In an effort to avoid costs and leverage existing skill sets, enterprise environments have increasingly migrated toward Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) solutions. In a seemingly separate but parallel effort, enterprises have increasingly moved toward virtualizing entire infrastructures in order to save time, space and -- most importantly -- money. Despite early complications with attempts to merge the two technologies, successful voice virtualization solutions have been successfully deployed in the not-too-distant past. What are the implications, and what should organizations pondering the move to virtualizing VoIP do to prepare their respective environments?
How voice handles in traditional deployments
Unlike traditional applications, VoIP has zero tolerance for packet loss, latency or lapses in Quality of Service. In traditional environments, such as a Web server, a certain degree of packet loss is understood due to the relative transparency such losses have in relation to the end user. In real-time environments, such as those featuring VoIP services, dropped packets equate to distorted conversations, and the end result is anything but transparency. So while VoIP and virtualization were correctly viewed as cost-saving solutions to contemporary IP networking demands, they occupied separate network infrastructures; VoIP demanded exclusivity to its respective hardware.
Mitigating VoIP bandwidth demands
Chief among the solutions to virtualize VoIP has been VMware's effort to optimize its virtualization engine for real-time applications. Again, packet loss has not historically been a primary concern among virtualization vendors, so some tweaking of existing platforms and the development of entirely new platforms have been nothing less than crucial for successful voice virtualization.
Another mitigation to VoIP bandwidth demands has been the separation of media streaming into two distinct signals. In this solution, the rich media portion of a VoIP call is sent directly to the desired endpoint, while the call control signal is handled within the data center. This separation of duties has proven to be a rather innovative way of minimizing bandwidth usage without having to add disproportionately more pieces to enterprise infrastructure.
Preparing your environment for voice virtualization
If your organization already maintains an existing VoIP infrastructure, my suggestion would be to postpone any drastic migration to complete VoIP virtualization solutions. If your organization is currently looking for a VoIP solution, my advice would be to tread carefully. The primary VoIP virtualization solution today involves the partnership between Mitel and VMware that began around 2010. Their Virtual Mitel Communications Director has proven to be a major advancement in the VoIP virtualization arena, but the technology is still relatively new, and call me old-fashioned, but I strongly believe that there is something to be said for maintaining your voice solution within its own distinct infrastructure -- especially since bare-metal VoIP has reached a certain level of maturity that virtualized VoIP simply hasn't achieved yet.
If your organization has no VoIP infrastructure whatsoever, I would begin by researching what kind of virtualization infrastructure your organization currently maintains. If your infrastructure is primarily VMware-based, then this may prove to be advantageous due to the Mitel-VMware partnership mentioned above. From a technical standpoint, most of your consideration should involve how large your organization is and what type of existing infrastructure is currently in place. If you work in a large organization, then any virtualized VoIP software/appliance should be able to accommodate large call volumes. Furthermore, you should take into account the amount of bandwidth available within your organization's network infrastructure. While there have been advancements in the bandwidth utilization of virtualized VoIP (as mentioned above), you should also look into the feasibility of increasing the size of the pipe within your network. Better safe than sorry.
If you work within a small and medium-sized business (SMB), a considerable amount of study should go into the need for scalability. This goes hand in hand with a detailed growth forecast done by upper management. Not only is this simply good practice for any SMB, this will go a long way in allowing for growing call volumes should the SMB experience moderate-to-rapid growth in the near future.
Deploy virtual VoIP cautiously
I fully expect virtualized VoIP to become a staple within the IT industry, because it simply makes too much sense in terms of scalability, security and future costs. However, this still-maturing technology is very much in its infancy, so organizations that have current, fully functional VoIP solutions would be wise to extensively research, yet cautiously advance toward, virtualized VoIP.