvements. "We were able to achieve an 8-X (network) capacity increase" with zero operating cost increase, he said.

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