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A few years AGO, IT managers looked at Voice-over Internet Protocol (VoIP) as a key strategic initiative. But many realized that VoIP was but one part of an integrated IP-based network capable of carrying voice traffic. Now, drawn by simpler telephony and tech systems management tools along with long-term cost savings, many small businesses are now ready to take a deeper look at (and listen to) IP telephony.
Traditional office telephones and private branch exchange (PBX) systems use analog equipment and wiring, similar to but more expensive than what's found in most residences. This type of network runs on the same coax Ethernet cabling used for office local area networks (LANs), connecting desktop computers, printers, servers and other networked devices. IP telephony puts telephones on the same network as data, carrying voice traffic in digitized form. The result is a converged data and digital voice network.
IP telephony works for voice phone calls in the form of VoIP, but other applications also run over IP telephony, like video conferencing, faxing and unified messaging (for example, retrieving and listening to voice messages through a central location).
"The smaller the business, the easier it is to quantify a tangible return on investment," says Zeus Kerravala, a vice president of research at The Yankee Group, a market research firm in Boston. The top reason that small businesses consider IP telephony, he explains, is productivity, because accessing messages and the company phone system is easier from an IP-based system.
Marina Administration, a Phoenix-based harbor-management company, switched to a VoIP system four years ago. The decision to integrate its data and voice system came about when the company was debating whether to centralize its voice traffic over the data network or maintain separate phone systems for each of its five remote offices. By choosing an IP telephony system, Marina Administration has reduced interstate toll charges and has unified its messaging with data traffic, enabling key employees to work remotely and funneling inbound calls to a local number.
"All this technology makes us feel like we're down the hall from each other, when we're really scattered across the state," says CFO Kim Miller. "We don't have people dedicated to answering phones anymore, and we're able to control our service levels and reduce the costs for customers to reach us."
Although IP telephony has many advantages for businesses, it's not without potential downsides. According to some observers, VoIP hasn't reached the high, uniform service levels that accompany analog PBX systems—even though cell phones have reaccustomed consumers to less-than-perfect call quality and reliability. But IP-based systems offer a price and convenience factor that traditional PBX can't top.
"People are accustomed to a level of reliability with the phone system that IT can match with the proper router, switch hardware and bandwidth in place," says Neal Giuffre, CDW IP telephony specialist. "With the hardware in place, it's possible to seamlessly test new technology, such as VoIP, without encountering significant downtime."
For companies that want to explore IP telephony, a network assessment will determine whether the current LAN infrastructure can support an IP-based application, such as VoIP. That application, in particular, adds considerable data traffic to the network. With both data and voice traffic converged onto a single network, a significant increase in bandwidth utilization should be expected. Running a test pattern or recreating a burst in traffic during peak utilization hours will help measure the capacity of the LAN infrastructure.
Kerravala cautions managers contemplating an upgrade to be sure they understand the true cost. "A lot of installations stall because the initial estimate is quick and dirty, is done without a proper audit and doesn't figure in things like power requirements or new routers."
In considering the hardware needed to support an IP telephony network, companies must evaluate the cost-to-benefit ratio and the standards required for greater manageability. Protocol support, a key specification with any technology infrastructure decision, is particularly critical with IP telephony or VoIP, because these networks have the capability of supporting numerous current and future applications. Protocols help inventory the types of compatible software and hardware options available to a given technology, and typically signal whether an application can support capabilities down the road.
For example, consider switches that support the 802.3af power over Ethernet, the first international power-delivery standard, and its cousin, 802.3p. The 802.3p network management standard isolates voice from data traffic, improving the quality of service, while the former provides the basis for powering deskset phones and wireless access points over the network wiring.
"With 802.3af, you eliminate the need to run AC power outlets to desks and other phone locations, which can be expensive and difficult," Giuffre explains. "It also allows IT to provide backup power for these devices from the wiring closet, rather than needing dozens of little UPSs scattered throughout the office, and the AC outlets they'd plug into."
Pitching IP telephony to the big boss? Executives will be looking for answers to these make-or-break questions: