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Voice over IP in the Enterprise: The future of telephony

The softswitch is poised to revolutionize telephony the way the PC revolutionized computing.

For a technology that's 100 years old, people have been making quite a fuss over telephony in the past two years. If you read trade magazines and technical Web sites regularly, you might think that this fuss is all about "toll bypass," which really is nothing more than running your calls over a data network to save a few nickels. You can certainly save a few nickels with VoIP, but that hardly justifies the din.

You also might be led to believe that it's about IP phones and data-dips and screen-pops in your call center. Someone may even tell you it's about checking your e-mail from your voicemail. OK, those are cool (except maybe the voicemail part), but it's still appreciably shy of exciting.

To really understand what's exciting about the changes happening in telephony, consider the scenic, and sometimes painful, route we took to get from the mainframe world in the '70s through the first PCs and the primitive networks to finally arrive at the Internet. That mainframe world was much like the telephony world today -- dominated by one and a half companies, with nominal competition. And the technology and equipment were usable and reliable, but you spent half your time wishing they could do more.

Once the PC arrived, distributed computing was born. Distributed computing did more to break up the mainframe monopoly and instigate innovation than the Sherman Act ever could. Once the power was in the hands of the people, everybody could contribute their ideas, and just look at us now.

If someone had said in 1970 that anybody in the world would be able to search a couple of trillion documents that were scattered across the entire planet and have the results returned in a half a second, not only would we have considered them insane, but we wouldn't even have been able to comprehend where you'd get the trillion documents in the first place!

If you're still wondering what this has to do with telephony, I highly recommend you pull up your favorite search engine and type in the word "softswitch."

The International Softswitch Consortium defines a softswitch as "a software-based entity that provides call control functionality." That definition is anti-climactic to say the least. Allow me to translate loosely -- software that provides the same service you're used to getting today from your telco or your company's PBX. But the important difference between this software and its telco and PBX counterparts is that it's been decomposed into functional elements, like the media gateway (MG), signaling gateway (SG), media gateway controller (MGC), and many more.

These components are connected by a set of standards you may recognize: the Media Gateway Control Protocol (MGCP)/Megaco (H.245), the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), and H.323. See the similarity to the mainframe/PC world yet?

These standards allow each component in your voice network to be provided by a different vendor. Most importantly, the barriers to entry have been removed. Now tiny companies or even individuals can contribute some innovation to a single component without having to provide an entire solution and worldwide network capable of competing with the Bells. So when you run that search for "softswitch," don't be surprised to find hundreds of these companies, many of whom are already shipping products.

But don't think that this innovation is limited to small companies. The influx of competition will force the stodgy old companies to bring new products to market as well. Remember that, even with all the "dot-coms" out there, IBM received 2,886 patents last year, which was almost four times as many as their nearest competitor. The point is that competition historically has brought out the best in everyone.

It may be difficult now to envision how our vocal communication, and telephony in particular, could really evolve as much as the Internet, but remember that Bill Gates said in 1981 that 640k of memory ought to be enough for anybody!

For now, know that several communication providers are deploying soft switches. These are the companies that will be providing truly advanced services in the future, so do your due diligence before you sign any contracts. Find out what they're doing now and what their plans for the future are. And beyond that, start thinking about which of these components you can operate yourself, and which you want provided.

About the author:
Thomas Alexander Lancaster IV is a consultant and author with over ten years experience in the networking industry, focused on Internet infrastructure. 

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