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IP convergence takes hold

Increasingly, the real attraction of converged networks is not cost at all, but new applications and ways of doing business that they make possible. More and more companies are jumping on the bandwagon.

May 1, 2005  

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Ral Corriveau, chief technology officer for information technology at Pratt & Whitney Canada, estimates that the company’s long distance cost between Montreal and Toronto is down to zero.

That compares to the $15,000-$20,000 a month the aircraft engine manufacturer was paying before it began routing voice traffic over a wide-area network running Internet Protocol (IP) over Multi-Protocol Label Switching (MPLS).

Pratt & Whitney also pays nothing for voice traffic to its Lethbridge, Alta, and Halifax sites and across the border to Plattsburgh, N.Y.

But the money saved is not the only reason Corriveau likes the new system. All Pratt & Whitney locations connected by the network have Siemens AG private branch exchanges. By linking them using IP, the company can use all the PBXs’ features — call waiting, call transfer, caller ID.

“If we were going through the public switched telephone network,” Corriveau says, “we would lose these features.”

Noting that business long-distance costs are typically less than two cents a minute today, he says cost reduction is not as strong an argument for voice over IP as it was a few years ago. Industry analysts and vendors say the same. But meanwhile, applications are inducing many businesses to converge voice and data.

It is not that convergence cannot save money. Toll bypass — avoiding long-distance costs — can still bring savings for companies with a lot of traffic among distant locations, and when international calls are involved, the savings become quite significant.

Internally, a single network offers some economies.

“Running a second set of cabling in a facility for voice just doesn’t make sense any more,” says Brantz Myers, director of enterprise and voice marketing at Cisco Systems Canada Inc. in Toronto, but even that may not be the most important savings.

For organizations with a lot of staff turnover or constant reshuffling going on, simplifying moves, adds and changes may save the most.

New applications

But increasingly, the real attraction of converged networks is not cost at all, but new applications and ways of doing business that they make possible.

And those are convincing quite a few people. According to Richard Blacklock, director of business strategy and development at AT&T Global Services Canada Co. in Toronto, “the majority of customers now are doing something with voice over IP.” That doesn’t mean half of businesses have fully converted, but upwards of 50% are at least running trials or using VOIP in parts of their operations.

Between 2002 and 2004, a joint project at Vancouver International Airport that involved Telus Corp. and Cisco saw 29 separate data networks — owned and operated by the airport and 22 airlines – replaced by one integrated network. Last year, voice and video traffic moved from separate networks to this converged IP infrastructure installed.

Kevin Molloy, vice-president of simplified passenger travel and chief information officer, says the move has chopped about $350,000 off the airport’s phone bill, and speeded up moves, adds and changes. “We can get the dial tone lit up for you within a couple of hours,” he says.

But more than that, Molloy is planning how the converged network, will simplify operations. One of his first priorities: Airline employees who need to contact the gate where a flight is departing will soon pick up a phone and dial the flight number.

An interface between the phone system and the software that assigns flights to gates will automatically route the call.

Today, Molloy says, a check-in counter employee seeking to alert the gate that the last passenger has checked in would have to look up the gate number for the flight and then turn to a separate directory to get the phone number.

Video catching on

Molloy has also installed multi-airline self-service check-in kiosks throughout the airport, and to prepare for the 2010 Olympics is putting kiosks in hotels and other venues so passengers can check in and print boarding cards before even leaving for the airport.

The new IP network makes that possible as well.

The Vancouver airport is also using its IP network to support 1,100 closed-circuit security cameras and 1,200 television monitors that previously required their own coaxial cable connections.

Video is still an emerging application for IP, but some say it is catching on quickly. “Customers are planning for it,” says Paul Rowe, vice-president of enterprise marketing at Bell Canada. “I would say we’re not getting a lot of demand on the deployment side at this time.”

At rival Telus Corp., Matthew Heffernan, managing director for British Columbia, says customers are showing interest in desktop videoconferencing over IP networks. And Zdravko Crne, vice-president of communications at consulting engineering firm Mulvey + Banani Inc. in Toronto, says IP-based security video is starting to take off.

Jon Arnold, an independent Toronto consultant specializing in VoIP, predicts the desktop computer will become the focus for communication, bringing together data, voice and video.

Perhaps a hint of the future is visible in Cisco’s integration of voice and video dialing directories, so users of its IP systems can set up videoconferences using regular phone numbers.

Not all the potential applications involve video. For Panago Pizza, a pizza-delivery chain based in Vancouver with more than 150 stores in Western Canada and Ontario, a recently installed Avaya IP telephony system makes it easier to route calls to the right agents depending on the nature of a customer – individual or corporate, for instance – and where the call originates.

When one of Panago’s two call centres is overloaded, calls can easily be passed to the other, and Amyn Somani, vice-president of corporate services, hopes in future to have employees outside the call centres pitch in on the phones when things get busy – the system can route calls to any phone.

Mobility is one great promise of VoIP systems, Blacklock says, allowing teleworking employees to enjoy all the features of the office phone system from their own homes. Unified messaging is another: Users can deal with e-mail, voice mail and faxes – and maybe video messages in future – through a single interface.

The potential of converged IP networks is indeed tempting. But are today’s data networks ready for voice and video? Are new security concerns lurking to ambush unwary networking specialists? Should an organization in fact build and run its own converged IP network, or should it turn to an outside service provider?

Voice is not terribly bandwidth-hungry. Myers says a typical 100-megabit-per-second link, common to desktops today, could handle a thousand or so voice conversations if there were no other traffic.

A bigger concern is quality of service: Voice packets must arrive promptly and in sequence, or quality deteriorates.

It took time, but word seems to have got around that VoIP success depends on an assessment of the network’s readiness and on providing Quality of Service (QoS) support to ensure voice packets get the expedited handling needed to avoid compromises on voice quality.

Crne says voice requires a fully switched network. That network should have 100-megabit capacity to the desktop and probably one-gigabit backbone bandwidth.

Any remaining network hubs need to be replaced with switches, and some older switches without quality-of-service features may need to be upgraded. In some cases, says Crne, switches have quality-of-service capabilities that just aren’t turned on, and reconfiguration is enough.

Category 5 or 5e cabling should be sufficient for links to the desktop, he says, and may even be enough to support gigabit capacity in the backbone, though backbones tend to use fiber.

Myers, meanwhile, suggests the bottleneck may be where the enterprise network meets the public one, and carriers may be pressed to provide more capacious connections.

Voice is less tolerant of network configuration errors than data is, says Kelly Daniels, founder and chief technology officer of Apparent Networks Inc. in Vancouver.

Common problems include duplex mismatches. Ideally all devices should be set to full duplex, he says, but at least they must be set consistently. The effect of not doing so is barely noticeable for voice, but the resulting packet loss can significantly affect voice quality.

Faulty device drivers, poor connections and dirty connectors can also affect voice, says Daniels. Telus’ Heffernan says compression algorithms sometimes hurt voice quality. In fact, Pratt & Whitney encountered this problem with a conference-room phone. Corriveau says the algorithm was designed to remove white noise, but background sound in the conference room caused it to lose part of the signal. Turning off compression solved the problem.

One of the thornier issues enterprise VoIP raises is power. Traditional phone sets draw power from the phone network. Data networks traditionally do not provide power.

There are two ways to deal with this: plug IP phones into the wall, which is simple but means they stop working during power failures, or use emerging Power Over Ethernet technology to power them through the network.

The IEEE completed its 802.3af standard for power over the network almost two years ago, notes Jeff Mossman, a consulting systems engineer at Cisco Canada. It provides for up to 48 volts and 15 watts of direct-current power – more than enough for an IP phone – to be transmitted over Ethernet cabling.

But the standard is new, and unless your network equipment is also very new, Mossman explained in a recent presentation at the LinuxWorld Canada conference, it probably won’t support inline power. So upgrades may be required to go this route.

And however you provide power, Mossman notes, you must consider how to guard against power outages.

“One of the easier things about a PBX was, a PBX was one big box, and if I wanted to protect it with a UPS, I put a big UPS beside my one big box.” Individual wiring closets may need UPS equipment to sustain power to IP phones.

Convergence also complicates security. Some security tools that work well for data traffic are less satisfactory for voice and video, Arnold notes. “If you have to check all the packets to eliminate stuff that is a security risk, you introduce a lot of latency.”

Voice over IP can also raise new security concerns, such as the possibility that IP voice systems can be hijacked to deliver voice spam or steal long-distance minutes. Arnold says new devices called session border controllers address these issues.

Video is more bandwidth-intensive than voice, but doesn’t necessarily demand more than 100 megabits to the desktop and a gigabit in the backbone.

That is the capacity of Vancouver International Airport’s network, which handles significant video today.

However, Molloy foresees a need for a 10-gigabit backbone eventually. At present, many of the airport’s security cameras transmit images only on request or when activated by motion detectors, a choice that reduces bandwidth needs noticeably.

Myers says the greatest bottleneck as more services are added to IP networks may be at the point where the LAN connects to the WAN. He suggests businesses look carefully at the capacity their telecom service providers are running into their premises, to ensure this will be adequate for their converged IP needs.

Rowe advises thinking about the future. For instance, he says, a DSL connection to a branch office may seem like plenty today, “but if you’re planning for video, you may want fiber-based services into the premises.”

Configuring and managing a converged IP network can be daunting, so understandably some organizations prefer to let someone else do it.

Major telecommunications carriers have growing businesses doing this. “We’re seeing a lot more customers coming to us to look at our managed solutions,” says Heffernan.

Rowe at Bell Canada says managed IP services make most sense for mid-sized to large customers. He says Bell’s services can save those customers 15-25% and let them focus on their core business.

Arnold says any business that previously relied on a phone company’s Centrex services is probably a good candidate to outsource its IP services. “It’s kind of a way for them to get all the advantages that big businesses have from IP communications,” he says.

Grant Buckler is a Kingston, Ont. freelance writer who specializes in IT and telecommunications issues. He can be reached at