The right direction? –

An uneasy hush fell over the boardroom. We had just finished our presentation, an elaborate battle plan detailing the best way for our client to advance toward an all-IP telephony environment. A half-dozen of the client's executives sat at one end of the conference table; an equal number of our people sat around the other end.

Everyone was waiting for the client's senior man, a distinguished chap on the high side of 50, whose hair was more gray than blond, to break the ice. He leaned forward, knowing he had the floor, and looked me in the eye.

"Are we heading in the right direction," he asked, "I mean, putting all this over IP?"

I was dumbfounded. The company had already spent millions of dollars and well over a year in mapping its strategy. I had assumed that an irrevocable decision to go ahead had been made months ago. It was like Eisenhower, on the day after the D-Day invasion, turning to a junior intelligence officer and asking, "Are we doing the right thing?"

This was an aggressive company, one that had long ago decided to ride the crest of many new technologies. However, in this particular briefing, it was my company's job to detail the risks involved in taking the next big step. And we had to lay two potential showstoppers on the table: features and security.

The feature set of today's VoIP and IP PBX gear, while racing to catch up to the leading, traditional PBX vendors, still pales in comparison to them. Nortel and Avaya (née Lucent, née AT&T) had nearly a two-decade head start. And not even the most aggressive company is willing to sacrifice the bulk of its phone features and head off towards an IP-based telecom future without a lot of assurances.

Then there's security. No matter what platform the VoIP vendor uses for call routing and call control, an IP telephony infrastructure is still a lot more vulnerable to hack attacks than are traditional PBXs.

Everyone in the boardroom noted my hesitation in responding to the client's question. I started with a safe prognostication, which I hoped would soothe the concern a little.

"There's no question but that, in a few years, whenever you make a phone call, your voice will be traveling within IP packets." I added that, given the pace that IP telephony is advancing, the decision to proceed with a wholesale transformation of his company's communications infrastructure would be much easier to make six months or a year from now.

On security, I replied, "Yes, it's a concern. A big one. But the whole Internet Engineering Task Force is working on security measures. And they're a clever bunch. I think before too long there will be widespread use of VPNs and IPSec encryption, even in the IP telephony sector."

"But that takes a lot of processing," noted another executive, "and our latency is already pretty high in some cases." I responded that such complex processing is being quickly reduced to silicon chips. I wondered if any of the executives at the table would deny having made a credit card purchase over the Net, and whether they would have done it a year or two ago.

Silence again. You could see them all thinking the same thought: "Yes, in time, all these things will be fixed and addressed. But what do we decide to do today?"

It occurred to me that every major successful corporation has its own personality. Some are prudent risk-takers. Some are kamikaze pilots. Some are happy to be the second on the block to embrace a new technology.

I haven't yet heard what this client's call will be. But I also decided that whatever the company pays that distinguished, graying chap, it's probably not enough.

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