Looking under the Hood�Part I: Evaluating VoIP Switching Vendors

Have you ever embarked on what you thought was a fairly well-defined project, only to see it expand far beyond its original scope? That certainly happened to us with this series on vendor network and switching architectures. When we started, we had around ten vendors in mind—the heavy hitters like Avaya, 3Com, Cisco Systems, Lucent Technologies, and Nortel. But with a little research, we discovered that the VoIP switching marketplace is not just a North American business, as we identified many companies around the globe that were pitching IP telephony products, including firms hailing from Canada, Eastern and Western Europe, and the Middle and Far East.

Moreover, we discovered that the lines segmenting the switching systems market were a little blurry, with systems that support just a handful of stations at a small business oftentimes very similar to those that can handle thousands of stations in a multi-location enterprise. We also discovered that when you peel back the cover of many of the “software only” IP PBXs, you find the familiar open-source Asterisk system underneath.

In short, the projected group of around 10 vendors morphed into a total of 61. And those proved to be an eclectic mix of companies ranging from those with over a century of experience in voice communications to others that were just getting started. So if you are doing voice system procurement on behalf of your organization—be it small or large—where do you begin? How do you start making a short list of vendors that are worthy of your time to schedule a sales call or product demonstration?

Here are four insights, based on our experiences from the past year, that should help you more intelligently look under the hood—one general tip plus three specific questions to which you’ll probably want to develop answers:

  1. Do business with a vendor that is easy to do business with. Remember the early days of networking when you could purchase an Ethernet card from just about any vendor that you asked? Well, it looks like the VoIP switching business is heading down a similar path, with the world migrating to an all-Internet Protocol (IP) infrastructure, and the days of Time Division Multiplexed (TDM) switching being numbered. In short, most networking vendors have some type of IP switching solution to offer, and therefore you are in a buyer’s market with abundant choices of vendors.

    This means that you, the network manager, have the upper hand. So before you even start to evaluate the product, evaluate the company. How are you treated when you call for information? Are your telephone messages or e-mails returned promptly? Is the company representative courteous? Do your requests for information receive prompt attention, or do you have to chase the vendor to get more data on their product? How long have they been in this business? Are they willing to provide references of satisfied customers that have a business similar to yours? Remember the old adage—you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. It’s worthwhile to evaluate the type of first impression that you had of a vendor before moving any further down the procurement path.

  2. What technology basis is this vendor coming from? Some companies, such as Avaya, Lucent Technologies, and Nortel have a clear history in voice communications, while others, like 3Com and Cisco, got their start on the data networking side of the house. Other firms like NEC, Nokia, and Siemens also have expertise in cellular technologies, while companies like Panasonic and Toshiba bring a background in consumer electronics to the table. Many of the younger companies, like FacetPhone, Fonality, Pingtel, Switchvox, and others got their start, and are solely focused on, the VoIP market. So here is the question for you—what type of communication challenge are you trying to solve? Is it strictly a voice communication issue, or does it involve data, wireless, cellular, or some other medium such video conferencing? Clearly understand your problem, so that you can find a vendor that has an appropriate technical background to provide you with the best solution.
  3. What is this vendor’s primary focus—carrier or enterprise? The term VoIP switching means different things to different people. In the carrier business, it means replacing TDM switches and T1 lines with an IP-based infrastructure, which is likely to be based on IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) standards and softswitches. In the enterprise world, it likely means replacing and/or upgrading a legacy key system or PBX with an IP PBX system that can use IP telephones or IP softphones (whether or not it also supports traditional TDM equipment). The requirements of these two different worlds make for significant differences in product specifications in areas such as system cost, system redundancy and reliability, system support requirements, and so on. So the key question to ask here is: Am I considering vendors that are focused in the space I inhabit?
  4. What is this vendor’s primary market? It should come as no surprise that the larger vendors have products that are designed to support multi-location enterprises with thousands of end users. But if you only need a system that will support a few dozen stations at your small business, you may well find a less expensive solution if you focus on one of the smaller vendors (plus you’ll likely get better attention). So first of all, understand whether you’re shopping for a small, medium, or large-enterprise-sized communication solution, and then look for vendors that specialize in supporting businesses on the appropriate scale.

Our next tutorial will continue our evaluation of switching products and vendors, with some guidelines as you consider the switching system in the context of your larger network.

Copyright Acknowledgement: © 2007 DigiNet Corporation ®, All Rights Reserved

Author’s Biography
Mark A. Miller, P.E. is President of DigiNet ® Corporation, a Denver-based consulting engineering firm. He is the author of many books on networking technologies, including Voice over IP Technologies, and Internet Technologies Handbook, both published by John Wiley & Sons.

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