Managing a VoIP or Unified Communications Rollout
Phone
Photo by Karolina Kabat
Switching to VoIP services requires care and planning.
Communications networking experts outline the challenges of IP telephony and provide steps for a successful transition.
By Alan R. Frank

Voice/data convergence is well under way. “Essentially the entire market is making the switch to IP telephony or Voice over IP,” says Mauro Lollo, co-founder and chief technology officer of the Toronto-based integration firm Unis Lumin Inc. “So, it’s no longer exploratory technology.”

For organizations on the IP bandwagon, knowing the challenges and paths to success is key.

VoIP Challenges

As a real-time application, voice makes some stringent demands on the network. “VoIP has its complexities,” cautions Unis Lumin’s Lollo. “It has to be treated with kid gloves. The care and feeding of the system—but also the planning and implementation — are exceptionally important to ultimate success.”

According to Lisa Pierce of Forrester Research, organizations need to think about the ways in which the VoIP system will connect to the outside world. Specifically, she notes that the majority of VoIP installations today are not connecting to the carrier using a session initiation protocol (SIP) trunk, which is the leading way to carry packetized voice in the larger world.

Most, she explains, are connecting using T1 primary rate interface (PRI) or plain old telephone service (POTS) analog lines. Pierce attributes this to the fact that “not every provider offers SIP trunking,” and those that do require that customer premises equipment (CPE) meet the carrier’s network specifications. “If the carrier hasn’t tested the equipment you’re planning to install, it isn’t safe to assume that it’ll just work because it’s SIP-compliant,” she says.

Chris Nantes of Toronto-based Nortel agrees that there can be interoperability issues with SIP trunking. “Even different SIP application servers can sometimes have slightly different interpretations of the SIP standards,” he says.

Ben Brauer, senior product manager for Response Point, Microsoft Corp.’s small business phone system offering created by a team at Microsoft Research, says that the “flavor” of SIP trunking that Response Point will support is SIPconnect. SIPconnect, promoted by the SIP Forum, is intended to minimize the amount of CPE needed to interface with a carrier’s SIP trunk. Brauer says SIPconnect is being installed by carriers now and should be available for use by the second half of this year. Service Pack 1 for Response Point, announced in March by the Redmond, Wash.-based company, will add support for SIPconnect. A summer release is expected.

When planning a VoIP rollout for a customer, VARs and integrators will need to find out what carriers serve their customer’s locations, which of those carriers offer SIP trunking, and what CPE is on those carriers’ approved lists. “I would say it’s part of your due diligence,” says Forrester’s Pierce. Also, investigate whether the carrier offers service-level agreements on uptime and quality of service (QoS).

8 Steps to Success

Some VoIP deployments have gone off with few hitches, while others have been train wrecks. Why the seemingly random results? Certainly, technical competence in IP telephony is a basic requirement. Beyond that, however, much of the success (or lack thereof) can be attributed to taking the time to find solutions suitable for the organization in question.

  1. Understand the Your Growth Speed — Establish where you want your organization to be in the next 12, 24, or 36 months, advises Sally Stanton of Cisco Systems. “You need to make sure that not only does that initial implementation go well, but that it is the right platform so that, as the business’s needs change and grow, the [communications solution] can grow and evolve with the business.”
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  3. Establish Goals — Why is your organization considering a move to VoIP? Jim Cavanagh, knowledge transfer agent at Atlanta-based The Consultant Registry, says it’s one of the first things he asks. “And they often give me that deer-in-the-headlights look that says: ‘Are you stupid? This is the future.’ They may have heard the buzz about tremendous cost savings,” Cavanagh says. However, he adds, “A lot of organizations find out that VoIP may cost a certain percentage more than doing it the old way.”
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  5. Educate Yourself — Educating yourself is key, especially for smaller businesses without deep IT knowledge available in house. According to Joe Scotto, global director for small business solutions marketing at Avaya, a situation in which education is needed “could be something like softphone usage.” A softphone is software used for making calls over the Internet using a computer. “Someone who’s familiar with softphones has an expectation of the quality, because they know the call is going over the Internet.” Some decision-makers, he adds, may not fully understand that.
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  7. Set Expectations — Many people have read about how much money VoIP can save, particularly in toll-bypass. It may be possible to save a lot of money by routing off-site calls across the Internet, but the Internet has no QoS — it’s best-effort delivery, which can make voice call quality hit or miss. Make sure decision makers are aware of this fact.
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  9. Perform Needs Analysis — Take inventory of your existing data network(s). Does it make a good host for a converged voice/data network? In most cases, upgrades will be needed. Cisco’s Eren Hussein says many organizations have a “mishmash of lots of different networks.” In many cases, when these organizations implement a Cisco unified communications or VoIP solution, Hussein says they are “consolidating a lot of that technology into one fabric or network.”

    An important decision, in Pierce’s estimation, is whether to use an on-premise IP PBX or hosted VoIP. Hosted VoIP not only lowers the investment for the customer, but also eliminates compatibility issues between the IP PBX and the carrier, as the carrier is hosting that piece of the puzzle. (You still need to make sure that the individual IP phones you’re planning to use are on the carrier’s approved list.)

    Unis Lumin’s Lollo says that “for a lot of very small organizations, a simple hosted VoIP solution might be an option.” But he also notes that “hosted VoIP solutions don’t necessarily deliver all of the potential features that you could get with an in-house IP PBX.” Lollo is referring to not just the basic voice or telephony features, but the ability to integrate with more applications within the environment.

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  11. Planning — IP phones need power. Most can be powered by plugging into an electrical outlet, but many support Power over Ethernet (PoE), in which the phones are remotely powered over the network cable from PoE-capable network switches in the wiring closet. PoE makes for a neater installation at the user’s desk, but you need to make sure that those switches are PoE-capable. Security needs to be a big part of the planning and design process as well. “VoIP and unified communications, although extremely compelling from a business benefits perspective, create different security challenges than traditional digital systems,” says Nortel’s Nantes, who also advises that organizations ensure the products they use feature needed security aspects (typically, a multi-layered perspective, with not only telephony, but also platform, access management, and interface levels.
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  13. Design — In this phase, the hardware, software, and carrier connections are specified and the implementation laid out. Will it be a phased rollout, site by site? This is also when security measures and equipment are detailed.
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  15. Implementation — Training plays a key role in the success of the implementation. The more training you can do in advance of the physical rollout, the better. As Forrester’s Pierce says, “Training can make all the difference on user acceptance. And user acceptance can make all the difference on whether the project is accepted or not.”

If you’ve got technical staff properly trained on VoIP, you’ve spent enough time really engaging with the users in your organization, have planned in depth, and have followed through on the steps outlined here, how can you miss? Well, a VoIP rollout can be an iffy proposition. The key is to take as many steps as possible to tip the odds in your favor.

Alan R. Frank is a networking consultant and freelance writer.

 



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