Unified Communications: Click to talk

January 26, 2009  6:13 PM

Are You Ready For UC?

Tony Bradley Tony Bradley Profile: Tony Bradley

What does that even mean? I think you have to at least get a grasp of what the essential concepts of unified communications are, how they might impact your organization, and what the potential benefit is to justify the upfront investment.

However, even after you address those issues and make some decisions about how to move forward with a unified communications deployment, there are still some fundamental questions to answer in terms of what your current network infrastructure can handle. The audio and video components of unified communications are bandwidth intensive and sensitive to things like latency and jitter. Building UC on a weak infrastructure is a recipe doomed for failure.

This article from Computing SA addresses this question specifically from an SMB point of view. What is the value or benefit of unified communications for small or medium businesses? In the end, the author poses a different question: “have you realised that you need it?”

January 25, 2009  2:15 PM

Attackers Place $120,000 in Unauthorized Phone Calls

Tony Bradley Tony Bradley Profile: Tony Bradley

Your phone bill varies from month to month in many cases. Actually- maybe not. I have been using Vonage for my home phone service for about 5 years now and the flat fee is what it is. I don’t pay for voicemail service, or any additional amounts for long distance like my cable provider charges customers of their digital voice service (although I think they finally realized those things are supposed to be included. now they just charge $15 a month more for fewer features). I just pay the same amount every month and I get all of the features and services available (psst – if you want to sign up for Vonage drop me an email. We can both get 2 months of free service if I refer you).

Ah, but I digress. My phone bill has been the same for years, but even phone bills that vary tend to stay within a certain range. If you run a business perhaps the bill is $2,000 one month, $2250 the next month, and $1900 the month after that. You would probably be pretty shocked then to open the mail and find a bill for $120,000!!

That is what happend to one Australian company. Preliminary reports from the investigation suggest that the attackers gained access to both traditional PBX and VoIP communications systems and place more than 11,000 unauthorized international calls in a span of about 2 days. Toll fraud has been around forever, and VoIP attacks are on the rise. Make sure you understand the threat and how to protect your systems.

January 24, 2009  2:08 PM

Book Review: Microsoft Response Point Primer – Cut The Strings

Tony Bradley Tony Bradley Profile: Tony Bradley

Bottom Line:
Microsoft’s Response Point phone system is like a quiet revolution in small business communications. Harry Brelsford has been an integral part of the Microsoft community and the small business community, and has been involved on some level with Microsoft Response Point since it was but a concept. Harry is passionate about Microsoft small business solutions and passionate about Microsoft Response Point and it shows in this book. Whether you are a Microsoft partner that wants to learn about Microsoft Response Point, or a small business owner or manager that wants to understand how Response Point can help you, Microsoft Response Point Primer – Cut The Strings is a great investment of your time and money.

My Review:
Small and medium businesses have traditional analog or simple VoIP budgets. They want more features and functionality, but they can’t afford a dedicated PBX or IP PBX- never mind the personnel with the skills to implement and maintain them.

Microsoft understood the needs and budgets of small and medium businesses when they developed Response Point. Response Point provides features and functions normally reserved for enterprise systems, combines them with some basic unified communications capabilities, and delivers them at a price that SMB’s can swallow.

The cover of the book says “For Partners and Consultants”. I agree that this is the primary audience and the group that will get the most value from this book. However, customers who have Response Point or are interested in learning more about Response Point will also benefit from reading Harry’s book.

Beginning with a brief history of Response Point (and how he almost missed the meeting that got him involved with the Response Point group) and a recap of its basic features, Harry provides detailed information about how to deploy and configure Response Point, as well as how to maintain and troubleshoot the system. He provides some real-world case study scenarios and discusses advanced capabilities such as the auto-attendant and music on hold.

Beginning with Chapter 6 the book is certainly aimed more at partners and consultants. Harry talks about who the customer market is for Response Point and talks extensively about tips and advice that Microsoft Partners and consultants can use to effectively sell Response Point to their customers.

The book goes on with an overview of the available hardware options for Response Point, and the VoIP providers that are currently working with Microsoft on Response Point. It then wraps up with a discussion of the future of Response Point and a collection of valuable Response Point resources the reader can use to dive deeper and learn more. In addition, Harry has filled the book with little trivia factoids- there is a new one on almost every page.

I am perhaps not quite the evangelist that Harry is for Response Point, but I am an evangelist nonetheless. Response Point is nothing short of awesome. The features and functions it delivers with the simplicity of use and affordable price have no comparison or competition. Microsoft Response Point Primer – Cut The Strings is an excellent resource and a worthy investment to learn about this fantastic solution.

Features and Facts:
Microsoft Response Point Primer – Cut The Strings
Price: $59.95 (available from Amazon.com for $41.97)
Published: 2008 by SMB Nation, Inc.
ISBN: 0-9770949-8-7 (ISBN-13: 978-0-9770949-8-1)
Pages: 396

January 24, 2009  12:46 PM

Managing VoIP Quality

Tony Bradley Tony Bradley Profile: Tony Bradley

The TCP/IP suite of protocols was designed with some safeguards against packet latency and alternative routing. When sending a data file, some packets may take a different path than others and the packets may arrive out of order. But, with TCP/IP that is OK because the protocols understand how to sequence the packets and reassemble them in the proper order so that the data arrives intact- even if it is a few milliseconds later.

Well, when you put voice communications on a TCP/IP network the demands are a little different. The PowerPoint presentation being downloaded won’t really matter if it takes a millisecond longer or what order the packets arrive in as long as they arrive. However, voice communications is now. It is real-time. It is imperative that the packets reach the listeners ear in order and with minimal delay in order to facilitate a voice conversation and mirror as closely as possible the voice communications experience that callers are used to with traditional telephone systems. Streaming video for online video calls or video conferencing is even more data intensive and still demands that the data get from point A to point B as quickly as possible, uninterrupted and in order.

This is one of the challenges that organizations face as they attempt to migrate to VoIP and unified communications. The underlying network architecture and available bandwidth are a critical foundation that can make or break the success of VoIP and unified communications in the organization. These needs have opened the door for a whole new generation of networking and quality of service equipment designed specifically around VoIP and bandwidth-intensive streaming media applications.

SearchUnifiedCommunications.com News Editor Shamus McGillicuddy examines some of these issues and the solutions being offered to help organizations balance the needs of the traditional network with the demands of VoIP, unified communications, and streaming media. Read Ensuring Voice and Video Quality About More Than Watching Packet Flows.

January 18, 2009  5:50 AM

Summing Up VoIP Security for 2008

Tony Bradley Tony Bradley Profile: Tony Bradley

A lot happened in 2008. We had what seemed to be a marathon Presidential campaign season capped off with the election of the first African-American to be President of the United States. We had a housing crisis with a mortgage industry in free fall. We had the government bailing out Wall Street banks and investment firms to the tune of $700 Billion with no oversight and no strings attached, while scoffing at bailing out the automobile manufacturing industry for $30 Billion with conditions and a plan to turn things around. We saw 2.6 million Americans lose their jobs. Aside from that part about electing a new President, 2008 didn’t seem to hold much worth smiling about.

Mark Collier, CTO of SecureLogix and co-author of Hacking Exposed-VoIP, found a silver lining though. In his blog, Collier sums up the year in VoIP security for 2008. He notes that, overall, the year was kind of boring. That may not sound like a silver lining, but if the alternative was one of the ‘sky-is-falling’ FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) predictions being realized then suddenly boring is not so bad. Check out Collier’s blog for more details of the state of VoIP security in 2008 and links to some of the few attacks that were publicly disclosed.

January 16, 2009  2:54 PM

Direct SIP with OCS 2007 R2

Tony Bradley Tony Bradley Profile: Tony Bradley

In a few short weeks Microsoft will officially release Office Communications Server 2007 (OCS 2007) R2. R2 represents a big step forward in the evolution of Microsoft’s voice and unified communications platform and a significant evolution toward software-powered voice (eliminating the PBX or IP PBX altogether).

One of the most anticipated improvements with OCS 2007 R2 is direct SIP- the ability to connect a SIP connection directly with OCS 2007 without the need for an audio gateway to mediate the communications. In this blog post Evangelyze Communications Director of Services, Mike Stacy, describes his experience configuring a direct SIP connection between OCS 2007 R2 and VoIP provider Global Crossing. Mike also explains some of the lessons he learned from the experience.

January 16, 2009  2:41 PM

SmartVoIP Wins 2008 Product of the Year

Tony Bradley Tony Bradley Profile: Tony Bradley

Microsoft’s Office Communications Server 2007 offers enterprises a cost-effective platform for voice and unified communications that also allows them to retain their existing voice hardware whether it is traditional analog or VoIP. Another advantage that it offers is that, because it is software based, it is also extensible via software. That means that it is easier for enterprises or ISV’s (Independent Software Vendors) to create custom applications that integrate and work with OCS 2007.

Evangelyze Communications has a suite of products that do just that: SmartChat, SmartSearch, and SmartVoIP. Recently SmartVoIP, which was officially launched at VoiceCon in San Francisco this past fall, was named a 2008 Product of the Year by Internet Telephony magazine.  

One of the limitations of OCS 2007 has been the inability to interconnect remote locations. Working with audio gateway vendor NET Quintum, the Evangelyze Communications SmartVoIP solution enables businesses to use a centralized OCS 2007 and connect with Microsoft Response Point systems at remote locations. SmartVoIP enables users to dial each other by extension even at remote locations, eliminates long distance charges, and makes administering the overall solution more efficient than having separate voice systems at each remote site.

January 1, 2009  2:41 PM

Do-It-Yourself DECT Hacking

Tony Bradley Tony Bradley Profile: Tony Bradley

I have DECT cordless phones in my home. I didn’t really get them for the security factor per se. I bought them because their operation isn’t impacted or interfered with by wireless networks, microwave ovens, or baby monitors. I was tired of having 27 different devices all competing for the same frequency range and having my wireless network lose the battle more often than not.

Regardless though, DECT handsets were also notable for the claimed security of the communications. Apparently though, the security is based more or less on security-by-obscurity. Essentially, the communications aren’t encrypted or authenticated in any way, but the DECT algorithm was kept private so that was meant to prevent attackers or eavesdroppers from breaking into the communications.

Well, it would at least prevent novice or poorly funded attackers. A team of researchers had previously demonstrated that an attack was possible using expensive sniffer tools. However, that same research team has now devised a method for eavesdropping on DECT conversations ‘MacGyver style’ using a modified off-the-shelf VoIP card with a laptop.

I guess my conversations about what to get at the grocery store, or how the weather is at my in-laws house are no longer guaranteed to be private. But, on the bright side, they still don’t interfere with my wireless network.

December 30, 2008  1:57 PM

OCS 2007 R2 Coming Soon

Tony Bradley Tony Bradley Profile: Tony Bradley

Microsoft will be rolling out the latest incarnation of Office Communications Server soon. Rather than doing a live event or multiple live events across the country, Microsoft is doing the official unveiling of OCS 2007 R2 on February 3rd via the Web. You can register to attend the virtual event by clicking here.

OCS 2007 R2 has been much anticipated in the unified communications world. With R2, Microsoft adds a significant number of new features and capabilities. New call management features enable a receptionist or executive assistant to filter and route incoming calls. The desktop sharing and collaboration features will work across Windows, Mac, and Linux platforms. Organizations will be able to set up persistent, theme-based group chat rooms for better collaboration and communication between team members. The list goes on.

You can learn more about the upcoming release by visiting the What’s New in Office Communications Server 2007 R2 site. Even better, schedule some time on your calendar for February 3rd and attend the free launch event via the Web.

December 29, 2008  3:03 PM

Protecting VoIP Against Three Common Threats

Tony Bradley Tony Bradley Profile: Tony Bradley

There are a number of way, theoretically, that a VoIP communications system could pose a security risk to an enterprise. Let’s face it, while the network administrators have been in the trenches fighting unauthorized access, malware infections, data compromise, and more on a daily basis for the last 10 years, the voice guys have been sitting on a pretty stable and secure platform. While there are huge benefits for an enterprise to migrate from traditional voice to VoIP, those benefits come with a convergence onto that data network that is constantly under attack. That means that the benefits and efficiency of VoIP come with an increase in the number of security threats as well.

That said, attackers are still working on refining how to compromise VoIP for gain. Many of the VoIP weaknesss are proprietary, meaning that they vary from vendor to vendor and make it more difficult for attackers to determine targets. However, there are three VoIP threats that are consistent across pretty much all VoIP implementations and two of the three are actually just new twists on old attacks that were used against traditional voice systems as well.

The three most common VoIP threats are voice spam (sometimes referred to as SPIT (Spam over Internet Telephony), toll fraud (or theft of service), and denial-of-service attacks. For more details about these threats and what you can do to protect your VoIP network against them, check out The Biggest VoIP Securiy Threats – and How to Stop Them.

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