Are you ready for the VoIP plunge?

Has Internet Protocol telephony’s time finally arrived? Maybe.

But that doesn’t mean you need to rush into anything. Take your time, understand the benefits as well as the risks, and when you go forward, be sure to govern yourself accordingly.

IP telephony is a term used to describe several different scenarios for running voice traffic over enterprise and/or public IP data networks. In its early days, IP telephony faced issues of voice quality, reliability, service and functionality, but now that those have largely been addressed, it is becoming a good option.

Organizations that have adopted the technology are enjoying significant reductions in operating and management costs by merging staff and infrastructure for voice and data. The real value of the technology, however, lies in the advanced messaging features, intuitive user interfaces, application interfaces and mobility features that drive employee productivity. The enhanced collaboration between employees and partners, achieved by integrating real-time applications like instant messaging and video conferencing, has the potential to improve customer service, which is critical to most organizations in the age of aggressive e-business competition.

While the transition to IP telephony may seem inevitable, CIOs need to build a business case based on these benefits. It is necessary to show how the technology can improve overall operations and bring a compelling business advantage to the user community before traveling down this road. The CIO must also factor in the time it takes for the benefits returned to equal the initial cost of the project. Only then does it make sense to tackle the challenges of migrating or greenfielding to an IP solution.

voice versus data

One of the biggest hurdles comes when CIOs try to merge voice and data personnel. Few IT professionals are proficient enough in both voice and data to easily integrate these two disparate systems. This means voice specialists and data specialists now have to learn a new set of rules, standards and operating practices.

Merging these operational support structures must be done with care. A planned and steady transition is needed to bring these skills together without alienating staff. Organizations that facilitate relationships between the voice and data specialists are often the ones that have the most successful implementations.

Many Canadian companies are partnering with technology services providers, adept in both voice and data networks, to clear the hurdles created by limited in-house expertise and resources. Integrators can deploy IP telephony solutions seamlessly into an organization’s existing data network by properly planning and managing the project, developing a design, deploying the infrastructure components and measuring the system’s performance. By working alongside an integrator throughout the project, in-house voice and data personnel gain a unified understanding of the solution from a technical, operational and business perspective. It also gives voice and data communication specialists time to establish proper ongoing operational roles and responsibilities.

security issues

Security is a major issue for organizations that deploy IP telephony. The risk of security breaches increases as IP phones move beyond simply handling voice calls to running applications that directly access enterprise data networks. Viruses, denial-of-service attacks and other security-related issues can have an impact on network routing equipment, security systems and devices, slowing down performance or potentially crippling the network.

Eavesdropping is not new in the traditional voice world and it remains an issue in the IP space. Hackers have the ability, while difficult, to identify, modify, store and play back voice traffic crossing the network. To effectively manage these security risks, organizations need to apply the same practices they use to protect their data systems, including encryption techniques and built-in network redundancies. Network, voice application, and security events must be closely monitored and centrally managed by IT staff from a single point.

reliability and quality of service

Users are accustomed to a much higher level of availability and reliability from their phone systems than they have come to expect from data network applications. Voice communication is a mission-critical function that needs to be treated as a core business application.

There is a technical limitation on how much traffic can be pushed over data lines and how much can be sent over standard public switched telephone networks. If your data or PSTN fails, the routing mechanisms have to be in place to reroute call traffic instantly or in mid-call, which is a challenge, but can easily be overcome by traffic engineers.

Reliability and redundancy need to be built into IP networks and other components must be implemented to ensure VoIP systems are as dependable as the traditional telephone systems. Network management tools should be used to monitor hardware and network performance and, in the event of a failure or voice-quality degradation, there has to be the ability to switch a call automatically to the public telephone network. Don’t forget about personal security, and the effect of routing VoIP 911 traffic.

is now the time?

There is no doubt that IP telephony is the way of the future, but the technology is still adolescent and its real potential lies in the new IP applications that make it a natural long-term solution for enterprises. Carriers are pushing more and more traffic over IP and the quality of service, routing, and integration around delivery of multimedia is starting to move around one common cable. This makes it an even more attractive option from a support perspective.

IP telephony pilot programs have become increasingly popular because they help companies understand and validate the benefits first hand. They enable organizations to test various application options, including unified messaging, workstation mobility, wireless components, wireless phones and conference services. Allowing customers to experience interactive XML-enabled applications opens up their thought process to leveraging IP telephony for the delivery of critical application data to end users.

Joint risk pilots can even further minimize the risks of implementing IP telephony. In this situation the cabling and a portion of the consulting is paid for, but if the company does not move forward with the implementation the service provider will take the equipment back. If the company goes forward with the project, any money spent goes towards the implementation.

A number of carriers are coming to market with an ASP VoIP solution that may be ideal for the SOHO or SMB organizations that cannot afford the human or physical infrastructure costs.

mitigating the risks

Transition to VoIP in the enterprise is inevitable and there are many ways to deploy the technology. But most agree that by transitioning in stages, companies can assess the technology on a smaller scale, mitigating the financial and operational risks of going enterprise-wide right away.

Organizations should begin by deploying IP telephony in a way that will bring the most benefit at a minimal expense, which can be done by gradually replacing legacy phone systems, working IP telephony progressively into the data infrastructure, and providing IP phones to the mobile workforce where they will provide the best ROI. This will allow them to understand the benefits first hand and make a solid business case down the road for enterprise-wide deployment.

Finally, it may not be necessary to migrate between suppliers. Many of the traditional PBX suppliers have developed their own VOIP solutions which will allow your existing voice specialists to retain their core knowledge while potentially creating a career path into the data world. If you decide to go with another equipment supplier, it is worth working with a professional services provider that is familiar with the integration of your existing PBX solution and the new supplier’s offerings. At the end of the day your migration will not be a fork-lift upgrade, it will be transitional across the larger enterprise.

Michael Harrison is Vice President, Information Technology and CIO of NexInnovations. He joined the firm (then EDS Innovations) in 2000 to implement the systems and efficiencies necessary to take the organization to the next level of customer service and delivery. Mr. Harrison studied at the University of Guelph and at the Durham College of AAT – Electronics and Communications.

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