The nuts and bolts of VoIP

As in the case of many other technologies, the benefits of voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP) have tended to be over-hyped. This has resulted in some sustained confusion in the marketplace about the type — or size — of company that would benefit from installing it.

As an SMB, this means you must really do your homework before making any commitments. If your infrastructure isn’t up to the task, or you don’t have a compelling business requirement for the technology, VoIP may just end up being a waste of your precious time and money.

VoIP isn’t just one technology or offering, and you have to appreciate the differences between them, says Gary Chen, SME IT infrastructure applications analyst with the Yankee Group. The research firm defines four VoIP models for SMBs: hosted (where you access the IP private branch exchange (PBX) through a Web-based interface); managed (where the IP PBX resides at your company but is managed remotely by a service provider); do-it-yourself (where you buy the VoIP system and manage it yourself); or broadband VoIP (where you take the consumer approach, using an analog telephone adapter to access VoIP through a broadband Internet connection).

These choices add a layer of confusion to the decision-making process. But SMBs should also consider what else has to be done to make VoIP work. First, this means doing a network assessment. “Quality is really the number-one issue with VoIP right now,” said Chen. “There are a lot of ways the VoIP call can get kind of screwy.”

First off, you require your own connection to the Internet. A T1 line comes with a service-level agreement and guaranteed bandwidth; you can get that with DSL, but it’s not very common. Even if you decide to go with a hosted solution, you require a switched architecture that can support quality of service (QoS).

Your network must support QoS though Layer 2 or Layer 3 protocols. “My preference is to have both,” says Mark Tauschek, senior research analyst with Info-Tech Research. “But you need to have at least one to prioritize VoIP traffic so it doesn’t get bogged down by lower-priority data traffic.” If your switching infrastructure doesn’t support QoS, then you have to upgrade — and that could be a hidden cost.

Before you roll out any new product, test it to make sure your network is going to be able to handle the load and deliver high-quality voice. Also consider building in redundancy (which will increase your capital outlay), since a successful denial-of-service attack could take down your network. Some people don’t do a network assessment properly — or at all — and end up spending a lot of money afterward to fix it.

Cabling could also be an issue. Some traditional systems run over Cat 3 cable, but VoIP usually requires Cat 5, says Chris Atkinson, solutions marketing manager for small business with Mitel.. Or, instead of rolling out a brand-new cabled network, you can opt to go wireless, which involves plugging wireless phones into PCs. If you’re a really small business (say, fewer than 10 employees), a hosted solution might make more sense, because you don’t have to invest in your own IP PBX.

Management is another consideration. There will be more traffic on your network, more monitoring, more troubleshooting and possibly some security concerns. While it’s not a huge burden, says Chen, in the end it’s slightly more work for IT staff.

Remember that many of the benefits are soft, rather than tangible, quantifiable benefits. And some of those quantifiable benefits might not be realized by smaller enterprises, says Tauschek. So where does it make sense? If your existing system is at the end of its life and you’re looking to replace it, or there are compelling productivity benefits (such as having soft phones on laptops), consider VoIP.

(A softphone is a piece of software for making telephone calls over the Internet using a computer, rather than using dedicated hardware. A softphone is usually used with a headset connected to the sound card of the PC, with a USB phone or with a “Plain Old Telephone” connected to the PC using an adapter.)

“If you’re looking at doing it for cost savings, you’re probably going to be disappointed,” he said. Long-distance is so cheap nowadays, it’s no longer a viable cost argument, and, alone, it’s certainly not going to pay for the system.

But that’s changing too: session initiation protocol (SIP) trunking (which allows companies to create a single IP connection to carrier clouds) is now available from several telcos and Internet service providers, and this will be a less expensive way of connecting to the public switched telephone network (PSTN) compared to an analog line or digital trunk. For more on SIP trunking, see this article.

Those who stand to gain from VoIP are SMBs with branch or satellite offices, or those with a mobile workforce or large number of teleworkers. For others, it just might not make sense. “For a very small company,” says Chen, “their analog system is running just fine and they don’t have any kind of need for anything fancier.”

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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