Is Skype Ready for the Enterprise?

Is the wildly popular Skype VoIP software ready to take on a significant role in the enterprise? With at least a quarter of Skype downloads destined for enterprise laptops, according to figures from mobile computing security provider Fiberlink Communications Corp., the recent partnership between Skype and Fiberlink is responding to a “train barreling down the track,” according to Jim Somers, Fiberlink’s marketing director.

Skype, born of peer-to-peer file trading, the darling of early-adopter tech geeks, certainly lacks a reputation for enterprise-grade security. Fiberlink’s Extend360, a software solution for securing mobile workers, provides precisely what Skype is lacking. Will the pairing succeed in propelling Skype into enterprise respectability?

Securing Skype
The partnership announced last month recognizes Skype’s inroads into the enterprise, according to Fiberlink’s chief marketing officer, William Wagner. He says Skype is gaining “enormous traction in the workplace.”

Fiberlink believes enterprise workers comprise approximately one quarter of the one million Skype downloads. Skype’s own internal surveys find 30 percent of its users employ the VoIP application for business purposes.

Somers asserts that enterprises are tiring of “being seen as a policeman” and limiting employee use of Skype out of security concerns. Extend360 provides fully secure connections over a wide variety of access types, handling authentication and encryption, policy enforcement and the like, according to Somers.

How it works
Somers says he often uses Skype when conducting business. A common mobile office is the local coffee shop, which Somers describes as a fortress, because no cell signals can penetrate. The first step is launching Extend360, where he chooses a Wi-Fi connection option. The Extend360 client checks his company’s policies and ensures that the latest anti-virus software is in place. After connecting to the Internet via VPN, Somers opens Skype and finds five team members available. Through Skype, he conducts a collaborative conference call.

“Skype is aimed primarily at workgroups,” says Skype spokesperson Kelly Larabee. Sending IMs to arrange phone conferences and collaborative conversations are two Skype features that Larabee often employs.

Two-phase partnership
The partnership between Fiberlink and Skype confronts three areas that enterprises see as critical: security, billing, and control.

The initial partnership announcement concentrated on improving Skype’s security with the addition of Fiberlink’s Extend360 client.

An additional goal—adapting Skype’s consumer roots to the enterprise environment—won’t be officially unveiled for another week or so, says Somers. This second phase of the partnership will allow enterprises to buy talk time in bulk, pay for non-peer-to-peer minutes in traditional ways, and control employee access to Skype.

Heartburn prevention
“The big deal is going to be the minutes,” says Mike Disabato, analyst with the Burton Group. While talking to other Skype users computer-to-computer is free, when users connect through the public switched telephone network (the SkypeOut premium service), Skype charges a per-minute fee. Until now, PayPal has been Skype’s only payment option. Enterprises will now be able to pre-purchase ‘buckets’ of minutes from Fiberlink and pay for them using standard accounting practices. “Enterprises won’t get heartburn over PayPal,” says Disabato.

Fiberlink will resell bundled SkypeOut talk time at 2 cents per minute per user, as well as voicemail for $20 per year per user. Those charges are in addition to the $99 per month per user that Fiberlink charges customers for its “all access” bundle.

Enterprises will be able to control who uses Skype’s services and for how many minutes, according to Somers. By pre-purchasing bundled minutes, companies will get 100 Skype accounts with specific usage limits.

Fiberlink will not provide customer support for the Skype software or service.

Issues remain
While the deal with Fiberlink provides Skype much-needed legitimacy, unresolved issues may still prove a barrier to some enterprises, according to Disabato.

Although enterprise users can access all of Skype’s features—conferencing, messaging, and instant messaging—some common telephony functions just aren’t available. “Financial organizations need recording—a feature not available in Skype,” says Disabato.

“A big issue will be receiving calls” through enterprise firewalls, according to the analyst. Opening firewalls to receive calls may cause problems. “Security people will have nightmares,” says Disabato.

The question thus remains: can Skype transform from a consumer toy to an enterprise tool? Skype’s own Larabee thinks so, based on past history: “If you look at cell phones, it was the user that brought them into the enterprise.” It remains to be seen if Skype has the popular numbers to do that.

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