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VOIP has been talked about so long that it has taken a life of its own in the abstract realm. But an indication the technology is decidedly entrenching itself in the physical world is the availability of tools to remotely monitor and manage voice over IP networks.

N-able Technologies Inc., of Ottawa, Canada, on Tuesday launched VOIP Service Manager, which lets MSPs (managed-service providers) remotely monitor and manage distributed VOIP systems.

N-able is adding the service as another module in its N-central managed services platform, which service providers use to take over IT functions for their end-user customers.

“The idea is to allow MSPs to extend the scope of their offering,” said Bill Stewart, the company’s vice president of marketing.

Providers can tap existing customers already using VOIP, he said. “They can essentially get more revenue out of their customer base.”

The service supports only providers with Cisco Systems Inc.-based VOIP practices, but Stewart said the company plans to add support for other vendors in the future.

Cisco was first because it has open architecture and is the most popular, he said.

N-able saw adding the voice service as a logical extension of its offerings. And even though voice is only about 5 percent of N-able partners’ overall business, Stewart said the company is banking on what it considers a growing opportunity.

Stewart said an increasing number of N-able partners have been expressing interest in the technology because demand among end-user customers is growing, he said.

VARs already using the N-able platform but that don’t yet do VOIP work may be encouraged to take a closer look at the technology as a result of the platform provider’s move, said N-able President and CEO Mark Scott.

“It’s a call to action for those partners who are still on the fence,” he said.

According to Infonetics Research Inc., VOIP service revenues in North America are expected to swell by more than 1,400 percent to about $20 billion in 2009 from $1.3 billion last year.

If the Infonetics projection proves accurate, the IT channel could see a significant shift.

Even though VOIP has created a fair amount of buzz in the industry in recent years, most VARs and integrators have been hesitant about developing a voice practice because they need to be sold on VOIP’s promise of functionality and reliability.

In addition, traditionally IT VARs and integrators have been a separate channel from that of voice integrators, but a gradual convergence has been taking place.

“You had traditional telephony providers that didn’t really cross the line into the IT side,” said Stewart. “Now there’s an opportunity for both sides to cross over.”

One of the reasons the channel has been slow in adopting VOIP is that vendors have focused too much on enterprise uses, such as conferencing, said Darren McBride, CEO of Highly Reliable Systems and Sierra Computer Ltd., Reno, Nev.

“The people selling VOIP are not communicating the value proposition to the small-business guy,” he said.

McBride himself only started considering it seriously in recent months when he realized the practical application of a VOIP system in his own businesses, where he believes it would facilitate telecommuting, he said.

N-able is aiming VOIP Service Manager at small and midsize businesses.

The service is either free to partners or costs $3,500, depending on the volume of business they do with the company.

John DiNatale, executive vice president at N-able partner Ronco Corporate Operations, said N-able’s voice service presents an opportunity for its RoncoWatch managed-services offering.

“With the addition of the N-able’s N-central product we expanded our RoncoWatch offering to address the IT infrastructure,” DiNatale said. “With the new N-able VOIP Service Manager, we can now provide a robust and comprehensive monitoring, management and reporting solution for our Cisco CallManager VOIP customers by bringing VOIP management up to par with the level of traditional PBX management.”

VOIP Service Manager keeps track of devices connected to Cisco CallManager servers, such as phones and routing systems, reporting on hardware performance metrics as well as the status of relevant software applications.

It also monitors the ability of CallManager to process calls in a timely fashion.

By keeping track of performance remotely, a service provider can spring into action immediately by sending a technician to a customer site when a problem occurs, said Stewart.