With forethought and up-front investment, turning your local network into a ferry for Internet phone calls doesn't have to mean questionable quality
For years, tech vendors have touted the combination of voice, data, and other forms of communications traffic on a single network. Once phone calls are just another application on the network, they say, businesses enjoy lower costs, new applications, a simplified IT infrastructure, and many other benefits.
For the most part, that's true. But those who've deployed voice-over-IP technology--which chops up phone calls into packets and routes them over a company's data network--say building converged networks of voice and data is much more complicated than simply adding another application. In order to deliver high-quality voice service over a data network, business-technology managers need to do a lot of planning.
UpSource's first attempt at using VoIP didn't go well, says Mark Burns, the chief technology officer at UpSource Corp.
Mark Burns' first taste of VoIP technology four years ago wasn't promising. "It didn't go so well," says the chief technology officer at UpSource Corp., which sells call-center outsourcing and back-office services. "The voice and data didn't integrate very well. We had some major troubles and had to back out."
Now, VoIP is back on the menu for UpSource, which has about 80 employees and a call center in Nova Scotia. VoIP technology has gotten better and cheaper in the past few years, so Burns decided to try it again. One customer wants UpSource to handle all its call processing, call flows, and reports while using its own U.S. service agents, who work from home. "My biggest concern was being able to maintain the quality of the voice service," Burns says. "With data, you can lose packets and resend them. You can't lose packets with voice. It turns calls choppy."
Here's how the project unfolded: To start out, Burns conducted an extensive network audit, testing each router, switch, end device such as phones and computers, and communications link. UpSource bought testing tools from Empirix Inc., a network test and management company. "We found blockage within our network," Burns says. Traffic was unable to pass along some network paths, and couldn't reach its end points along others.
Empirix also trained Burns' staff on how to use the tools. The price of having the vendor conduct an initial network audit and train a staff over a two-week period starts at around $15,000, according to Empirix. Burns says he's resolved those issues and now has a smoothly operating network. And UpSource is ready to deploy more VoIP technology.
More business-technology managers may need such services as they embrace VoIP. Business spending on VoIP jumped 46% in 2004, according to a survey of 240 businesses by Infonetics Research. By the end of this year, 29% of large businesses, 16% of midsize companies, and 4% of small businesses are forecast to have deployed VoIP.
The economics of doing so are persuasive. Running a converged network is usually cheaper than operating separate voice and data networks. And switching to VoIP can eliminate the costs of moving, changing, and adding phone extensions, which can run around $150 apiece for a conventional voice system. In some cases, VoIP can nearly pay for itself by eliminating the need for separate communications wires for voice and data to each worker's desk, along with two power wires, for a computer and a phone.
Companies that deploy VoIP, however, need to consider a variety of quality-of-service issues, from the age of the software on routers and switches to the design of their networks.
The checklist can get complicated: Does your network gear run up-to-date software that supports quality of service and traffic prioritization, essential to ensuring that delay-sensitive voice and video traffic get first dibs on network bandwidth? Does your network design force calls to travel longer distances than necessary, which slows down packets and degrades voice quality? Can you set up virtual LANs or private virtual circuits to separate voice from data traffic, reducing the chances that a virus or worm on the data network will damage Internet phone calls? Will your firewalls interfere with the calls?
Planning for peak traffic loads is another issue. Typically, businesses allocate bandwidth to handle a specific number of simultaneous VoIP calls--say, 10 in a particular office. But how will you handle the 11th person who picks up the phone to place a call? In some cases, the caller doesn't get a dial tone. In others, the call gets routed over the public phone network. A third option is to let the call travel over the VoIP network with the possibility of lower-quality sound.
Businesses also need to see how their data networks' design can affect voice calls. Most business data networks use a hub-and-spoke system, with internal traffic from branch offices moving through a data center. That works fine for data. But it may not be the best approach when a person in one branch office wants to leave a voice message for a person in another. The hub-and-spoke architecture means the call travels from one branch office, through the data center, out to the second branch, and back to the data center, where the voice-mail system lives. A simple voice message between co-workers can fill up three or more VoIP call paths.
Large networking vendors such as Cisco Systems and Juniper Networks Inc. work with resellers and systems integrators to provide network-assessment and -analysis services, helping customers do the advance planning to ensure a smooth VoIP deployment.
Greenhorne & O'Mara did a lot of planning to ensure VoIP worked, James DePietro says
James DePietro, Greenhorne & O'Mara Inc.'s VP of IT, started looking at digital phone technology five years ago, to help the engineering consulting firm, which has 700 employees scattered across 16 offices, more easily connect a client to the right consultant. "But it was the early days and the technology was too expensive," he says.
The cost equation had changed by last summer, and Greenhorne & O'Mara decided to spend around $500,000 to replace its conventional phone system with VoIP, with the help of hardware vendor Siemens Communications Inc. Telecom service provider U.S. Lec Corp. and consulting firm NetGain Communications were also part of the contract. DePietro expects to cut overall telecom spending by more than $100,000 a year and introduce new services and apps to employees.
"We did a significant amount of advance planning," says DePietro, including logging staff time last fall at a Siemens office in Virginia to lay out and design the network. Costs for a detailed network assessment might start at $10,000 for a 25-person office and could run into hundreds of thousands of dollars for a larger network, NetGain says.
A detailed deployment plan helped Greenhorne & O'Mara convert 13 offices to VoIP in about two months. DePietro, who plans to activate unified messaging on the VoIP system in July, conducted lunch-hour training sessions in workers' offices. "Bring users in early and let them know what you're doing, and why," he says. "Some people have a lot of issues with change and are uncomfortable with a different device on their desk. Others think it's really cool and see the benefits."
Steve Perkins first thought about VoIP in the late 1990s when Exempla Healthcare, where he works as manager of networks and systems, began upgrading its networking infrastructure with Cisco gear. VoIP "was part of the long-term vision" at the nonprofit organization, which runs three hospitals in the Denver area. But it wasn't a top priority. "We were more interested in an electronic records system," he says.
Today, Exempla runs VoIP in all three hospitals. The organization's smartest move was getting its telecom staff involved early, Perkins says. The hospitals use five-digit dialing for internal calls, and telecom was able to make that work smoothly, as well as help ensure the quality of calls. "The telecom and PBX people have the kind of experience necessary to make voice calls sound good," he says. "If you don't involve them in the advance planning, you won't be successful."
To start with, Exempla ran a pilot VoIP program in the IT department. "We wanted to implement it ourselves internally so we could understand the technology and know what was going on under the covers," Perkins says. Because the hospitals also were deploying wireless LANs, things got complicated. The pilot forced the IT department to ensure that software was consistent on all its network devices, set up virtual LANs to keep voice and data traffic separate, and add power supplies to its data center to provide power-over-Ethernet service. "It was a little more complicated to set up, but now it's easier to manage and control," he says. The most interesting lesson, he says, was hospital users' concern when IT told them they were going to deploy something called "VoIP."
Says Perkins, "Once we started calling it a phone system with a few more bells and whistles, the concerns went away."
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