Enterprises put VoIP virtualization into production

VoIP virtualization has been unattainable until now. After years of advising enterprises against running real-time communications applications in a virtual environment, VMware has collaborated with Mitel on a new virtual call control server, and several companies have put the product into production.

Virtualization and unified communications infrastructures have never mixed -- until now. Real-time unified communications applications, particularly backbone infrastructure applications like call control, haven't been candidates for virtualization, mostly because real-time communications require a level of performance and availability that a simple Web application does not. However, unified communications vendor Mitel has been collaborating...

with virtualization vendor VMware for about two years to solve inherent VoIP virtualization problems. This week Mitel announced that the virtualized version of its call control server is now available and is in production with several companies.

"Before this virtual product for call control, you basically couldn't [virtualize call control]," said Jim Paolicelli, IT manager at Gallagher, Flynn & Company, an accounting firm in Burlington, Vt. "In the initial phases of VMware, you couldn't do real-time communications applications with virtualization because of the latency and overhead. It just didn't function properly. But the latest version of vSphere has been fine-tuned for real-time communications."

Announced last fall, Virtual Mitel Call Director (vMCD), is one of the first VoIP virtualization products to hit the market. By further consolidating infrastructure, virtualized call control saves companies money and makes voice systems more resilient during disaster recovery scenarios by allowing for easy migration of a call control server from one host to another.

Paolicelli said he's had Mitel's virtualized call control server in production since December, and he's had no problems with it so far. The virtualization of call control is a natural extension of his overall effort to consolidate infrastructure with VMware.

In the two-and-a-half years since he took over the IT department at his firm, Paolicelli has been migrating all of the company's applications over to VMware. As attrition of legacy servers has allowed, he's migrated workloads from more than 20 servers over to just a couple of ESX hosts.

At Mitel's request, he has isolated the vMCD virtual call control server on its own ESX host for now.

"They requested that I install it on its own box to isolate it for testing purposes," he said. "But I plan to run other workloads on it eventually."

Paolicelli said running his call control server as a virtual machine offers a big saving because he doesn't have to pay for nor maintain a physical box. But resiliency is an even bigger plus for him, especially during this year's tax season, when his accounting firm is doing its annual peak business.

"This time of year we cannot be down -- period," he said. "Every night, I can image my entire phone system and have it backed up in seconds on a second ESX, versus running call control on a physical box and risk it dying and having to wait for parts. So the disaster recovery aspect is big. Plus, we can use vMotion to move it to another box at any time to do maintenance on the host."

More on unified communications and virtualization

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Find out which other vendors are making unified communications and VoIP virtualization a reality.

Industry expert Matt Brunk discusses whether virtualization's benefits apply to unified communications.

Industry expert Caroline Gabriel discusses whether you can virtualize enterprise applications on mobile devices as you would on a desktop.

Having his call control server virtualized hasn't added any complexity to the rest of his unified communications, Paolicelli said. His Mitel systems are integrated with Microsoft Office Communications Server and a video-conferencing system from LifeSize.

"It's not any different from [integrating with a physical box]," he said. "I still web into an interface as I would with [an appliance]. The integration to the server is still through an IP trunk. It's all the same."

"What's really appealing to customers is that it gets away from the old days where voice was on a separate network and managed separately," said Alan Zurakowski, Mitel's manager of business development and strategic alliances. "From not only a day-to-day management perspective in terms of managing applications, but even from a disaster-recovery planning perspective, IT managers don't have to have [one] set of processes and training for the data center and a second set for the voice network."

Three things happened in the industry to make virtualization of call control servers possible, Zurakowski said. Mitel had to make proprietary changes to its call control software to optimize it for a virtual environment. VMware had to tweak its infrastructure software, vSphere, to allow real-time communications applications to function properly in a virtualized environment.

Finally, the silicon needed to catch up with the software. Zurakowski said that happened when Intel released its Nehalem processors.

In two months, Mitel plans to release two more unified communications products to its virtualization-ready portfolio: Mitel Application Suite and Mitel Border Gateway.

In addition to Gallagher, Flynn & Company, Mitel also announced that systems integrator Ideal Integrations; Louisville, Ky.-based Spalding University; and the Ashford Borough Council (a U.K.-based municipal government) have deployed the company's virtual call control server in production.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor

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