IT and Business Insights for SMB Solution Providers

Cashing In on IP Convergence

A single IP-based network for data, voice, and video can be a boon for your customers--and a new revenue opportunity for you. By Alan R. Frank

SMBs, like most businesses, have historically employed distinct networks for data, voice, and video. But today, they're increasingly using a single IPbased network for all three--and enjoying cost savings, easier collaboration, and heightened productivity as a result.

Making that change to converged IP communications can be a challenge, however. Real-time data types such as voice and video place demanding requirements on a network, principally in throughput and quality of service (QoS; latency and jitter). But along with that challenge comes an opportunity for VARs and integrators willing and able to help their SMB clients move to the new world of converged IP communications.

Among those opportunities are "professional services on the front end, as VARs do their network assessments and security," says Sally Stanton, director, market management, for worldwide channels marketing at Cisco Systems Inc., in San Jose, Calif. The security audit is one potential offering: "You don't just go in and do it once," she says. "There are continual security threats going on. For the partner that has a strong security focus and can put together a plan for security audits, there are all sorts of services that can be wrapped around the hardware itself."

Most of the "action" in converged networks in the SMB arena is in support of Voice over IP (VoIP). "Voice/data convergence is still happening," says Chuck Bartlett, vice president of networking product marketing for distributor Tech Data Corp., in Clearwater, Fla. Bartlett feels that video over IP--at least videoconferencing--is not nearly as far along the adoption curve among SMBs. "We're beginning to see IP video, but I liken it to where the VoIP market was three years ago: a lot of interest in looking at what would be necessary to do it," but less real adoption so far. The most promising near-term opportunity in video looks to be video for security/surveillance.

When a customer is interested in adding voice or video to an existing IP data network, the first requirement for solution providers will be for a network assessment. According to Ted Chamberlin, research director for enterprise network communications at Gartner Inc., "VARs that have a good background in VoIP have a potential opportunity for a small fixed-fee engagement, where they can go in and recommend some very concrete changes and next steps."

Michael Allsup, chief manager of the Cordova, Tenn., integration firm Critical Edge Technology LLC, says he typically charges for network assessments, but if the customer ends up buying a VoIP or other system from his company, the network assessment fee is credited back.

Different integrators have different approaches as to how the assessment is conducted. Jim Carter, vice president of sales and marketing at Affiliated Communications, an integrator headquartered in Dallas, says, "There's a whole host of assessment tools that we use. One is Chariot [from NetIQ]. It allows us to throw packets out across the LAN and WAN and analyze exactly where there could be some mismatches of switches and routers, as well as identify latency problems or problems in the network with speed."

An alternate approach involves examining network topology and noting what internetworking equipment is being used (assuming you know the equipment well enough to make an accurate assessment). Critical Edge Technology's Allsup says his firm's assessment process uses a combination of examining link speeds, the network topology, and the internetworking equipment--as well as "any issues the customer brings to the table."

Following assessment, the next order of business is to develop a list of recommended network upgrades that will be needed to support the VoIP or IP video deployment. "When you're dealing with voice, video, and data," says Roshan Thekkekunnel, product line manager for 3Com's OfficeConnect managed Gigabit PoE switch, "the biggest requirement is to partition the traffic, then assign priority to the voice and video traffic."

Several switch vendors have been working to simplify that process and speed deployment. 3Com, based in Marlborough, Mass., calls its approach auto-voice VLAN, says Tom Kinahan, product line manager for the company's Baseline Switch 2900 family. "It recognizes IP phones and potentially cameras," he says, doing so by media access control (MAC) address. "It will prioritize that traffic and put it on a VLAN, to separate voice and data."

Manfred Arndt, distinguished technologist for convergence solutions at Palo Alto, Calif.-based HP, says that the trend toward plugging the PC into the phone raises an additional challenge: "How can you, in a standard manner, auto-configure the phones to get the right VLAN and QoS configuration [under these circumstances]?"

The answer, Arndt says, is LLDP-MED, a specification based on the IEEE's standard for linklayer discovery protocol (LLDP; IEEE 802.1ab), with additional standards work (conducted in the Telecommunications Industry Association) addressing media endpoint devices (hence, the "MED" in LLDP-MED).

"LLDP-MED [ANSI/TIA- 1057] is the standard that all of the switch vendors and many leading phone vendors support," Arndt says. It lets you "plug and play" a phone, right out of the box, and get the right configuration. "It's also going to provide you the asset management and topology discovery," says Arndt.

Support for QoS isn't the only issue for switches. Many IP phones and video cameras can be powered remotely, using Power over Ethernet (PoE), and if this approach is taken, you'll need to make sure that the switches are PoE-capable. Using PoE makes it easier to provide uninterruptible power to the phones (or other endpoints, such as cameras), by equipping each switch with an uninterruptible power supply (UPS).

You'll also need a UPS for the IP PBX, as well as for the internetworking equipment between the phones and the carrier demarcation point (it's possible to power multiple devices from one UPS). As Tom Karabinos, director of partner channels for Columbus, Ohio-based Liebert Corp., observes, planning for power outages "not only makes the system more robust by eliminating down time, it also adds revenue and significant margin to the overall project for the reseller."

"Most resellers today have been focused on putting the infrastructure in place for the voice and data systems," notes Tech Data's Bartlett, "but have not necessarily been involved in the actual service coming into the premise." He says that Tech Data has negotiated contracts with three different service providers, "whereby our [partners] can resell phone service along with hardware, so that [they] get an annuity from the service being provided to the end customer." The providers are XO Communications (Herndon, Va.), Cbeyond (Atlanta), and Telovations Inc. (Tampa, Fla.).

Cbeyond is one of the leading proponents of the SIPconnect technical recommendation, which seeks to improve and broaden interoperability among the growing range of SIP-compatible products. (Cbeyond CTO Chris Gatch is a SIP Forum director, and co-editor of the recommendation.)

Greg Rothman, Cbeyond's marketing director for SIPconnect development, says that VARs that sell the company's SIPconnect-based trunking service can potentially double the revenue they will receive, compared with selling VoIP equipment alone. That, according to Rothman, is "based on the upfront honorarium that we pay, plus residuals that we pay for as long as the customer remains with Cbeyond."

Cbeyond also is one of two carriers (the other is New Global Telecom) that have announced SIP trunking support for Microsoft's Response Point small business VoIP phone system. Golden, Colo.-based New Global Telecom Inc. (NGT) offers SIP trunking and hosted VoIP solutions nationwide, covering 92 percent of the U.S. population, according to Julie Buchanan, the company's marketing manager. VARs selling NGT's hosted VoIP or SIP trunking services can do so under their own brand. They can also offer NGT-branded SIP trunking to Response Point customers, under Microsoft's agent program.

Communications equipment vendor Mitel has a network services division, making the company a Competitive Local Exchange Carrier (CLEC) in more than 30 states, according to Joe Ward, senior vice president of managed services for Ottawabased Mitel. The company's channel partners can resell these services.

Observes Imran Khan, industry analyst in Frost & Sullivan's Enterprise Communications group, "For a lot of carriers--whether they are the traditional ones or next-generation carriers or CLECs-- VARs are becoming a prominent channel to reach SMB customers."

VARs selling VoIP have the opportunity to layer additional applications, such as unified communications (UC), on top of the base phone system (although some vendors incorporate UC into their base VoIP offerings).

Siemens is introducing a new UC solution called OpenOffice for SMBs. According to Karl Hotz, vice president and general manager for channel management and development at the company's office in Wendell, N.C., OpenOffice "is a presence-based solution, pure IP, that accommodates as few as one to two users all the way up to 150. This is going to be our first channel-only product in North America. It's not going to be sold by our direct sales organization."

Carmen Sorice, vice president of channels for Alcatel- Lucent North America in Plano, Texas, says interest in video is "tremendous." Although he notes that the company isn't seeing a lot of uptake in videoconferencing among SMBs, "in education, we're seeing a big demand for video in the classroom." Also, he says, "Hospitals are looking for creative ways to use video."

March Networks Corp., in Ottawa, focuses on video for security purposes. Peter Wilenius, the company's vice president of corporate development, says that while most of his company's business is through security VARs that have traditionally been selling closed-circuit TV and alarm systems, he's starting to see interest from IT VARs. "They may be putting in networks for small business, deploying business systems, maybe voice systems, and they're starting to get interested in video surveillance as another application to ride on that converged infrastructure."

Another area with potential is hosted VoIP. "There is a tremendous amount of managed services opportunity," says Frost & Sullivan's Kahn. He notes that many SMBs, seeking to minimize capital outlays, will find hosted VoIP appealing.

Mitel offers customers a complete solution--including the aforementioned connectivity (via its network services division)--under its TotalSolution program, which Mitel partners can sell. Training, 24/7 maintenance, insurance, and third-party products can be put under an operating expense agreement. "When you bundle all of these together," says Ward, "you provide a managed services environment that gives not only the end user, but our channel, the opportunity to take advantage of the full breadth of services we offer."

ALAN R. FRANK is a networking consultant and freelance writer covering networking and communications technologies.

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