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So it begins. Skype for Asterisk falls.

It looks like the first victim in the Microsoft acquisition of Skype is Digium and the open source PBX – Asterisk. The following is an email sent to existing Skype for Asterisk users…

Skype for Asterisk will not be available for sale or activation after July 26, 2011.

Skype for Asterisk was developed by Digium in cooperation with Skype. It includes proprietary software from Skype that allows Asterisk to join the Skype network as a native client. Skype has decided not to renew the agreement that permits us to package this proprietary software. Therefore Skype for Asterisk sales and activations will cease on July 26, 2011.

This change should not affect any existing users of Skype for Asterisk. Representatives of Skype have assured us that they will continue to support and maintain the Skype for Asterisk software for a period of two years thereafter, as specified in the agreement with Digium. We expect that users of Skype for Asterisk will be able to continue using their Asterisk systems on the Skype network until at least July 26, 2013. Skype may extend this at their discretion.

Skype for Asterisk remains for sale and activation until July 26, 2011. Please complete any purchases and activations before that date.

Thank you for your business.

Digium Product Management

One has to wonder what will become of Skype Connect, Skype’s answer to SIP Trunking. Will Microsoft shut off the Skype Connect vendors (Cisco, Avaya, Grandstream, etc.) as well?

Original forum post here.

Organizational Transformation Calls for a New Communications Infrastructure

Rise of the Virtual Organization

Today, we are witnessing a powerful transformation in the business space. The very nature of the workplace is changing, as more and more people are working in locations that are different from those of their colleagues, managers and direct reports. It’s no longer the case that road warriors—sales people, service personnel and executive management—are the only people who routinely work outside the office. These days, everyone from contact-center agents to HR managers to general knowledge workers are likely to spend at least some of their time working from a remote or home-based location, and as the lines between home life and work life continue to blur, many employee find themselves “on the job” even as they watch their kids’ soccer games or commute on the train to the work.

One key factor driving organizational sprawl is the globalization of business. As businesses tap into new markets looking to expand customer reach and grow revenues, they also acquire local talent and maintain local presence through a growing number of branch offices and remote sites. As a result, functional teams increasingly span multiple, geographically dispersed locations.

But there is also a growing tendency to offer employees a better, more balanced life style. Many businesses today are creating flexible work programs – with flexibility extending to both employee workplace and working hours. Such programs enable businesses to accomplish three key objectives:

  1. Reduce facilities costs (including real estate, utilities, equipment, furniture, etc.),
  2. Reduce employee commuting costs and improve employee satisfaction and retention (and possibly productivity),
  3. Spare the environment by reducing fuel emissions.

Some refer to these benefits as the Triple Bottom Line. There’s no doubt that the virtual workplace offers significant advantages to companies and their employees. Myriad third-party research supports the benefits. For instance, in a 2009 study, the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) reports that 84% of companies believe that flexible work arrangements in their organization boost employee morale. That’s up from 76% over 2008. And 78% of polled companies say flexwork options bolster retention rates, up from 64% the previous year.”[1]

Meanwhile, a 2008 report from Corporate Voices for Working Families[2] notes that in a 2007 survey of senior-level executives at large corporations, respondents reported an overwhelmingly positive experience with flexible work strategies. By a ratio of 9-to-1, respondents reported that flexible work strategies have a positive effect on helping organizations reach business goals.


[1] http://www.i4cp.com/news/2009/08/17/i4cp-study-flexible-work-arrangements-gaining-more-attention-in-the-workplace

[2] http://www.cvworkingfamilies.org/system/files/FlexibleWorkStrategiesExecutiveSummary.pdf

Mobility and Mobile Communications Drive a Paradigm Shift

Mobile communications have brought down the walls of the confined business space and the physical establishment. Individuals can now communicate and do business from their homes, cars, airports and hotel rooms, virtually anywhere.

Today’s employees are much more tech-savvy than they have ever been before. They have access to various high-end communications and collaboration tools as consumers and they demand the same tools and capabilities in the workplace as well. We acknowledge a growing trend of “consumerization” in the enterprise, which manifests itself in the increasing use of consumer devices, applications and tools for business purposes, with or without the official support of the IT department. This trend is most evident in the use of mobile devices – smart phones, tablets, and so on. A 2010 Frost & Sullivan survey of 200 North America-based C-level executives and IT managers revealed that 70% of the respondents used mobile devices for business purposes, and 49% claimed that mobile devices represented the primary communications endpoints used by the majority of users in the organization.

Consumerization is having a significant impact on technology investment decisions in the enterprise. Business IT and telecom managers have been somewhat reluctant to support all these consumer devices and applications, mostly due to cost, interoperability and security concerns. In fact, only 50% of the respondents in our survey reported that their mobile devices were integrated with the corporate communications systems and applications. Yet, 91% of those respondents reported that mobile extensions of corporate communications were either very important (61%) or somewhat important (30%) to their daily operations.

Discussions with CTO and CIO professionals reveal that technology investment decisions now involve a variety of stakeholders. Line-of-business (LOB) managers and even end users are forcing IT to take into account their preferences and needs when deploying new technologies and solutions. In fact, end users are the primary driving force behind the adoption of advanced mobile devices in the workplace. Going forward, as the workforce becomes increasingly mobile, IT will need to support the right set of mobile communications tools to enable employees to communicate and collaborate more effectively.

So What Can you Do? Gain a Competitive Advantage through Advanced Communications Solutions

The changing nature of today’s dispersed and diverse workforce demands employees be able to access a wide array of collaborative communications tools, regardless of the de-vices they’re using, or where they’re using them. Mobile workers, teleworkers, “corridor” warriors and the so-called “digital generation” have varied needs, but they all share several things in common:

  • They require an “in-office” communications experience regardless of where they are based;
  • They use a diverse set of software tools and devices to communicate (ranging from, but not limited to, instant messaging, web and video conferencing, soft and hard phones, social media, Blackberries, Android phones, iPads and iPhones, and even lowly PCs.).
  • Users and business managers wish to be able to present a uniform public identity – a single number and a single mail box where users can be reached by customers, partners and co-workers.

Companies must embrace the virtual workplace, but as they do so, they must deploy technology that supports this new way of working. Communications solutions must conform to the needs of individuals and to specific job functions, not the other way around.

How do you Chose the Right Solution for your Organization?

I was recently on a panel with Jim Davies, Mitel’s CTO, discussing evolving business needs and changing requirements for communications solutions. Jim talked about the founding principles of Mitel’s Freedom Architecture and I found those in line with key market trends. Mitel’s next-generation architecture is based on the following building blocks:

  • Flexible, software-based solutions that allow integration with other vendors’ best-of-breed technologies,
  • Support for a broad range of endpoints, including UC application support on a variety of mobile devices such as Nokia, Windows Mobile, Blackberry, Android and iPhone smartphones,
  • Alternative deployment models including on-premises virtualization, Mitel-hosted cloud (Mitel AnyWare) or carrier-hosted solutions (Multi-instance MCD).

Fred Crespo, VP of Information Technologies at Rosewood Hotels and Resorts, who was also on the panel, affirmed, that the walled-garden approach is no longer acceptable to end users. He also gave examples of employees demanding support for the mobile devices of their choice and the resulting need for proper integration with the rest of the company’s communications infrastructure.

Businesses looking to future-proof their investments need to develop their next-generation architectures taking the above factors into consideration. A business’ communications infrastructure must support a single user identity and integrated access to a variety of communications software and devices for a user without adding cost and complexity. That technology should be open and flexible, software-based, and be able to run on any device and accessed from anywhere.

Counterpoint

The counterpoint to what? Good question. I wanted to talk about some personal experiences with communications technologies. Since the sentiments in this article may appear to contradict ideas I have shared previously – taking more of an analyst, rather than a consumer point of view – I thought I would present them as a “counterpoint”.

Frequently, nascent technologies promise to improve the way we live and work. But at the early stages, both businesses and individuals tend to experience more challenges than benefits.

I work out of a home office, like many other professionals today. Organizations are becoming increasingly virtual and IT managers are struggling to deliver reliable, secure and cost-effective communications to their growing remote workforce. In fact, many technological advancements – such as enterprise mobility, unified communications and SaaS/cloud-based communications, to name a few – are touted as particularly appropriate for mobile and geographically dispersed users. But remote workers frequently face issues that negatively impact their ability to leverage the full potential of these advanced technologies.

Here follow some quick references to popular marketing pitches and my counterpoints as an end user:

UC and software-based communications provide a cost-effective and convenient communications solution for remote workers.

COUNTERPOINT: At home, I have a regular POTS line, as well as a Cisco IP Communicator client on my laptop. I am glad I have the Cisco client because it allows me to call home when travelling or call an international number from home – free of charge to me. However, the few times I have tried to use it to attend an audio conference or make a critical business call, the quality turned out to be so poor that I had to switch to the POTS line or my cell phone.

There are several “weak links” in this scenario and the soft client is just one. It may be the quality of my Internet connection. I have a DSL line (I believe 4 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream) and I frequently have quality problems (breaking voice or slow website upload) when using various web applications or soft clients. It may be my wireless router – which is integrated with the DSL modem. It may be my laptop RAM or processing power. It could also be an issue with my VPN, the size of my Lotus Notes mail box, or any other application I access on my laptop. It may be some cookies or software bugs on my home network.

So it could be anything! But my point is, I am not ready to dump my TDM line OR my desktop phone for a PC-based soft client any time soon. Though my experience is that of a home worker, I think business environments are not immune to such challenges. If you really believe PC-based clients are ready to replace desktop phones, maybe you need to make sure the money you save from eliminating desktop phones is properly invested in assessing and upgrading LAN and WAN connections, PC processing power, RAM and hard drivers, etc. In my opinion, soft clients make a great adjunct to desktop phones, but not a viable replacement alternative … yet.

SaaS and cloud-based communications enable convenient self service for SMBs and remote workers.

COUNTERPOINT: I strongly believe in the value of hosted/cloud-based communications for businesses with limited in-house resources. But I have an issue with the claims around self service. I suppose, self service makes sense at the very initial stages of service selection and provisioning. Certainly, IP telephony – hosted or premises-based – also enables self-service moves, adds and changes (MACs), which provides substantial cost savings. IP telephony also enables IT managers as well as end users to manipulate settings through software/Web-based interfaces – providing flexibility and cost efficiencies.

However, self service only goes so far. In fact, hosted IP telephony and other ASP services never gained much traction exactly because service providers were not able to provide sufficient network implementation and management support required for mission-critical, real-time communications.

Inevitably, hosted services involve some customer premises equipment (CPE). To begin with, LAN and WAN reliability and security are top concerns with both hosted and premises-based IP communications. Therefore, router and switch selection, proper configuration and management are critical. Further, telephony endpoints and the respective wiring still require someone to literally crawl under people’s desks. Small business and remote workers should not be left entirely on their own when implementing or managing hosted IP communications.

Most of the time, a remote worker, similar to a residential user, uses… well, “cloud” or hosted communications. The Internet service, the POTS line – it is all managed by a service provider. And remote workers frequently face some common challenges. For example, my intermittent Internet connection has been an issue for a while. Having to spend hours on the phone with a customer service rep and stick pins into the router to restart and reconfigure it could be immensely frustrating. My phone company, on the other hand, has so far left me without a phone service only once (for about 24 hours). But even that one time, the warning that if they come to my house and it turns out to be a problem with my internal wiring or phones, they’ll charge me whatever it is they charge, etc., etc. … well, it leaves a bitter after-taste.

So, my point is, small business, remote workers, even medium and large businesses – they all want to feel taken care of. They’ll expect someone to come in and install or fix things for them as part of the monthly service charges and will not be too thrilled about self service.

I hope my thoughts make sense. Let me know what you think.

VoIP Network Monitor 'SIPQOS' Launches Beta


Many of us have struggled with VoIP Network Monitoring, keeping tabs on our network without having to manually review the health is always a hassle and concern. For every network my team erected we needed to erect a proper monitor. For smaller networks and even VoIP phone systems the traditional Network Monitors were far to expensive to implement and required port mirroring which meant servers had to be deployed in the VoIP network that required monitoring.

So, we created SIPQOS… SIPQOS is a service that allows VoIP network administrators to attach virtual SIP endpoints to their network which send calls to-and-fro and monitors those calls for interruption. It’s a simplistic approach to a complex problem, if the network drops a registration or if a call fails it’s likely (from personal experience at least) that the issue applies to the entire network and other endpoints are experiencing the same problem. SIPQOS won’t take the place of more expensive in-network solutions but it does a great job of providing redundant VoIP network monitoring and SIP-based VoIP phone system monitoring as well.

An excerpt from the announcement we made on the 10th…

VANCOUVER, February. 10SIPQOS (pronounced SIP-KWOSS), a new entrant in the VoIP network monitoring market has launched a beta of its remote VoIP network monitoring service today. SIPQOS released the first product to bring the power of remote VoIP network monitoring by combining embedded SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) User Agents, web services and some secret sauce. SIPQOS monitors VoIP networks remotely and alerts network administrators when a problem has been detected.

SIPQOS is doing a great job for us and provides redundant VoIP network monitoring on a production network we run today. It also fills a void where others solutions fell flat, SMS alerts are critical and SIPQOS delivers in spades on that front. Those interested should give it a whirl, it’s free to sign up and the plans after the 30 day trial are cheap by anyone’s standards.

SIP Trunking and Hosted PBX in Canada will speed HD Voice for small business

SIP trunks are simply another way of saying VoIP Provider for your phone system. A SIP trunk is a connection from a PBX (phone system) using SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) to an ITSP (Internet Telephony Service Provider).

It might sound complicated but it’s really quite simple, SIP trunks take the place of your legacy telephone company. Most phone systems out there today are more than a couple of years old and are likely based on circuit switched technology. Newer IP-PBXs use packet switching technology, which means they leverage the Internet to deliver the same features you have now, and then some. The difference could be minor or major depending on what your PBX is capable of and what your ITSP can deliver in terms of features and functionality.

Since the PSTN (public switch telephone network) is tied to aging circuit switched technology it has limitations in terms of what media it can support. Essentially, it can deliver low quality voice, that’s it.

SIP Trunks replace older PRI and POTS interfaces that we are used to and bring to the table a wide variety of communications options. Depending on your IP-PBX and your ITSP you could potentially look forward to HD (High Defenition) Voice and potentially HD Video.

HD voice (and video) for small business in Canada will happen, it’s only a matter of time. As broadband providers increase upstream bandwidth and dual WAN link-failover devices become common place, SIP trunking will accellerate in growth and on-net (calls made on the ITSP network) HD Voice will become common place.

Unfortunately, HD communication off-net (eg. PSTN) is not going anywhere at any great speed. Jeff Pulver is back as he reboots the communications industry with his new HD Communication Summit. I welcome Jeff back with open arms, if anyone can convince operators to increase speed towards wide-band/HD adoption it would Jeff Pulver.

Today we can see SIP trunking providers and hosted pbx providers supporting wideband codecs and devices on their networks. This will allow user to communicate in high definition with other users that have devices that support it, in brief you could have better calls between you and your colleagues in the office and remote office workers connected to the same PBX, and that is a step in the right direction.

How much bandwidth do I need for Response Point? G.711 vs. G.729

G.711 is the default audio CODEC for most Response Point phones and requires approximately 90Kbps bandwidth upstream (your voice going out) and 90Kbps bandwidth downstream (your caller’s voice coming in).

To calculate peak usage take the peak concurrent callers x 90Kbps. For example: 5 concurrent calls x 90Kbps = 450Kbps is the required bandwidth for each direction. Keep in mind, this does not account for VPN usage for remote users or voice mail to email etc.

As an example, if you have a 1Mbps ADSL connection from your service provider, you might have an upstream bandwidth of approximately 700 Kbps. A conservative approach is to estimate just over half of the upstream bandwidth is available, ISPs generally over-sell their bandwidth. In this case, you could safely support 4 simultaneous G.711 calls if you were not doing anything else (e.g. downloading email, listening to online radio, downloading large files, etc.) on that connection.

The SMB Digital Voice network also supports G.729, which uses approximately 20Kbps bandwidth upstream (your voice going out) and 20Kbps bandwidth downstream (your caller’s voice coming in) for each call. G.729 provides very good call quality while minimizing bandwidth usage. The only noticeable difference would likely arise during on-net calls (calling other users on the SMB Phone network). G.711 offers a higher quality on-net call because G.711 does not compress audio, but as soon as the the call is handed off to the PSTN the call quality between G.711 and G.729 is hardly noticeable.

G.729 offers some real benefits, the most obvious is the 400% decrease in bandwidth capacity requirements. G.729 also handles Jitter more efficiency during times where low bandwidth / high congestion would likely render a similar call using G.711 unintelligible.

You can force your phone to use G.729 on Response Point handsets but some are harder to configure than others. For example, on Aastra 675x phones the global SIP settings are grayed out out via Javascript on page load making it tough to set the codec.

As a general rule of thumb, we like to recommend an independent broadband connection that you can use for Response Point. You may want to acquire a router that has dual WAN link failover, VPN Server (for remote sites) and some QOS traffic shaping functionality.

Response Point VPNs and Remote Workers

I wrote an article over at the SMB Phone blog on Response Point VPNs and remote workers. If you are having some issues with VPNs and Response Point this might help.

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