Lucent lays out voice-over-IP roadmap

Picture your IP-enabled PBX acting as a LAN-based call-control server passing voice streams to a Gigabit Ethernet switch and then out over an IP virtual private network.

Now you have part of the vision laid out in Lucent's new voice-over-IP roadmap, to be launched yesterday and demonstrated next week at the NetWorld+Interop 99 trade show in Las Vegas.

Lucent's voice-over-IP plan involves nine products, and for the first time, combines the company's voice and data enterprise offerings under a unified architecture.

But don't worry, Lucent officials say, you don't need all nine products to achieve convergence, and they don't all have to be from Lucent. You can use Cisco Catalyst Ethernet switches, for example, or other vendors' PBXs, as long as they support certain telecomms industry standards.

The Lucent roadmap spells out how enterprises can ensure that packetised voice doesn't break down in LANs or WANs, says Tom Nolle, president of CIMI Corp, a technology-assessment company in Voorhees, N.J.

But he cautions that such integrated environments are best-suited for businesses with high-value knowledge workers who might benefit from linking their voice and data applications. "A branch bank is a poor place for this," Nolle says.

Lucent's roadmap begins with the next software release of the company's Cajun family of Ethernet 10/100Mbit and gigabit switches. That release will complete support across the product family for 802.1p, a standard that defines how Ethernet traffic can be prioritised into eight queues, so that voice and other delay-sensitive applications can pass through ahead of other traffic.

But Lucent will also be adding an extension to 802.1p that will force networks to drop voice packets that make it through the queues but arrive so late that they disrupt call quality. Such packets are "better never than late", says Stephen Price, Lucent's business and strategy director for IP Communications.

The 802.1p extension will improve voice quality, but Lucent says its voice-over-IP products will still interoperate with Cisco's Catalyst switches and other standard 802.1p-compatible Ethernet switching products.

Lucent will offer two alternatives to a traditional PBX to feed voice into these Ethernet switched environments, both of them previously announced but not yet generally available.

One alternative, Definity IP Solutions, is a hardware and software upgrade to Lucent's flagship Definity PBX system, which supports either Ethernet-attached phones or "soft phones" - desktop PC graphical user interfaces that emulate business-phone features. As a result, either the phone itself or the desktop PC becomes the Ethernet endpoint of the entire voice-over-IP system.

The other PBX alternative, Lucent's IP Exchange, is a new LAN-based call control server - sometimes referred to as "unPBX" - that supports LAN-attached phones and is designed for environments that don't currently have phone systems.

This week's announcement from Lucent will also formalise the company's gradual move away from a proprietary method of linking dispersed Definity PBXs within an enterprise so all users can share conferencing features, caller ID, voice mail and other capabilities. Lucent will accomplish this by embracing Q.Sig, a standard popular in Europe, to link multiple vendors' PBXs while retaining feature transparency.

Lucent has decided to support Q.Sig because many US-based multinational companies that have standardised on Definity models in the US still have other PBX vendors in Europe, where Lucent's presence is comparatively weak.

To control the entire IP-based architecture, Lucent will offer a policy management server called RealNet Rules Enterprise Policy Manager, which will regulate quality of service and security, Price says.

Lucent officials say the company's roadmap is designed to show how the company's multifaceted enterprise product portfolio fits together to support an integrated IP future. That future, however, is not simply about saving money.

"In briefings I give to corporate customers, half the time they have concluded that they wouldn't save any money [with voice over IP] because of the aggressive numbers they're getting from their carriers," says Kathy Meier, Lucent's general manager for IP communications.

Longer term, however, economics will drive the acceptance of voice over IP, she says.

Some of Lucent's products are available immediately; others will be rolled out through the summer of 2000.

"The phasing of Lucent's product rollout does not bother me a bit," says Nolle. "Nobody's going to buy all this stuff in 1999."

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