The ABCs of VoIP

Given the importance of telephone systems, refreshing the technology can be daunting. However, for small and midsized businesses who consider upgrading from a PBX to VoIP, the benefits are clear and, with proper planning, the implementation is not very frightening. Consider these three steps:

Getting started

There are a number of factors SMBs must consider when transitioning from a PBX environment to VoIP. Before digging into the technical details, it is important to set a budget and identify the unique business drivers behind the transition.

Here are some questions to ask to be sure the transition meets your requirements:

  • Do you need to network remote locations to headquarters?
  • How much intra-company calling is occurring between locations? For example, is there a benefit to transferring customers, vendors or other parties between various locations?
  • Do you have locations and/or clients outside the United States?
  • Do you have workers that routinely travel between locations?
  • Do you have remote workers (both permanently remote and "road warriors")?
  • Are there special applications (call center, integrated voicemail, unified communications) driving the move to VoIP?
  • Is the telephony staff/IT staff administering multiple PBXs in multiple locations?

The next major question is whether you should choose a multi- or single-vendor solution. There are pros and cons to each. While the multiple-vendor approach may provide a superior experience to users, sorting out responsibilities and accountability between vendors in the event of a problem can diminish or completely negate the value of the approach. Good contracts and savvy management can make it work, but the single-vendor approach may carry lower management costs and simplify the resolution of any issues.

To help you make the right decision, create a list of "must haves" and draft a "good, better, best" approach to evaluating each vendor's ability to meet your needs. By establishing a clear understanding of why your company is moving to VoIP you will ensure you choose the best approach and vendors to drive the overall success of the project.

VoIP best practices revealed

After developing clear answers to these questions, set your strategy and expectations, including a timeline and a budget. Finally, communicate the plan not only to the partner(s) you choose, but also to key stakeholders and people within the organization who will use the new technology. This will set the stage for internal adoption and provide your partner(s) with clear parameters to design the right solution.

The Technology

SMBs that are starting from scratch with VoIP should consider a network assessment to ensure the infrastructure is capable of supporting the new technology. Examine connectivity to the wide area network (WAN) Internet and public switched telephone network (PSTN) to determine if the infrastructure is sufficient to handle VoIP. Here are some key considerations:

  • Wiring: CAT5 or better is preferred
  • Switches: Do you have Power over Ethernet (PoE)? Are the switches Layer 3?
  • WAN: Does the WAN support voice traffic? Is the WAN managed or unmanaged?
  • PSTN: How many lines and what type of lines are at each location?
  • Power: VoIP phones require power, as opposed to a digital set that gets power from the cabinet. Power can be supplied by local power, power injectors or PoE switches. What power solution will work best for the business environment?

Lastly, create a small group of employees who are responsible for the deployment of the VoIP initiative. They will be responsible for selecting and interfacing with vendors, working with vendors on an implementation plan and establishing a timeline. In order to gain company-wide acceptance of the initiative, company benefits must be defined and communicated, including any cost savings.

Best Practices

Once you've established a business plan and the infrastructure is ready, you are nearly finished. Since you can never be too prepared, here are some common pitfalls and best practices to incorporate into your approach:

  • Prepare for updates: Although there can be fewer phone systems to maintain, the pace of software and hardware updates increases in frequency for VoIP compared to time-division multiplexing (TDM). This is something organizations must plan for and work around to be sure systems stay up to date with minimal down time.
  • Plan ahead: Without proper planning and implementation, end user adoption can suffer. Consider the time of year that is most conducive to a successful roll out. For example, not tax season for accountants or the holiday season for retail businesses. Through thoughtful and accurate timing, businesses can avoid unforeseen issues
  • Take it slow: Many times, businesses take the approach that they must implement all aspects of VoIP at the same time. It is often better to take a phased approach to roll out enhancements, features and functions to the end user community. Identify key areas, and start there first
  • Test, Test, Test: Test and prioritize the network so you know up front if you have enough bandwidth to serve your traffic. This will ensure that the quality of service from your VoIP meets your expectations. Next, while deploying the system, be sure to test all locations before putting them into production. Lastly, document your network and system settings carefully for future deployments or troubleshooting purposes
  • Communicate with end users: Establish proactive communication with employees both before and after the deployment. This will prepare employees for the change and encourage them to accept it as a benefit to themselves as well as the company. It is also important to provide sufficient training and support for questions and concerns regarding the initiative. Proper training will lead to a higher end user acceptance and less long term support costs

In the end change is good, and inevitable. With proper planning, testing and a business driven approach, the move to VoIP saves money on local and international calling as well as on cabling costs for new buildings. Further, switching to VoIP uses the same staff for network, data and telephone setup maintenance, saving time and headaches. If your business hasn't already made the transition, now's the time.

Read more about lans and routers in Network World's LANs & Routers section.

This story, "The ABCs of VoIP" was originally published by NetworkWorld.

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