Building VoIP networks – what it takes to succeed

The business case for adopting voice over internet protocol (VoIP) telephony systems grows more compelling every day.

In addition to the long distance savings, the equipment costs less, and does more. Moves, adds and changes are much easier. System monitoring is straightforward, and the usage reports are richer. And, most importantly, companies can leverage their existing IP networks to achieve an integrated voice and data platform.

Features, such as videoconferencing and unified messaging, offer tools that can transform the way a business operates.

While there are real pitfalls to watch for the momentum of VoIP seems unstoppable, say experts who have managed numerous installations.

This has been made possible by the emergence of very high speed, reliable IP networks.

As Jocelyn Philbrook, vice president of corporate marketing and investor relations at Westford, Mass- based Sonus Networks puts it, “What we’ve seen in the past five years is the quality assurance and high speed bandwidth that are able to support multiple types of communications-video, voice, data-very rapidly and with a high degree of quality throughout the network.”

Early adopters have already worked through various telephony strategies and have started to move steadily to VoIP-based solutions with consolidated voice and data networks, reports Roberta Fox, Principal at Mount Albert, Ont-based Fox Group Consulting.

But the pace of change has been incremental. This has led to a prevalence of hybrid systems as companies slowly replace legacy TDM (time-division multiplexing) systems with IP based systems.”VoIP has become the de facto standard on net new locations, but we’re not seeing people rip out legacy TDM systems and replace them with IP telephony,” said Fox

“Within a single office you could have some IP phones that plug into the LAN and others that plug into the traditional TDM system. You don’t have to be 100% VoIP to take advantage of some of the capabilities. That’s what most companies are doing.”There are different strategies a company can take, she explained.

Larger enterprises, that are comfortable owning and managing their own equipment, prefer to develop and maintain in-house telephony systems.

This was the approach taken by the Alberta Cancer Board, which runs several hospitals and clinics in the province.

Informations Systems (IS) team leader Glenn Matias explained that their network is distributed across several Alberta cities.”The ultimate goal was to run VoIP out to the remote areas. Instead of running long distance over the public phone network, we decided to run it over our WAN. “Of course, we had to beef up our WAN to do that. Plus, we had to ensure that the quality of the traffic was there. So we configured end to end QoS between our sites. Those are the requirements.”

The Alberta Cancer Board partnered with Bell to develop an IP telephony system that was integrated into their existing data network. They rely on Cisco equipment to power their data and voice networks.

Smaller organizations or those with less rigorous demands, often prefer a hosted VoIP solution that more closely resembles traditional Centrex service provided by the phone companies.

They can enjoy increased levels of service, along with a host of useful applications, without the capital cost and maintenance needed for an in-house system.

“Small businesses can have the appearance of a fully functioning call centre with a hosted solution,” said Fox, “because the provider offers many more features than they would otherwise be able to afford.”And since hosted solutions are typically priced on number of users, adding and subtracting users is much easier.

Another reason many companies-large and small-are moving to VoIP platforms is the ease of administration.

As Fox explained, “Instead of having data management tools and voice management tools and voice applications management tools, etc. you can get a consolidated view and then be able to drill down on how all the various pieces of the VoIP solution are doing, using a browser-based application.”There are also a number of appliance-type solutions for smaller businesses coming on the market. These offer strong features lists with plug and play simplicity, but Fox believes they are not being as well marketed to the SMEs as are the hosting solutions.The experts agree that the one thing absolutely essential to the success of a corporate VoIP system is the network.

“If they go VoIP, they have to make sure they have a really good network,” emphasizes the Alberta Cancer Board’s Matias, “especially if they have multiple sites. They have to make sure that they have implemented quality of service from end to end – not only on your local network, but including your WAN.”

“You can’t underestimate the complexity of a voice network,” echoed Philbrook. “It’s not something you want to gamble on. You have to consider the network as a strategic asset”

“You also need good equipment and good computers with enough memory,” added Fox. “Operating systems and messaging software have to be up to date.”

“The bar moves up on every piece of your technology, starting at the wiring all the way up to applications.”

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