Enterprises Face VoIP Management Challenges

A growing number of corporations are installing Voice over Internet Protocol applications. While the technology has the potential to cut their telecommunications costs, it also presents new challenges. “IT managers are looking for their vendors to offer them ways to monitor and improve VoIP performance,” said George Hamilton, a senior analyst at the Yankee Group.

This need stems from the way that traditional management tools were designed. Network management systems were built to determine whether the points along a network path from one device to a second were or were not available. This approach does not mesh with VoIP applications, which are dynamic, so the paths taken from one endpoint to another constantly change. Consequently, companies need management products that measure how effectively a network is routing information.

Without such tools, companies may install a VoIP application and see dramatic performance fluctuations. “VoIP is not as predictable as data applications, and the unpredictability can lead to performance spikes and dips,” said Jessy F. Cavazos, program manager, communications test & measurement, at Frost & Sullivan. “Also, it is sensitive to bandwidth fluctuations, so IT departments need robust management tools to make sure that users’ calls are not dropped.”

Separate But Equal Is Inefficient

To avoid any performance problems, companies can run separate networks for their voice and data traffic. This approach negates one of the main reasons companies move to VoIP: cost reductions resulting from the consolidation of autonomous networks. “To cut costs and increase efficiency, a number of companies are now ready to move from autonomous to consolidated networks,” said Stephen Elliot, a senior analyst with IDC.

Vendors understand users’ need for better VoIP management tools and have been moving to address current limitations. In some cases, that means completely redesigning their network management systems. The traditional model — where centralized server software depends on distributed agents and intermittent Simple Network Management Protocol polling of the network — does not provide the data needed to evaluate VoIP application performance.

“Vendors are moving away from centralized, agent-based technologies to real-time data collection,” noted Elliot. As a result, management heavyweights such as BMC Software, Computer Associates, Hewlett-Packard and IBM are tweaking their products to to improve collection of this information.

Startups are not burdened with maintaining established product lines. Consequently, companies like Agilent Technologies, Brix Networks, NetIQ, Micromuse and RadCom have developed VoIP management products with more modern architectures.

Users Refuse to Ante Up

Yet, interest in the old and new VoIP management products has been tepid for a variety of reasons. One challenge is convincing customers to pay for the management tools. “In most cases, customers work only with the management products that come with their VoIP system,” Yankee Group’s Hamilton told TechNewsWorld.

In many cases, pressure on IT departments to reduce operation costs leads them to deploy VoIP systems quickly and often without sufficient monitoring functions. In other cases, the IT staff has a data background, does not realize how sensitive VoIP applications are and therefore does not understand the need for additional monitoring tools.

Because the market for these tools is emerging, prices can be high. Typically, the products start from US$15,000 to $25,000 and can go up to as much as $500,000. Since the potential risks and cost benefits associated with these applications are often not known, companies find it difficult to identify and quantify the savings they might deliver. Consequently, the tools have gathered momentum only in a few select niches, such as financial institutions — firms that can not afford network downtime.

The Wrong Focus

Another problem is that the vendors providing VoIP management tools concentrated on building their products for service providers rather than for the enterprise. “The vendors have gone to where the money is, and it is much easier for a service provider to justify deployment of a VoIP management system than it is for an enterprise,” stated Hamilton.

Because of the service provider focus, the tools often include functions — such as Service Level Agreement functionality — that are not needed in many enterprises. While service providers include penalties in their contracts if their networks are unavailable to users for certain times, enterprises generally lack such provisions.

The end result: The market for VoIP management tools is quite small. In 2004, the total world VoIP monitoring solution market amounted to $51 million, according to Frost & Sullivan.

However, it is expected to start growing — to $297 million by 2010, according to the firm — as the focus of IT departments begins to shift. Initially, they focused on just getting the VoIP system up and running. Moving forward, they are more likely to seek ways of becoming more proactive and less reactive in managing their networks.

“There have been instances — cases such as Merrill Lynch and Dell — where VoIP deployments failed because corporations rolled out the infrastructure without the proper monitoring tools,” noted Cavazos. “As companies become more aware of the potential problems, they will take steps to prevent them from occurring.”

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