10 steps to VoIP nirvana

Trying to determine if voice over IP is the right move for your organization is a tough call, literally.

Vendors would like you to believe that VoIP is as simple as plugging a phone into the network, but that couldn't be further from the truth. There is a complex thought process that needs to occur before you commit to moving your users from traditional phone lines.

Decision-making must center on your users' needs, your IT support resources (budget and people) and the network itself. Where IP telephony gets particularly tricky is in dealing with small/remote offices. Many IT crews think that it's a no-brainer in that they won't have to get phone service to each company site -- therefore saving time and money on negotiating contracts, running phone lines, etc. However, as Bryan Cohen, a telephony engineer and VoIP expert at CDW Inc. in Vernon Hills, Ill., points out, VoIP has its own issues that IT groups need to consider.

Here are his tips for deciding to roll out VoIP to small/remote offices.

1. Think of voice traffic as you would data -- not like traditional voice.

"In many respects, voice over IP traffic is just like data traffic, so you have to consider many of the same issues such as security, availability, power and bandwidth," he says. You should weigh a possible VoIP investment through this lens to understand fully what it takes to run VoIP successfully. This is important from both planning and budget perspectives. It doesn't make sense to purchase a VoIP solution if your network cannot deliver the right quality of service (QoS). If you think users will complain loudly when their computers go down, what will they do if their phones go out?

2. Why do you want VoIP?

It's critical to assess the features you need to support your users and that they themselves need to determine if a VoIP system can give you what your current phone system can't. How will VoIP make your users more responsive and productive? Does it help you reduce operational costs? Cohen says asking these questions at the outset helps you make a business case for or against VoIP adoption.

3. Evaluate your network's readiness.

"You really need to sort through all of the implications of voice over IP on your network before you buy any equipment or service," he says. One way to do this is to work with an adviser or a peer who has gone through a VoIP rollout and knows the potential pitfalls to avoid. He warns to look at the rollout from every angle within your network, not just the VoIP itself. "Going with just a VoIP specialist may not cover the security or networking perspective, and they all have to work together," he says.

4. Consider your organization's business model.

VoIP's flexibility makes it compatible with virtually any industry especially where employees are mobile and need to be reached easily. However, Cohen says to consider how important telephone communication is to your business. "For instance, if you are considering VoIP for a corporate call center for customer service, then you may want to consider a hybrid solution of VoIP and traditional PBX because the telephone is such a crucial element of the business," he says. Costs are also coming down, which makes VoIP more attractive. In some instances, VoIP phones now cost less that some digital phones.

5. Focus on the wide-area network.

One of the biggest mistakes companies make is not investing in the pipe that will support the VoIP network. "The single most important thing in being successful with voice over IP is WAN connectivity between offices," he says. He adds that you could have an MPLS network or a point-to-point T1. And while virtual private networking is popular, he warns that some VPNs don't support VoIP.

6. Maintain a single system with gateways at remote locations.

In dealing with small/remote offices, it might be tempting to create islands of VoIP networks. However, this is not recommended, according to Cohen. "One system with remote gateways at branch locations offers many benefits, including helping a centralized IT team manage many functions via a single interface," he says.

7. Try before you buy.

"While it is very important to conduct a network assessment to determine network readiness, we have seen some companies make the mistake of relying solely on design alone," Cohen says.

He says the only way to truly know how VoIP will perform on your network is to put it through real-world testing. This will highlight important infrastructure elements. For example, you'll need to figure out how to provide power to the phones, he says. "If your network does not support power over Ethernet, then your IP phones will need to be located near an AC outlet," he says.

8. Think outside the IP telephony box.

Cohen says there are many parts to the system that IT managers don't consider when first putting together their budgets or designs. One such "gotcha": "To run VoIP, you need to have a TFTP server that updates the phones with patches and feature upgrades. Many businesses do not realize they need a server for this activity," he says.

9. Train, train, train.

The best way to decide on the benefits of VoIP is to go through product training before you commit to buying one. "This helps you understand the available features and requirements better. You may realize that you need some functions you never considered," he says.

10. Be cautious about outsourcing.

Cohen says outsourcers bring a lot of benefits, but they also present some risk. Chief among considerations, "when you outsource you cede control of all your phone calls to a third party. You may also be limited to the features that the service provider offers," he says.

Following this checklist is a great formula for deciding the value of VoIP in your enterprise, Cohen says. "You can make smart decisions about the specifics of your VoIP needs and plan for the future for additional IP applications such as video conferencing."

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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