A crucial element in building a wholesale VoIP business and maintaining competitive edge in a harsh business environment is the choice of equipment that forms the core of the company's operation, says Nico Bradlee
As VoIP prospects seem to be bright and sunny thanks to new technologies and a plentiful choice of VoIP solutions, it presents an inviting opportunity for starting your own business. VoIP has entrenched itself in the telecommunication world and competitive carriers are exploring the numerous ways to derive benefits from this lucrative technology.
The wholesale VoIP market used to be overwhelmed with a huge number of players from different leagues. The popularity of wholesale VoIP was easy to explain - as you are your own boss you sell a product that can almost sell itself and requires minimum investment both in terms of capex for equipment and human resources.
But from the perspective of the past several years we can see that harsh reality intruded and small players could no longer compete with large-scale telecommunication tycoons. Competition being a lifeblood of technological progress, it remains an essential prerequisite for any market development, to say nothing about VoIP. Competition is actually the driving force that enables carriers to generate new revenues, and equipment vendors to offer new automated tools for them.
Nowadays the VoIP market is undergoing some transformation that affects the scale of businesses presented there. The number of transit operators is reducing due to margin reduction. It presents an additional challenge for the wholesale market's newcomers and poses another reasonable question - how to join the VoIP race and survive in this hard-bitten business world? One of the crucial elements of the strategy to build a brand new wholesale VoIP business will be the right choice of the equipment laying at the core of the company operations. So let's take a look at class 4 switching equipment from the top ten leading brands and get to the bottom of solving the question of how to choose the switch to save your network from going downhill.
Reviewed brands and products:
The platform: hard or soft?
It's of passing interest that the overwhelming majority of vendors use hardware platforms in their switching equipments. Though there is no definitive answer on what is preferable, soft or hardware, since both have their pros and cons.
A hardware platform doesn't require additional equipment and is shipped on already-based server, so you don't need to look for an appropriate base. All the vendors that we picked out, apart from MERA Systems, which uses software platform for its switches, utilise hardware based solutions. The advantages of a soft-based switch are also notable since you can install the software on an existing server and there is no need to turn to the vendor for its substitution in case of some defect. Moreover, if the carrier chooses to relocate the server there will be no call for its physical replacement.
When it comes to the operating system there is also no right or wrong on what OS to use. The majority of developers use Linux OS, and it's quite understandable. It's Linux's universality, wide application and compatibility with servers and third-party systems that made Sansay, Nextone, MERA Systems and Audiocodes opt for Linux OS in their switching equipment. On the other hand proprietary platform can offer enhanced functionality and give competitive advantage before other market players. Therefore Acme Packet uses its own OS as an application base that allows increased productivity.
The functionality of switches varies greatly, and has taken a big step forward thanks to technological progress. As the prevailing number of operators who got used to H.323 has started to use SIP, all of the leading vendors support conversion of H.323 and SIP protocols ensuring interoperability between equipment from various vendors. Additionally, Sansay and Acme Packet support MGCP protocol, given that Acme can also work with H.248.
As to voice codec conversion, its support in switching equipment is realised only by Acme Packet and MERA Systems. Acme Packet's functionality includes transcoding, that is translation for wireline and wireless codecs, transrating - mediate between variations in rate (eg 10ms to 30ms) - and DTMF translations. MERA Systems' softswitches ensures conversion of a wide range of codecs: G.729, C.729A, G.729AB, G.723.1, G.711 A/U, GSM FR, Speex, iLBC.
An important feature of switching equipment is encryption protocols support. Built-in support of TLS and IPSec is offered by Nextone, Audiocodes and Acme Packet. The support of MTLS, SRTP and easy messaging between them is also specified in Acme Packet equipment.
Since hundreds of vendors around the world started to manufacture networking equipment to meet increased demand, the capacity of switches has increased to meet the requirements of different types of carriers. For instance, Nextone equipment, that is capable of handling up to 25,000CC, and Audiocodes that allows for 21,000CC, are targeted on Tier 1 and Tier 2 operators. Acme Packet, whose products are designed first and foremost for Tier 1 operators, also focuses on networks that handle at least 5,000CC and Acme provides this performance on a single server. Sansay and MERA Systems' products represent ideal solutions for Tier 3 and Tier 4 carriers whose network process up to 7-10K of concurrent calls in its most effective configuration.
No matter how productive and scalable your switching equipment is, for effective business you need a flexible third-party billing system to collect information about telephone calls and other services that are going to be billed to the subscriber A couple of good examples are Cyneric or Jerasoft billing systems. Of the vendors from the above list, an all-in-one solution (that doesn't require a billing system for the business to be operational) is only offered by MERA Systems. Its softswitch is a ready-to-go product with enhanced billing capabilities.
Pricing policy and target audience
Needless to say, the products considered in this article, being comparable in terms of switching functionality, are still designed for different types of carriers. While Nextone, Audiocodes and Acme Packet products deal with large amount of traffic, MERA Systems and Sansay concentrate on solutions for small and medium-sized wholesale businesses offering maximum functionality in switching equipment.
To put the whole thing in a nutshell, each vendor concentrates on various sectors of wholesale business, which explains the differences examined in this overview. It's up to carriers to make a choice and opt for the equipment that best serves his business purposes.
Nico Bradlee is a freelance business and communications journalist.