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Open-source telephony technologies have recently blown open the VOIP market, creating a fertile breeding ground for new solutions built from the ground up for small businesses.

Indeed, with a vast number of choices, falling prices and improving applications, IT managers at small and midsize businesses may struggle to identify the right voice over IP solution for their needs.

A wide variety of solutions have appeared on the market just this year, as traditional telephony firms, networking companies of all sizes and appliance vendors have set their sights on the lower end of the business market.

In September, telecommunications consulting company Savatar released a report that found small-business VOIP adoption somewhat sluggish—but not for lack of interest in the technology.

Rather, the report suggests, small-business implementers are having a hard time determining the right solution and how to buy it.

Savatar found this is true, in part because the largest telecom providers (AT&T, Verizon, and so on) do not yet provide a cohesive nationwide small-business strategy to help guide implementers in choosing between hosted and on-premises solutions.

This eWEEK Labs report is intended to help IT managers at SMBs navigate the suddenly lush VOIP terrain.

Next Page: Standards push technology.

Standards Push Technology

In 2005, Nortel Networks was the first telephony provider to make a big splash in the small-business VOIP pool: Its Business Communications Manager 50 IP telephony solution, which offers a wide array of basic and advanced telephony applications, also provides a VOIP migration path for customers with legacy Nortel analog and digital phones.

Geared toward companies with less than 50 seats, the BCM 50 was an anomaly at the time of its release—a device built specifically for small businesses, rather than a larger solution chopped up and repackaged for the low end of the market.

Since that time, Nortel has appeared to come to the same conclusion as Savatar about confusion in the marketplace and has worked to streamline its reseller channel to cater to the needs of SMBs.

By offering end-to-end solutions, as well as improved reseller education, Nortel could eliminate some of the confusion that has slowed small-business adoption of VOIP.

But the BCM 50 is still a relatively closed system. While SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) trunking support is in the works for the BCM 50, it doesn’t look like Nortel has immediate plans to offer client-side SIP support.

What this means is that Nortel customers won’t be able to take advantage of the huge number of SIP-powered end-user devices that are just starting to come to market.

While VOIP technologies from companies such as Nortel remain closed, the open-source community has taken on the task of driving standards adoption.

Open-source IP PBX applications such as Digium’s Asterisk and SipFoundry’s sipX give users the freedom to use pretty much any client device they choose, as well as a platform on which to build applications above and beyond voice.

Asterisk has a particularly vocal following, as well as a diligent developer base.

With a significant number of resellers and software packagers, a large amount of documentation available online, and active forums, the Asterisk platform is poised to become a dominant force in IP telephony—for both enterprises and small businesses—as well as a key tool in the development of advanced applications.

Asterisk made significant gains in 2006, as third-party companies, corporate and educational implementers, and the open-source community at large released a flood of new packages for the platform.

Indeed, within the last six months, we’ve seen significant improvements in Asterisk’s Web-based management tools and end-user call-control capabilities and oversight, as well as in its overall system performance and call quality.

Digium has been working hard to integrate a few features derived from the open-source community into the open-source fork of Asterisk, to further improve sound quality and the user experience, organize programming logic, and streamline unified communications.

In October, Digium is slated to release Asterisk 1.4, which will feature a new jitter buffer for both VOIP and non-VOIP channels; the full adoption of the previously experimental Asterisk Extension Language, making the dial plan language more like a formal programming language; and the ability to store voice mails directly on an IMAP server, removing the need for multiple copies of voice mails stored on the network. (Asterisk users should note that the Asterisk Extension Language is not database-compatible at this point.)

The meteoric rise of Asterisk has had a significant impact on the VOIP industry.

Providers must place increased emphasis on standards compliance, and they cannot rest on their features laurels but must continue to innovate and develop for customers growing into their solutions.

VOIP provider ShoreTel, which has maintained a steady presence in the small-business VOIP arena for years, has seen the light with SIP.

Previously conspicuous in its slow pace in adopting SIP, ShoreTel is now including limited support for SIP client devices via SIP trunks, and we expect ShoreTel to improve this capability in the next year.

To read eWEEK Labs’ review of ShoreTel, click here.

In fact, IT managers can turn in any number of directions to find the right VOIP technology for their organizations.

First, however, SMB implementers should create an RFI (request for information) that asks vendors to not only detail costs and basic telephony services, but also describe potential for growth—in terms of both technology and service scaling.

IT managers also should consider the core competencies and vendor partnerships of resellers with which they’ve established a relationship, but should not use these factors as the sole basis for making a purchase.

Next Page: Where to turn.

Where to Turn

Small-businesses implementers may find that telephony equipment from large networking companies such as Cisco Systems or Nortel can be purchased either from VARs or large telcos that deploy these products as part of a solution package.

Like Nortel, Cisco has scaled down its telephony solutions for small business—Cisco’s new Call Manager Express is focused squarely at the SMB market.

Call Center Manager is built on top of Cisco IOS (Internetwork Operating System) and Cisco’s line of small-business-oriented Integrated Services Routers.

Read more here from a review of the Cisco routers.

Smaller networking companies also are hopping on the SMB bus, looking to capitalize on a market that shows no signs of slowing. Adtran, for example, has followed Cisco’s approach, embedding IP PBX functionality in its NetVanta 7000 Series routers.

In addition, more consumer-oriented companies, such as D-Link and Linksys, have added VOIP solutions to their small-business divisions.

Click here to read more about D-Link gear.

VOIP products from these companies are certainly attractive from a pricing perspective, but IT managers need to determine whether the solutions will provide the necessary features, whether they can be scaled to meet growing needs and whether expertise is available—from either the vendor or resellers—to correctly implement and effectively maintain a voice solution.

eWEEK Labs also has seen a couple of different waves of appliance-based solutions: There are small-business-oriented systems from companies such as ShoreTel and Quintum Technologies, which have been growing their own voice applications for years, and there are appliance solutions based on open-source initiatives.

Companies including Four Loop Technologies and Fonality, for example, are now selling Asterisk-based Linux appliances.

Most of these appliances have the same problem we saw with the last generation of PC-based solutions—namely, hardware reliability. PCs, with all their moving parts, are inherently fallible—if a hard drive, a fan or a power supply gets knocked out, voice services will be out, too.

ShoreTel avoids this problem by using a purpose-built switch, and Digium is hoping to avoid such stumbling blocks with its forthcoming Asterisk Appliance Developer Kit.

Digium created the kit to provide its OEM partners with a Business Lite version of Asterisk that runs on an appliance with no moving parts, along with training on how to develop and support it all.

The Digium appliance is basically a stackable voice switch, with eight analog ports, five Ethernet ports, a built-in router and Compact Flash for voice mail storage.

Digium officials estimate that the developer’s kit will cost about $4,000.

Finally, there are many hosted solutions that can be tapped for small-business VOIP.

Aforementioned carriers may offer business-class voice services, but navigating among these companies’ hosted and premise-based solutions can be daunting, often involving separate noncommunicating sales divisions.

Providers such as Covad Communications Group, on the other hand, have distinct, well-marketed services that offer a wide array of applications over a dedicated Internet connection that allows the company to offer SLAs (service-level agreements).

Vonage, on the other hand, offers a core set of services and an all-you-can-eat monthly rate without any kind of SLA.

Technical Analyst Andrew Garcia can be reached at

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