Making the switch to VoIP

Evolve IP – Is your business ready to make the move to Voice over IP (VoIP)? While the voice and data industry pundits have been debating this issue and probably confusing you for over 10 years, the answer is simple if you reduce the question to three basic elements:

1. Do you understand what VoIP is?

2. Is your data network (LAN and WAN) adequate to handle converged media (voice, data and other applications on the same network)?

3. Do you have a compelling reason to change your current telephony system?

The evolution of VoIP

Most innovative and disruptive technologies are initially introduced to large enterprises, followed by the consumer market, and ultimately find their way to the small and medium business sectors.

Large enterprises were the first to utilize VoIP over 10 years ago as a way to network their telephone systems (PBX) together over existing private data networks, reduce the cost of completing inter-office calls, and extend office hours beyond a single time zone. It was a basic and costly solution, but was able to provide a reasonable return on investment.

While the cost of long distance calling has dropped over the past decade, companies have found that with the ability to extend office hours beyond a single time zone, as well as many newer efficiencies VoIP offers, VoIP still provides a compelling ROI.

VoIP hit the consumer market next (the Vonage era), and that’s where the confusion began. The focus on VoIP at this level is to reduce the cost of local and long distance calling to as little as possible. Again, the solution is simple. An analog terminal adaptor (ATA) is connected to a broadband Internet connection (cable or DSL). The ATA converts analog voice into data packets and merges them together into one data stream. A standard analog phone is plugged into the ATA, and the signal finds its way back to a central office over the Internet.

Voice quality varies from call to call, however, causing people to question the viability of VoIP. The element that is lacking from consumer VoIP (but that is more reliable in a business setting) is Quality of Service (QOS)—that is, the concept of prioritizing the voice packets to travel together quickly and arrive in one piece. When this happens, voice quality is exceptional.

Business deployment

In order to deploy VoIP for your single location business, you must prepare your Local Area Network (LAN). For multi-site businesses, you will also be concerned with your Wide Area Network (WAN).

At the LAN level, you will need “Managed Ethernet Switches,” also known as Layer 2 Managed Switches, as opposed to Hubs. Unlike Hubs, Layer 2 Managed Switches manage and monitor the LAN activity and are helpful in setting up VLANs. It is best if they also have the capability to power the telephones via Power over Ethernet (POE). A Managed Switch can be programmed for Class of Service (COS), which separates your applications and prioritizes them. It will also provide QOS to assure the optimum voice quality.

The WAN is more complex to make ready for VoIP. Each voice call requires about 30 kbps of bandwidth when compressed to a sufficient level to assure good voice quality, so it is important to know how many simultaneous calls you will have traveling over your site-to-site network. Take this estimate in conjunction with your other applications that are traveling on the same network to determine your required bandwidth. A router provides connectivity to the LAN and is the point of entry to the WAN. The router is programmed to provide COS and QOS to the network.

Again, you will need to provide QOS between sites to assure optimum voice quality. This cannot be accomplished over the Internet. Hence, the WAN must be private. Today, it is possible to install a private fully meshed IP Network (MPLS) consisting of one or multiple T1’s that is less expensive than a Legacy Point to Point or Frame Relay Network.

Is VoIP right for you?

Since 2005, more businesses have been implementing VoIP than traditional digital telephones. According to Gartner, the hosted IP telephony will grow from a $250 million a year industry to $2.5 billion by 2011.

So how do you know if a VoIP telephony system is right for you? There are several factors that lead businesses to make the switch.

  • Your phone system is at end of its life and you do not buy into your vendor's "bolt on VoIP" sales pitch so you replace it with a greenfield solution.
  • Your business is moving offices and you anticipate having to expand your legacy phone system. VoIP provides a more cost-effective solution.
  • The cost of managing your legacy system is rising, and you want to maintain control over your own system -- not be at the mercy of the vendor.
  • You have a highly mobile workforce and want to ensure your employees can always be easily reached, even when they're not at their desk. In addition, IP-based systems offer unified messaging, enabling employees to retrieve all messages -- voicemail, e-mail, and faxes -- from one place.

If you find your business falling into one of these scenarios, considering make the switch to VoIP. IP-PBX phone systems are cost-effective, easy to use, and offer many productivity and mobility-enhancing features. And despite the myth, they are very reliable in a business setting, so long as you properly prepare your network for the increase in activity.

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Howard Hoffman is the Director of Premise-Based Voice over IP Solutions for Evolve IP, a Communications-as-a-Service Provider that offers businesses a suite of services that includes Managed Telephony, Hosted Applications, Managed Networks, and Network Security & Compliance. For more information, visit www.EvolveIP.net.

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