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How are softphones being used in the enterprise and beyond?

With a softphone application, employees, especially frequent travelers, can take their office phone anywhere.

"Today, softphones are primarily used for travel or when you're not at your usual workplace," said

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Bern Elliot, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner Inc.

But, in some cases, office workers are also choosing to use softphones with a headset as a replacement for traditional desk phones. In terms of network usage, if it's a VoIP phone, its use may or may not be similar to a softphone.

The network often perceives softphones as just another application, which challenges a network manager's ability to determine whether users are making a call or getting their email.

"It's just an application on your laptop that's producing a lot of data, whereas a VoIP phone on your desk may also be going over the application layer -- doing the same thing as your desktop. Or it may be using a specifically different network," explained Elliot. "Sometimes IP phones will, in fact, use the same protocols as the softphones and compete in the same bandwidth."

Softphone bandwidth considerations on the road

Given that employees often use softphones while traveling, network managers should assist them in finding optimal bandwidth for making calls.

With a softphone, traveling employees can make calls on their business line via Wi-Fi connection at a hotel or a coffee shop. Not all Wi-Fi connections are going to support a call.

"At Starbucks, if there's sufficient bandwidth, you'll be fine. But you may be competing with several other people for the bandwidth," Elliot noted.

Leading business hotels tend to provide good bandwidth, but employees should be aware that a budget hotel not geared toward business travelers might not have sufficient bandwidth for high-quality calls.

Tracking softphone traffic and the user experience

How are network managers tracking softphone traffic and the user experience?

"In most cases, enterprises will look at traffic and also review users' comments on their experience to try to identify the source of problems," said Elliot. "If they discover a consistent problem they'll try to address it. If the problem is bandwidth, they'll try to add bandwidth."

While softphones consume far less bandwidth than other applications such as desktop video conferencing, softphone traffic has the potential to flood a network. "If you have everyone making a softphone call all of a sudden for some reason, which probabilistic models will tell you will happen at some point, it could constrain the enterprise," said Elliot.

Broader adoption of virtual desktop infrastructure will make softphone call quality and bandwidth consumption even more complex, according to Irwin Lazar, vice president and service director at Nemertes Research Group Inc.

"You need to have a way to process the voice locally to avoid a tremendous delay sending that voice traffic back into a data center," Lazar said. "Running softphones on virtual computers is a big challenge companies are just starting to face."

This was first published in February 2013

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