Don't plunge into VoIP

In the IT world the argument - buy now or the pace of change will leave you behind - is applied to whatever technology is hot at the moment.

Voice over IP (VoIP), for example, has been something of a perennial suitor whose fussy nature has pushed it back into the pack of technologies vying for the CIO's attention, despite its potential. The quality of service it delivers has been improving, however, and new VoIP router packages from Cisco Systems and others are making VoIP nearly practical enough to fall for.

It has its attractions, after all, though they're largely unproven. If you can replace your old PABXs with newer equipment that will make your old network do double duty as a voice carrier, you not only cut the volume and cost of your phone traffic, but you also eliminate the need to support both voice and data networks, while adding functions like unified messaging and Web-based call centres.

Gartner expects most companies to begin a migration to IP-based telephony between 2003 and 2005, but it loudly warns that VoIP "remains an emerging, evolving technology, and the transition to it will come gradually, despite attempts by Cisco and others to talk up the market".

VoIP still lacks important features like security measures that can ensure that your IP calls aren't being intercepted as well as simpler functions, such as the ability to look someone up and initiate an IP-based call.

Enum, a protocol finalised by the Internet Engineering Task Force more than a year ago, is an attempt to solve that problem by offering a standard way to build directories that list IP telephony and e-mail addresses plus fax and mobile phone numbers within IP-based networks. Another developing specification, Session Initiation Protocol, is designed as a standard way to signal the start of a VoIP phone call or chat session.

Without systems like those and directories that use them, it can be difficult to identify whether a call has to be routed through a traditional PABX, a VoIP gateway or over the network to a phone your router knows is connected by VoIP.

In addition to the technical limitations of VoIP, the way in which vendors sell it is nonstandard enough that users who don't go through a rigorous (read: slow) competitive analysis and request-for-proposal process risk paying 25 to 60 per cent more for VoIP systems than they should, Gartner warns.

Still, a migration to voice over IP makes sense.

But only when you, and your network, are ready. Among other things, if you already get enough complaints about the reliability of your data network (justified or not), why up the ante by putting voice traffic on the same backbone?

There is, after all, a limit to how far you should twist the purpose for which anything was designed, without redesigning it first.

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