TechColumn

Monitoring IP telephony infrastructures

Christine Washburn

The promise of IP telephony (IPT) has suddenly morphed from a "what-if" to a "when." Organizations, including the small and midtier markets (SMB), are looking to IPT as a means of simplifying management while enhancing mobile connectivity. But if you're seriously considering integrating voice and data, how do you prepare for the transition? How do you successfully manage and measure the migration and ongoing success of your deployment? What are the "gotchas?" This article helps you address the management and security requirements that enable you to exceed the Day 2 expectations of users and senior management.

IPT is still an emerging technology
IP telephony (IPT) is typical of many new technologies in that the technology arrives without the support systems to manage it effectively. According to Gartner, management systems may lag emerging technologies by 12 to 24 months. IPT is no different, although the number of VoIP and IPT product announcements has increased significantly over the past 18 months. Many traditional network and Windows management vendors are jumping into this void with new products that address VoIP, and IPT management in particular.

IPT shares much of the current data network infrastructure, including the LAN and the corporate intranet. Thus, pre-implementation assessment and planning is crucial to ensuring that the IP network infrastructure is capable of supporting voice at the required high levels of performance. This is the number one reason that IPT implementations fail. Typically the equipment is blamed, rather than the lack of pre-implementation assessment, and fixing the problem after the fact can be costly.

End users have high expectations
From the perspective of the end user, any telephone service, be it IPT or a traditional PBX, should "just work." Users have many pre-conceived expectations in terms of sound quality, reliability, and availability. The success of many IPT solution providers is keyed to meeting these expectations. End users demand a dial tone when they pick up the phone, and if this is sporadic or unreliable, they are unlikely to accept an IPT implementation.

In contrast, the TCP/IP architectures used by most data networks were never designed for the needs of time-sensitive voice service. While late, lost, or distorted packets do not always measurably impact network performance, this type of issue seriously affects the quality of IPT. Similarly, jitter, link and interface congestion can also compromise quality.

With IPT, a reactive approach to management is a guarantee of failure. Delivering voice quality not only requires careful planning and implementation up front, it also requires ongoing management and optimization of the infrastructure. Network managers need the ability to monitor the IPT equipment and underlying infrastructure in real time, generate detailed reports, and manage the growth of the IPT infrastructure moving forward.

IT managers can acquire this expertise in one of two ways -- by purchasing and deploying in-house tools or "renting" this capability from a provider. The best solution for you depends upon your current staffing and expectations for what IPT is to deliver. A recent Gartner Dataquest report notes that "while IP telephony offers impressive functionality, most deployments will require external service and support to ensure long-term functionality and availability." Some of the questions to think about when choosing a provider include:

  • What are expectations for the new system?
  • How easy is it to make changes?
  • How involved will the provider be in planning deployments?
  • What level of support is offered?
  • What kind of status information is available and how?

The need for proactive management
By using proactive monitoring solutions to aggregate faults and associated alerts, you can minimize quality problems. Fault management eliminates "silent failures" and aids in proactively isolating the root cause of the problem while expediting troubleshooting and mean time to repair. In particular, you need to monitor not only the application that routes stores, and reports on all calls, but also the gateway infrastructure that supports the application, and the generic networking infrastructure -- routers and switches -- over which the call is routed. Frequently bottlenecks that have the potential to degrade service occur not in the call management application, but in an interconnected server or switch. Without the ability to troubleshoot across the underlying infrastructure, it is difficult, if not impossible, to guarantee high levels of performance and availability. A complete view of the IP telephony infrastructure not only reduces downtime, but simplifies management overall.


IPT faces traditional security vulnerabilities
Many corporations have implemented IP telephony solutions but remain unaware of the potential security issues invited by their deployment. A recent Meta Group finding cites the lack of security measures covering IPT implementations as cause for alarm. The report cited concerns ranging from privacy violation and the potential for data theft to attacks against other users. While PBXs are not immune to security threats, they have not traditionally been targeted. Early IP telephony deployments are still primarily geared toward voice quality and interoperability issues. Frequently, they are detached from essential corporate security initiatives, a situation that could result in serious repercussions. Many call management platforms run on Windows or store data in SQL servers so are just as vulnerable to intruders as any traditional network-facing device.

Managers can protect against such threats by implementing the same defense mechanisms they currently deploy across the network, including intrusion monitoring, patch assessment, vulnerability scanning, and virus protection. Solutions that combine network management with security correlation can be particularly valuable in helping to separate legitimate increases in traffic from true security threats. Moreover, combined network and security capabilities can also be simpler to manage, as well as more cost-effective, if purchased as part of the same tool or service.

Today, management is one of the key challenges of replacing older PBX systems with more IP telephony systems. With extremely high user-driven expectations of call quality and availability, there's little room for error once the switch is made. Incorporating a management system -- whether outsourced or managed in-house -- into your IPT strategy is critical to its Day 2 success and continued rewards.



About the author:
Christine Washburn is vice president of marketing at SilverBack Technologies, the leading provider of affordable, fast, easy and secure IT monitoring software for the mid-tier. Christine joined SilverBack's management team in October 2001, bringing with her 12 years of dynamic experience in the high-tech field. Before joining SilverBack, she was vice president of marketing for Mazu Networks and vice president of corporate marketing for Concord Communications. Before Concord, Christine held various marketing, international, and channel positions at Chipcom and Microcom. She began her career in politics, serving as a legislative assistant, and later press secretary, to the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance.

This was first published in May 2004

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