The dream of Voice over IP (VoIP) went from just-around-the-corner technology to the back shelf at the dawn of the 21st century. With cuts to staffs and budgets, the idea of throwing aside traditional telephone equipment to make calls over the Internet no longer seemed to make sense.
It's now a few years later and the stock prices may not be back entirely, but VoIP is again attracting attention. According to IDC, the worldwide market for VoIP equipment is predicted to be worth more than $15 billion by 2007.
When you take the renewed interest in VoIP and mix in the existing VPNs used by many companies, the result is an opportunity for organizations to dip their toes in the pool of VoIP before it's feasible for them to make the big leap to an all-IP network.
There are several reasons VoIP is back on the radar. Companies have more money to spend than they did over the last couple of years, and they have equipment that was patched up and made to float during those lean years. They could soon be out shopping. An increase in offshore outsourcing has thrown employees, suppliers, partners, and customers all over the globe. And companies like Vonage and local cable suppliers have introduced VoIP to consumers.
VPNs have been used to carry data between offices within organizations of all sizes for years. And the process of adding voice to the data can be remarkably simple if companies do their homework beforehand.
Greg Thatcher, voice over IP support manager for MultiTech, which develops, manufactures, and supports a wide range of modems, routers, and VoIP gateways, said setting up VoIP over a VPN isn't much different than setting up a WAN. An organization that wants to tie together two offices would add the VoIP equipment at each end, giving it an IP address much like when adding a PC or server to a traditional network.
Then a phone book is set up and programmed to handle four-digit dialing of extensions and most of the amenities the end users of a telephone network are accustomed to having. A private network is a controlled environment and is stable, without much in the way of packet loss to adversely affect calls. Using a VPN also helps keep the process simple. There is no firewall. "You don't have to worry about port blocking," Thatcher said.
The trick to an easy installation is doing the prep work beforehand, according to Thatcher. In addition to preparing to set up the dialing extensions and phone books, the number of calls the system will handle is an important consideration. "Think about how many concurrent calls you're going to have," he said.
In the end, with the prep work done, one hour of time at each site is all that should be needed for installation. End users should see no difference in how they dial. "The goal of any install is to make it seamless," Thatcher said.
The value proposition for adding VoIP to a VPN comes from two areas. The first is the toll bypass that makes VoIP sound so good to companies with remote offices and employees, or those who work with the same suppliers or customers overseas on a regular basis. By riding the IP network, the calls bypass traditional toll calling. Thatcher said organizations can also save money and free up bandwidth by combining two or more PBX phone systems together.
At some point in the future, the PBX systems that so many companies use as the backbone of their telephone system will become obsolete, but it isn't around the corner. Ari Rabban, vice president of corporate development and marketing for VoIP pioneer VocalTec, said an all-IP network is the end game, but he calls VoIP over VPN a "simpler, straight-forward solution" that lets companies keep their existing PBX system and still save money on some calls by moving them to the IP network.
The traditional PBX market is still worth billions of dollars a year, and Rabban estimates it has at least 10 years of life left in it. In addition to saving money by not replacing existing equipment, Rannan pointed out that by using hosted VoIP over VPN solutions users stand to save even more on hardware because they don't need a gateway on premise.
"I believe the VPN proposition the way we have it now is a temporary offer," Rabban said.
Still, the value proposition shines brightest for organizations spread out over multiple locations. "Companies in one location don't need this," Rabban said.
Then there are the add-ons. The convergence of voice traffic onto a data network opens up opportunities for more than the voice mail and teleconferencing options many traditional phone systems offer. How does drag-and-drop conferencing sound?
Someday, that may be how we all do business on the phone. But those with a VPN can quickly and inexpensively get a headstart.