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Enterprise VoIP Adoption

November 24th, 2004

These days every enterprise or small company is looking at Voice Over IP (VoIP) in some way, shape or form. The problem is that VoIP vendors’ wares are so different, and their pitches so attractive, that it’s often easy to forget the underlying principles of cost vs. benefit.

At the end of the day, the last thing enterprises need to be doing is choosing VoIP as a “strategic move” (i.e.: marketing speak for “because there’s no compelling reason”).

In this article we’ll dissect some of the trends in VoIP, as well as providing some solid reasons why it may work for your enterprise, and why it may not. Ultimately the decision will be up to you and your chosen VoIP company to mesh your services in such a way that you are able to provide solid Quality of Service (QoS – i.e.: good connectivity) as well as actually reducing your overall telephony and communications costs. And hey if you can throw in some added features while you’re at it – without increasing your costs and losing money – fantastic.

Before You Enter the Fray

As with any large infrastructure redefining project, the first thing to do before even bringing in vendors is to determine your requirements. More than most projects, VoIP vendors will often try and sell you their product instead of trying to find your solution. The reason for this isn’t underhanded salesmanship. The harsh reality is that because VoIP is so new, and vendors’ offerings can sometimes be overly flexible, it’s easier for them to propose something and then work with you to refine that.

As a result, if you don’t know what you want, you will simply “ride the wave” of the sales pitch, picking out what sounds good. And what sounds good may not be what your company needs.

Great VoIP

Ultimately, you need to decide what’s right for you. VoIP’s core benefits boil down to:

1. Lower (hopefully) Cost of Ownership

2. Free calling between facilities

3. Reduced support needs for telephony systems

4. Extended digital features

5. Enterprise-class reporting, analytics and other tools

For most companies, these benefits are what they are looking for, and generally in that order. They want to lower the expensive costs of their phone systems – often this is done through that rarely used practice of working with your local Telco because you weren’t taking advantage of their full line of services; they want to reduce long distance costs; they want to reduce the cost or improve the quality of their telephony support and then they are looking for a little icing on the side to help sell the new project to management, outside sales staff, etc.

More often than not, VoIP does deliver these benefits – as long as companies put in the legwork ahead of time to make sure the package, company and architecture will work for them.

Watch That First Step

That said, there are some key things to watch out for with VoIP. More than anything these boil down to expectations within your company. VoIP is a mature technology, but it is still growing and, as a result, there are some differences you need to be aware of: differences between normal telephony and VoIP that your vendor may not be informing you of.

There are also some common pitfalls to be aware of in the process.

Quality of Service: A term you will hear more than you want to while you are shopping for your vendor, picking out your package and installing and testing your new system is “QoS”, or Quality of Service. QoS is a complicated thing, but it boils down to the fact that you are trying to provide multiple services – over one line – and that you’re expecting excellent performance for all of your services – over one line. As part of your planning you will need to figure out which services are most important and prioritize every service that is happening over your data network, something many companies aren’t prepared to do (i.e.: “the Internet can’t go down”, “the phone system can’t go down”, “faxes must be good quality” … ). Determine your QoS priorities, set metrics, and ensure your system stays within your boundaries.

Lack of Signal: With a normal phone system, you pick up the phone and you get a dial tone. With VoIP… Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you pick it up and there simply wasn’t a connection. The simplest process is to try again.

Single Point of Failure: How often does your corporate network, or email, or external internet access go down? Every time this happens, you are likely to encounter a knock-on effect with VoIP – at least if you use the same data lines and network resources, which isn’t a requirement by the way. You are going to find that your phone system is also down. As soon as you mesh resources to “leverage existing infrastructure”, that infrastructure becomes more critical as well, and any issues with that infrastructure become more pronounced. In effect, network issues become just as important as power issues: your company can’t function properly while something is amiss.

Vendor / Architectural Lockin: Because VoIP is so new, you want to ensure that you are going to use industry standard protocols, processes, software and services so that if you need to you can switch vendors, upgrade the system to a newer standard or take advantage of add-on services from other vendors. There is nothing worse than installing a massive new phone system only to find out that you can’t do anything useful with it for 20 years. Be careful in your choice of platform, protocol, standard, vendor and system: you’ll appreciate it when you want to make a change.

Beware the Icing (added services = added dollars)

Finally, the last thing you need to beware of is the “icing”. As with all vendors, the last step in any deal is to try and sell you extra services. The problem with VoIP is that many of these services are incredibly attractive. The ability to send and receive faxes from your email and from your phone, is something many executives drool over.

However, this icing is what may make VoIP more expensive than you were anticipating, and may leave your company more vulnerable than when the project started. The key is balance. Remember your goals, and measure whether each added service is something that is actually worth the long term cost to you and your business.

Is it All Worthwhile?

The question everyone asks: Is VoIP really worth doing? The short answer is “probably, at some point”. The reality is that VoIP will become the new way to do business. PBX style systems will eventually become a thing of the past, and digital calling will be the standard. Already, more than 30% of calls worldwide are made via digital networks: cell phone networks.

If your company is spending serious money on long distance, particularly between offices or between select clients, VoIP is almost certainly for you right now. If your company has a solid network infrastructure, an antiquated phone system or you do truly need certain cutting edge services, VoIP is something you definitely want to look at.

However, if your company is merely looking at VoIP as a long term strategic move, you will want to be more cautious. Set out your current telephony costs so you know how much you can spend on a month-to-month basis. Figure out what services you are receiving right now for that cost. And then see if a similar VoIP system will save you money: because you don’t know until you try.

The VoIP world is an exciting one, with some incredible innovations happening on a daily basis. But, at the end of the day you need to decide if VoIP is right for you. It will be one day, but maybe today isn’t that day.

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