October 07, 2004

Is “Serverless” a Virtue?

Recently two companies, Nimcat and Popular Telephony Peerio, have made announcements regarding VoIP technology that does not require a “server”. (Om corectly pointed out that Peerio and Peerio444 are product names and not the name of the company.) It looks like enterprise market is the primary focus. Absence of a centralized server is being advertised as a major benefit. These two companies efforts are getting press coverage as well. Since they are in the preliminary stages of their market activity, only sketchy technical details are available. For example, Peerio says that their system can support 232 232 (Thanks Om, for catching the typo) end-points, suggesting that the discovery protocol uses some sort of id that is 32 bits long. One of their early website had indicated that they are using Microsoft RTC voice engine, which will soon be replaced. (That page is not there now, suggesting that the replacement has taken place.) Interestingly, Microsoft itself has a technology for serverless peer-to-peer networking. Their peer ID is 256 bits long and uses “a multi-level cache and referral system” for peer discovery.

It is suggested that enterprises using this system for voice communication do not have to buy expensive centralized servers like PBX or IP PBX. Granting this benefit, a quick analysis raises some questions that may not stand a careful analysis. Nonetheless, I state them here for your consideration.

The first point is a basic one in that I am not convinced whether an enterprise can avoid a “server”. I am assuming that the Peer ID will be enterprise specific. If this assumption is correct then when a person outside of the enterprise wants to communicate with one that is inside, the outside person has to contact a well known entity, which for all practical purposes is an IP PBX. If this system is used to interconnect to PSTN, it almost assumes most of the functions and cost structure of IP PBX. So I am not sure the real advantage of the serverless architecture.

The second point is whether an enterprise will accept the peer discovery procedure from a social and privacy point of view. In the Microsoft’s system, the peer discovery protocol involves querying intermediate nodes on the status of the target peer. This means one or more intermediate nodes will come to know that peer A is planning to communicate with peer B. One can easily visualize scenarios when this information is sensitive even within an enterprise.

Given these issues, it is useful to understand why a serverless architecture is preferable or in other words, whether centralized servers are inherently evil. Historically PBX vendors have locked customers into their system by having a proprietary interface between the telephone sets and the PBX, thereby increasing the cost of replacing the system with another vendor. This does not mean that centralized servers are inherently bad, especially in the IP domain. Web servers and email servers have been sufficiently commoditized both from capital and operational point of view. In summary, I do not see the downside of an enterprise wide system that is centered on servers, as long as open interfaces are maintained.

Posted by aswath at October 7, 2004 03:56 PM
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You should probably stress the distinction between using a server for signalling and using one for the actual voice transport. A "server" used for signalling can be as innocuous as a DNS server resolving ENUM queries.

Posted by: Fazal Majid at October 9, 2004 11:15 PM

Thanks for the pointer. I am saying only indirectly what you are suggesting: you need a "signaling server" if you want to interact outside an enterprise and "voice transport server" is required only if you interact with PSTN. Also, it is not clear to me how one could avoid a "voice mail server".

Posted by: Aswath at October 10, 2004 08:43 AM

While serverless is certainly not a virtue as such, it can certainly mean goodness.

I work for a CPE manufacturer and I had the opportunity to spend quite some time with both Popular Telephony and Nimcat people.

Given the pragmatic nature of their target market (SMBs), my temporary conclusion is that their products will fly if they deliver on the promise of lowest Total Cost of Ownership compared to Key Systems, PBXs and Centrex solution.

A Peerio or a Nimcat phone will probably sell $50-100 more than the equivalent IP phone (the cost difference comes from the software license and additional memory) but that price is lower than that of most proprietary phones sold with Key/PBX systems. And no PBX is required in this case...

Besides they claim that peer-to-peer technology makes adding a phone to a network completely plug and play. No more expensive external integrator spending hours exercising black magic in the dusty closet where noone dared going.

Provided the IP network is reasonably well designed (and preferable implements QoS) the assumption is that the cost of ownership of a p2p telephony solution is only marginally higher than the cost of the phone. If this assumption is confirmed in real life deployments, serverless comes pretty close to a virtue.


Posted by: JC Francois at October 11, 2004 08:09 AM

Perhaps you'd like to define the term "enterprise" ? Do you mean only companies in the Fortune 500? I know many small and medium sized enterprises that would be more than happy to ditch the expense of purchasing, deploying, and managing a server and have no problem with the supposed "social and privacy" issues that you raise.

I suggest that the world is big enough to support both views -- some companies will keep the servers while others opt for serverless.

Posted by: Ted Shelton at October 12, 2004 12:16 AM

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