Microsoft and Cisco Think ICE Is Cool Stuff!
By ROBERT LIU and TOM KEATING
One of the biggest technological challenges confronting the voice over IP (VoIP) industry has always been the firewall. That’s because stray voice signaling and media packets originating from outside of the firewall or Network Address Translation (NAT) routers are exactly the type of thing they were designed to terminate.
Session border controllers (SBC) help to reduce the potential of lost or misdirected IP packets by establishing a proxy to send and receive incoming calls – essentially like creating a post office box to get your mail.
But Microsoft and Cisco Systems have come up with their own solution for NAT Traversal, as it is often referred to in the networking realm. On Thursday, the two technology giants plan to announce their endorsement of Interactive Connectivity Establishment (ICE) – a draft standard under consideration by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) to enable media traversal of NAT /firewalls. Both Cisco and Microsoft claim that this move is aimed at making universal Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and integrated communications more accessible for more customers, Starting next year, Microsoft will ship ICE as a client feature in its products like the flagship Microsoft Office 12.
ICE isn’t a new protocol. It actually makes use of two other protocols called STUN and TURN, respectively, but it does require additional signaling capabilities to be introduced into the multimedia session signaling protocols. The only new element added to the network architecture are STUN/TURN servers that sit outside of the NAT firewall of the two calling parties, as well as ICE support on the client-side.
“ICE is very simple. It's very lightweight. The other great thing is you don't need to replace your NATs and firewalls," said Russell Bennett, Program Manager of Microsoft's Real Time Collaboration (RTC) Group. He added, "It's not anyone's intellectual property. It's certainly not Microsoft's and it's certainly not Cisco's. It doesn't impose any cost to anybody,” Bennett told TMCnet during a Live Meeting briefing.
He continued by explaining that ICE works with the existing infrastructure. Bennett said, "You don't have to buy a ICE-compatible firewall with an ICE-compatible sticker for instance, so it doesn't impose a cost on anybody. ICE will ship as a feature/function inside of SIP clients going forward - certainly inside of Microsoft SIP clients. So the only new element in the STUN/TURN servers and it doesn't matter who owns them."
"It appears that ICE is nearly identical to session border controllers (SBCs), so why is there a need to duplicate the functionality of SBCs?" TMCNet asked Microsoft. “Because those SBCs don’t work in standards-based ways,” explained Bennett. "Also, you don't have any certainty or reliability that the messages are going to get through and that the media is going to flow. SBCs work all well and good in a closed environment, but in an open standards scenario like global IP communications that we can envision in the future, with everyone federating against everyone else, we need a standards-based mechanism."
Bennett pointed out, "We're not trying to replace SBCs and in fact, this would be a feature/function of an SBC. You'll find in many cases that SBCs already have embedded a STUN and TURN server solving this problem but they don't advertise this fact. They have this feature function in the boxes, but they obviously don't ship clients. What we're saying is we're shipping clients that are going to behave in a certain fashion. If your SBC will respond in an appropriate way when we send these discovery messages then that will benefit everyone." he continued.
Microsoft put their considerable muscle behind ICE when Bennett explained "Really these things are lightweight components that will ship inside of existing network elements. It could be session border controllers, it could be firewalls themselves or they could be network edge routers provided by the IP switching guys. So really this is a software upgrade into existing network elements and all we're really saying is we're (Microsoft) endorsing ICE and we're going to send ICE messages trying to enable this discovery and if you're so inclined, please respond, get your element to respond in the following fashion using freely available and royalty-free standards."
Bennett explained the ICE initiative is the result of a man's year of engineering and in addition to its usage within Live Meeting and the Microsoft Office Communicator 2005 client, the core components, will actually be deployed throughout other divisions within Microsoft like MSN Messenger or even Xbox that rely on the technology (i.e. media and signaling stacks) developed by his RTC unit. The latest move is the first announcement stemming from a private, royalty-free program that the company plans to further detail later next year.
“We have kicked off a private program that we'll make public early next year. We're engaging SBC vendors and asking them to support ICE in their products,” Bennett said.
Microsoft also informed TMCnet that they are in talks with all of the SBC manufacturers to embed technology to support ICE. "Finding a way for VoIP to work better across NATs and firewalls is a problem that is faced across the industry,” said Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate vice president for the Office Real-Time Collaboration Group at Microsoft. “Microsoft and Cisco are encouraging our industry partners to utilize the ICE methodology to ensure more consistent, reliable experiences for our customers, and to improve Session Initiation Protocol (SIP)-based VoIP interoperability across networks.”
“With service providers increasingly deploying converged voice-and-data services based on SIP, Microsoft’s and Cisco’s endorsement of ICE standards bodes well for our mutual customers,” said Don Proctor, senior vice president of the Voice Technology Group at Cisco. “Our commitment to providing ubiquitous and seamless protocol interoperability in our IP-based voice solutions helps customers experience greater value in their converged voice, video, and collaboration investments.”
TMCnet asked Microsoft whether or not the recent acquisitions of media-streams.com or Teleo had anything to do with the ICE announcement and Microsoft told us that they were working on the IETF standards draft before the acquisitions.
Interstingly, when TMCnet inquired whether or not the recent Microsoft MSN Messenger federation with Yahoo Messenger for IM communication meant that "VoIP federation" was in the works utilizing ICE if Yahoo Messenger adds ICE support and Microsoft declined comment but stated it was "a reasonable inference". Stay tuned ....
This article was co-written with Robert Liu. Robert Liu is Executive Editor at TMCnet. Previously, he was Executive Editor at Jupitermedia and has also written for CNN, A&E, Dow Jones and Bloomberg. For more of Robert's articles, please visit Robert Liu's columnist page
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