Best in show & enterprise systems software: Qovia helps make VOIP systems ring true

Qovia

Company: Qovia Inc., Frederick, Md., www.qovia.com

Nutshell: Modular software and Linux server appliance for monitoring and managing voice over IP systems.

Price: Approximately 10 percent of total VOIP network hardware cost; for example, $10,000 if you have $100,000 worth of hardware.

Why it won: Adds centralized management and monitoring tools to VOIP, increasing the feasibility of adopting a money-saving communications system.

Qovia's monitoring and management system helped Nevada County, Calif.'s Bill Miller make use of voice over IP a reality.

Hector Amezcua

Bill Miller, desktop services manager for Nevada County, Calif., is a believer in voice over IP.

The efficiencies of combining voice and data networks make it a logical choice for almost anyone faced with changing out an aging telephone system, he said. 'I just can't see any reason for doing anything else, except for the fear factor.'

The choice was not so clear in 1998, when Miller faced the prospect of updating the phone system in Nevada County, which covers 978 square miles in the Sierra Nevada. The county's four Saturn 2E phone switches from Siemens Corp. of New York were aging.

At $50,000 a year, 'maintenance was becoming too much,' he said. 'The people able to perform the maintenance were aging, too, and retiring. I was in a dilemma.'

It would cost from $1.5 million to $2 million to replace the system with something similar, or the county could wait for something better.

'I had heard about voice over IP,' Miller said. 'I kept my eye on that.' He talked to vendors, followed R&D in the field and patched up his aging switches while waiting for the new technology to mature. 'It was an uneasy feeling.'

He began rolling out VOIP to the county's 1,200 employees in 2000, installing MBX Superstack 5000 IP private branch exchanges from 3Com Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif. It worked, but it was touch and go for a while.

'It took about six months to get that thing going to where it hummed,' Miller said. It was a rocky six months. 'I was only two weeks away from having to scrap that whole thing because of the voice quality.'

In the end, improving voice quality was a matter of fine-tuning the network rather than fixing anything that was broken. The key to making VOIP work, Miller found, is 'infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure.'

One person's problem is another's opportunity. The founders of Qovia Inc. of Frederick, Md., identified VOIP voice quality as an attractive niche when searching for a product to develop in 2002.

'It hit us that monitoring and management would logically follow the deployment of voice networks,' said Pierce Reid, Qovia's vice president of marketing. In 2002, Qovia's founders began talking with people who already were using VOIP, including Nevada County's Miller, to develop requirements for a new product. The result is a suite of monitoring and management tools tailored for voice networks that give administrators a way other than customer complaints for addressing voice quality.

Data network monitoring tools, such as IBM Tivoli or Hewlett-Packard OpenView, are not easily adapted to voice, Reid said. 'Timing is more critical' in voice, requiring a finer level of granularity, he said.

Qovia's management suite consists of its Ion server and a selection of software modules for gathering and using data.

'We're basically a software company,' Reid said. But for ease of installation, Ion comes as an appliance loaded on a server running the Linux operating system. It plugs in to IP PBXs, power supplies and other VOIP hardware.

Ion is a data aggregator and a management probe that enables remote management of hardware. Separate software modules handle fault discovery and analysis on network lines, call quality monitoring, network discovery and management, data management for disaster recovery and backups, UPS monitoring and notification.

Data can be viewed on an Ion console, or a Simple Network Management Protocol client lets it be viewed with existing management tools such as Tivoli and OpenView.

Administrators define thresholds for network performance for voice traffic. When thresholds are crossed, alerts can be sent directing attention to problems before they are noticeable to callers.

Remote management is an important feature for Miller because Nevada County's 1,200 employees are scattered across a large swath of North-Central California. One advantage of VOIP is the ability to tie together geographically distributed enterprises. Nine PBXs now provide IP voice service to about 1,000 employees, and a tenth switch is being ordered. Four Ion servers not only give visibility into this network but also let Miller manage it centrally, saving time and resources.

Because of the large number of long distance calls from Nevada County to San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sacramento, Miller would like to extend his network by placing IP PBXs in those cities to cut down on tolls. Remote management of the equipment is essential to making that scheme feasible, he said.

Qovia also helps data and voice coexist on a single network. For instance, Miller found that 'when you do backups on your system with 3Com, you lose dial tone.' That is a big disadvantage in a VOIP network.

Because of this, he was backing up his systems only once a month. By March 2003, using an early version of Qovia's management system, he was able to schedule backups every night.

'Qovia is filling that hole,' he said.

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