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VoIP Surges Into The Mainstream

Vendors posted unprecedented sales figures and carriers reported record traffic levels in 2004. What's ahead for 2005?

Voice over IP technologies surged into the mainstream in 2004, with vendors posting unprecedented sales figures and carriers reporting record traffic levels. Sonus Networks alone recently announced that it had carried 10 billion minutes of VoIP traffic in the last month of 2004, a figure representing more than 200,000 concurrent calls at any one time.

However, for all of its attractions, including consolidated network operations, reduced overhead, and the ability to deliver advanced in-call features, the path to VoIP deployment can be tricky. Nothing is easier than making a phone call, but VoIP vendors and analysts alike caution that creating the infrastructure that carries that call is a bit more complicated than picking up a telephone handset.

"The recurring theme is 'what is your entire communications strategy?'" says Alex Hadden-Boyd, Cisco Systems' director of Enterprise IP Telephony. "In the past, people thought on a site-by-site basis, but you can't do that anymore. You have to think about your network as a whole."

Indeed, the bottom line is that enterprises should look before they leap into VoIP deployments. Unfortunately, according to Lisa Pierce, vice president in Forrester Research's Telecom & Networks research group, many companies fail to do just that. After all, you can't just plug VoIP hardware into your network and expect it to work flawlessly.

"Many enterprises fail to consider network upgrade issues," Pierce says. "Bandwidth is part of it, of course, but a lot of companies don't necessarily have the real-time network management equipment to monitor traffic. And if you don't have a MPLS infrastructure on the WAN side, then don't even talk about it."

Pierce notes that the technology management issues that enterprises have to work out before they can consider a VoIP deployment on anything but the most limited scale necessitate a good deal of time and planning. The key thing is to remember that VoIP is only as good as its implementation, and to be absolutely clear about why you need VoIP. "IT departments think it's all just technology, but it's not," Pierce says. "Technology alone rarely solves problems completely, and often not at all."

Despite the fact that she's in the business of selling the technology, Hadden-Boyd agrees. "This might sound anti-Cisco, but companies should do it only as it makes business sense," she says. "Don't deploy technology for technology's sake. Come up with a business reason to do it. A lot of people forget that.'

Beyond that, once the business case for VoIP makes sense, Pierce says that enterprises have to set clear goals and create explicit roadmaps for deployment. Above all, she says that it is vital to get employee buy-in, and that means making sure that everyone knows not just the benefits of VoIP, but how to use the technology. You can't just swap out employees' traditional phones for IP handsets overnight and expect everyone to be happy.

"Companies often don't spend enough time on training, and that's often the killer," Pierce says. "If you don't train users in the ways that the technology can improve their communications, you will have problems. If word gets out that this was a lousy experience " whoa! You need to create good word of mouth in your company to establish the technology's legitimacy."

Apart from the sheer unpleasantness of facing a widespread rebellion from unhappy workers, the whole raison d'tre of a VoIP deployment can be compromised if it includes features that few users want, excludes the ones they need, and comes with no training. "There has to be something in it for people," Haddon-Boyd says. "If you plan it well in advance, and people have a say in it, then you can get buy-in across the board as well as a solution that is tailored to your needs. And that's what companies need."

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