Eight Tips for Migrating to Enterprise VoIPby Ted Wallingford, author of Switching to VoIP
Over the last few years, I've helped businesses of many sizes migrate to enterprise Voice over IP (VoIP), the extensive family of equipment and software standards that replaces old-school PBX (Private Branch Exchange) phone systems with a next-generation IP network that can carry voice calls. Old-school PBX systems, and home phones for that matter, use a plane of the global network called the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network), but the industry is moving everything to IP, and eventually, I envision the global network having just one plane--the IP plane. One network will do data communications--the same network that does voice.
The same transformation is beginning in the enterprise, too. VoIP is displacing traditional phone systems, and leaving in its wake a single converged network plane, all IP from end to end. This fabulous network engineer's utopia shouldn't be exciting just to network engineers, though. The move to converged networks is a crucial evolutionary step in business, no less important than the move from typewriters to word processors, or from file rooms to database systems.
But, just as in the early days of PCs and the internet, the business world has pockets of resistance to enterprise IP telephony--its mindshare in the enterprise space has been hobbled because enterprise decision makers would rather prioritize further development of existing database apps and text-messaging systems (like email) than integrate new voice technologies. The day is coming, though, when it will become too expensive to operate the old legacy telephone systems, and IT managers will retire them in favor of IP-based phone networks. Sure, there may be a few ancient Executone PBX systems clinging to life in ten years, just as there are still IBM system 3390 mainframes here and there today, but the trend towards network convergence is unmistakable.
To help you keep up with this movement, I've answered the eight most frequent questions that I'm asked by prospective VoIP adopters, and offer some advice to get you started on the path to enterprise VoIP.
1. VoIP phone equipment is just too expensive; why does it cost so much?
The way you look at VoIP devices like the Cisco 7960, pictured below, probably mirrors the way you look at other enabling technologies--things like operating systems, desktop applications, and your organization's communications network itself. You're either going to see these things as either as costly expenses ($300 used on eBay for a Cisco IP phone) or a bottom-line enhancement.
Like other infrastructural technologies, VoIP has the ability to enhance productivity by increasing the performance yield of your network. When you look at it from all angles, VoIP has a very strong value proposition. Sure, an IP phone costs more than an old-fashioned digital business phone, but it enables enterprise transformation in a way the old phone cannot.
Figure 1. The Cisco 7960 IP phone
This is because VoIP provides a platform where you can shape voice applications to get a perfect fit for your business: a flexibility that was never possible with old-fashioned, monolithic phone systems.
It's like the difference between the old MS-DOS operating system and a modern, feature-rich operating system like Windows XP or Mac OS X. Today, there are many ways to mold the OS and its applications around a user, or around a business process. VoIP is flexible in the same way, so its cost isn't the only thing to consider. It doesn't just replace the old phone system feature for feature, it augments and surpasses the old system by empowering businesses in new ways:
Mobile users can log in to the enterprise phone system from anywhere they have an internet connection (like a hotel room or a home office), to call and be called at their regular phone number or extension.
Voicemail and email can be integrated into a single desktop application--like Microsoft Outlook, for example.
Monitoring and recording calls is simplified.
Call-center applications and reception-desk controls can be infinitely more capable. They can be web-based, and they can interact with other IP-enabled systems, like database services.
Interaction between VoIP phone systems and database applications is considerably easier, because they both operate on IP networks. When an incoming call appears on your IP phone, Outlook could automatically retrieve the contact record for the caller, based on the caller ID. This way, you wouldn't have to place the caller on hold to retrieve his or her relevant data. To record the VoIP phone call, you could use a piece of PC software rather than a bulky cassette or digital recorder device. Then you could listen to your voice mail using your email program, and respond to it by email, if you prefer. The point is: comparing a traditional phone system's cost to a VoIP phone system's costs isn't a fair comparison, because it doesn't take all of these things into account.
Finally, to minimize the cost impact of a big telephony investment, consider leasing VoIP equipment like servers and quality-of-service-enabled switches instead of buying them outright. Unlike PCs, which depreciate considerably over a short time and are replaced once every three or four years, business phone systems and network gear tend to last seven to ten years before being replaced, possibly making the lease option more appealing.