VoIP Gotchas - InformationWeek

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VoIP Gotchas

Pitfalls and potholes can trip up your voice-over-IP implementations

Anyone thinking a switch to a voice-over-IP phone system will be smooth and easy should remember Ruth Harenchar's ruby-red nail polish. At the Hobart West Group, where Harenchar is CIO, the company's VoIP project required tough decisions, like whether to spend money training existing IT staff or hire expensive consultants. It meant learning to live without certain common telecom features in order to get the savings the company wanted. And it involved helping employees through the culture shock of replacing the familiar phones they'd been using for years. That's where the red nail polish comes in.

Businesses love VoIP's promised benefits, but too many underestimate just how arduous implementations can be. Hobart West, a legal-services and commercial-staffing firm, bought Cisco IP phones with gray "hold" buttons; administrative staffers, used to red hold buttons, were constantly hitting the wrong key and dropping calls. Harenchar's low-tech answer, implemented in 60 offices nationwide: Paint red nail polish on handset hold buttons.

If only the rest of the challenges had such simple solutions. VoIP has hit the mainstream, but when it comes to installing the technology on a large scale, there's hard work ahead. "There's a reason it's called the bleeding edge," Harenchar says. "It's painful."

For example, although caller ID is a staple at many companies, Hobart West's VoIP system won't tell employees who's calling. A special kind of telecom circuit, called primary-rate interface ISDN, is necessary for caller ID on VoIP, as is a module for the call-management system. Together, they were too expensive.

And Harenchar discovered that simple mistakes can cause big problems. A recently hired network engineer clicked on the wrong item in the call-manager software and accidentally routed all calls through Hobart West's Houston office, overloading the VoIP network. "He made a decision he thought was simple and brought down the whole system," Harenchar says. "There are so many little places in the call-management system that have to be programmed exactly, perfectly right for even the easiest things to work the way they did."

So why are companies putting themselves through all this aggravation? Foremost, they're finding that VoIP, which chops up voice conversations into data packets and routes them over a data network or the Internet, can dramatically reduce the cost of phone service. Most companies pay a flat monthly rate for an Internet connection, so costs don't increase with call volume. And when voice calls are just another application on the network, there are opportunities for integrating voice into business processes. Hobart West anticipates a day when customers' files automatically pop up in employees' Web browsers when calls come in. "It's worth it in the long run," says Harenchar, whose company finished its VoIP deployment in July. "It opens up the ability to do customer-workflow integration in ways it's never been done before."

That's a familiar sentiment among businesses betting on VoIP, which include Ford Motor Co. and Bank of America Corp. Companies upgrading their phone systems face the choice of sinking money into yesterday's technology--traditional PBX products--or investing in VoIP, the platform for the future. And they're picking the future: VoIP line shipments increased 52% last year, while PBX-based line shipments were down 29%, according to Infonetics Research. Spending on VoIP will jump from $1.2 billion last year to more than $23 billion in 2009, Infonetics predicts. Research firm Frost & Sullivan forecasts the number of hosted IP-telephony lines will increase from 292,000 last year to 9.7 million by 2010. This means thousands more businesses are about to come face to face with VoIP "gotchas."

Meeting Demand

Equipment vendors and service providers are scrambling to accommodate the growing interest in VoIP. Network Instruments LLC last week released a new version of its network-management software that lets administrators see VoIP traffic statistics and more than 20 metrics that track call quality. Comcast Corp. and Cox Communications Inc., two cable-TV companies, recently started offering VoIP services. Microsoft two weeks ago bought its second VoIP company, media-streams.com ag, a Swiss applications maker. And just last week, a group of VoIP champions, including EarthLink, Google, Pulver.com, Skype Technologies, and Sonus Networks, banded together to promote the technology through the Internet Voice Campaign.

Companies often underestimate how big a change they're in for when installing a new phone system and don't plan thoroughly enough. "They're assuming that, 'OK, it's a different protocol, but it's not very different from the type of system we have today,'" says Lisa Pierce, a VP at Forrester Research.

Even basic steps like taking inventory and network testing have their pitfalls. Inventory requires sorting out if existing telephony gear has any value, whether the company needs more or different switches, and what the strategy should be for software additions and upgrades. But there tends to be a lot of confusion around what can and can't stay, warns Tom Thomas, a senior solutions architect at consulting firm Dimension Data. Also, companies need to assess their networks for available bandwidth and quality of service, taking into account the metrics that come preinstalled on networking equipment and on network-management tools like those offered by Network Instruments, Network General, and others, to make sure the networks can handle the additional load of delay-sensitive voice traffic. And not all network-testing tools work for VoIP tasks, some administrators find.

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