Avoiding Potholes on the VoIP Path

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Voice over IP, the ability to make phone calls through your computer, is growing in popularity for good reason: It is less expensive than traditional phone service and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. For small implementations, beyond the cost of software and the IP-enabled phone, it can be nearly free.

But free doesn't mean easy.

Network administrators implementing VoIP for the first time often learn this the hard way. They start out optimistically, believing they should be able to implement the technology because it sits on the network. But most network administrators have never implemented voice-based systems, and many fall prey to common implementation pitfalls.

Here's how to avoid potholes on the road to VoIP.

1. Map the contract scope to business objectives. Network administrators know that VoIP can provide more features to end users, such as the ability to check voice mail via the Web, expanded videoconferencing capability and phone numbers that follow users wherever they log in. But those same network administrators, who often don't manage budgets, often proceed without considering all of the costs involved or whether the technology will meet the organization's business objectives. They move forward with VoIP at their peril.

Organizations can often negotiate volume discounts on their current phone service, negating the cost benefit of switching to VoIP. If the cost savings is great enough, network administrators should ask: What business benefits will VoIP bring to the organization?

To answer that question, network administrators should interview other administrators, as well as CIOs, program managers, financial managers and end users, to determine their requirements for VoIP service. Do they want VoIP to integrate communications such as e-mail, instant messaging and telephone calls? Do they want it to standardize communications across the organization? Should it enable improved customer service?

End users must not be overlooked. People are reluctant to accept change if they don't understand the reasoning behind it. It's crucial to explain the justification behind VoIP, whether it's easing network management, improving functionality or saving money.

2. Determine infrastructure requirements. Network administrators also stumble on the road to VoIP if they don't have a deep understanding of their infrastructure. After the business objectives are defined, the network components should be outlined and a gap analysis conducted to determine what is missing. If the current infrastructure won't support the planned VoIP requirements, new IT purchases or modifications will be necessary. Servers, switches and routers may have to be replaced or upgraded, and extra bandwidth may be needed. If the gaps are too great, the additional infrastructure requirements may drive the cost of VoIP past the business value, and the decision may be to stay with traditional phone service.

If the organization decides to implement VoIP, planning in advance will avoid cost overruns later. That's a lesson often learned the hard way, such as when a network administrator -- seeking a quick Band-Aid fix -- buys switches that don't accommodate power over the Internet just a few months before implementing VoIP.

Even a handset purchase can become a roadblock if proper planning isn't done. One organization I know purchased 100 IP phones that didn't have speakerphone capability. All the phones had to be replaced -- adding time to implementation -- because one critical capability was overlooked.

3. Plan for scalability. One of the biggest mistakes network administrators make is designing the network to accommodate only current needs. If the workforce expands two to three times within a year or two but the network capacity can't accommodate the growth in VoIP users and VoIP applications, poor voice quality and service interruptions will result.

Ultimately, the VoIP network, like any network infrastructure, will need to be overhauled as technology and the organization progress. That's why network administrators' preimplementation interviewing process should include discussions about the growth of the organization. If expansion has been planned for, it's just a matter of adding the right pieces to the existing framework.

4. Define quality-of-service benchmarks and service-level management requirements. It's not enough to say that a VoIP network should always be on. Network administrators should determine service needs in their early interviews with managers and end users and boil down those requests into realistic service expectations.

For example, if a call center needs to run 24/7, the VoIP system can't go down. That means the network must be designed to give voice priority over regular data, and it must guarantee a specific amount of bandwidth for voice traffic when the network is congested.

The network administrator also must determine what length of downtime is acceptable if a network failure does occur. Never? Six seconds? Five minutes? The network administrator must also learn what downtime is acceptable when system maintenance is necessary, and when maintenance should take place, so as to avoid business interruptions.

Next, it's essential to set service-level management requirements, which detail exactly how personnel will respond to service outages or other problems. These requirements outline the length of time a technician has to respond and the chain of referral if the problem isn't resolved in time. Once again, these service-level decisions must be balanced against their cost.

If network administrators on the road to VoIP overlook any of these elements -- business objectives, infrastructure requirements, scalability planning, service levels or cost -- they will be in for a rocky ride. With proper planning, their road to VoIP will be smooth.

David Lanexang, a solutions architect at CDW Government Inc.'s Herndon, Va., office, led the deployment of 1,500 IP phones for the Federal Trade Commission.

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