The more things change the more they stay the same. Like Skype outages. Three years ago I talked to VoIP gray-beard Erik Lagerway – whose VoIP pedigree includes executive roles at Shift Networks and Eyeball Networks as well as founding Vocalscape Communications and Counterpath – about the Skype outage during the summer of 2007. What Lagerway said then is just as pertinent now. So you'll excuse me if I just re-publish.
The recent Skype outage highlights a fundamental problem, according to Lagerway. Pure-play VoIP providers ultimately don't control the underlying network that delivers their service.
"I've been in this business 15 years and over that time VoIP has been in beta 15 years. The main reason is that the network that people are riding on is unreliable," he says. Unless a provider owns the upstream broadband network, a 'best effort' service is all a provider can promise.
"If the upstream provider has decided they're going to be making some changes, you're going to be feeling those changes. If the upstream provider decides they want to filter out [other providers' VoIP] packets or handle them with less priority than their own packets, you're going to experience that regardless of what kind of service you have.
"If they decide they're going to route packets to Istanbul, they can do that," he says, adding, "The long and short of it is that the incumbents have their long arm deeply inside the network."
Having said that, Lagerway does allow that Skype's proprietary peer-to-peer (P2P) architecture – a closely guarded "black box" -- leaves the system unnecessarily vulnerable in a way that conventional centralized services like Vonage don't.
"My main issue with Skype is that it's a closed system," says Lagerway, an outspoken evangelist for the open communications standard, SIP. "Having one guy [Janus Friis] create the entire peer-to-peer architecture, it's destined to fail – no one is smart enough.
Lagerway points to Skype's implementation – a self-organizing P2P network operating exclusively on users' PCs – as untenable for providing a service to millions of users. "To have such a dependency on so many people's PCs, that's pretty risky business. What happens if a whole lot of people decide to de-install?"
A better approach for a P2P network is an architecture that fails back to a centralized client-server network – the way TelTel's P2P VoIP network operates, for example. "That's the way SIP operates," Lagerway explains. "It's a peer-to-peer network but it bootstraps the operation with a client-server network."
In the end, while no one can ever fully escape Murphy's Law, a more open approach could have helped Skype avert this particular disaster, Lagerway says.
"If this [Skype] had been an open standards projects, you would have had much more peer review. If they had used SIP, this particular outage would have been less likely. It could have possibly been averted," he explains. "Correcting it now is going to be costly."
For those of you who've been wondering what happened to the VoIP Princess, over the last five months I was overwhelmed with a family crisis. If you're interested, you can read about how I became an unpaid caseworker for the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, here.