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January 2000

nmn0100.gif (5800 bytes) Communications At The Crossroads:
Identifying today's voice and data business communication opportunities


Looking to install or enhance a voice or data network in your company? Then you're in good company. There are currently more than 1.5 million offices in the U.S. that support 100 or fewer employees, accounting for approximately 500,000 new phone systems each year and nearly 10 million new telephones. At the same time, small businesses accounted for 45 percent of all PCs purchased last year. The average growth rate for the small-to-medium-sized office is estimated at 15 percent over the next five years. This means one thing for your business: established industry players and new start-up companies alike will be scrambling to fulfill your communications needs.

It also means there are more choices from more vendors available for your business today than ever before. That's because both voice and data vendors have stepped into one another's turf in search of the perfect voice and data communications solution. Today's solutions out there contain various mixes of data or telecom components, as both systems ultimately merge into some sort of homogenous "communications server."

The good thing about choices is that you should be able to find a perfect fit for your company. There is a flip side: Choices can create confusion. This is particularly true when talking about technology. For example, take all the industry hype about the "death of the PBX." The private branch exchange, or PBX, is what more than 90 percent of businesses today use to run their telephone communications. Yet, you'll find few vendors calling themselves PBX manufacturers anymore. What you will find are plenty of "business communications companies" or a "network communications companies." Some of them manufacture and sell PBXs. Some manufacture and sell PCs. Some manufacture products that are one (PC or PBX) and masquerade at providing all the functions of the other.

To clear up some of the confusion, we can look at some simplified communications scenarios that small- and medium-sized business are facing (or may be facing soon) as they expand their operations or seek to evolve their existing communications processes.

Scenario #1: Simplicity Central, Inc.
Simplicity Central, Inc. has several offices with separate, independent voice and data networks, including PBX systems from different vendors. They need somebody to take their motley bunch of technology and coordinate it -- namely, network together voice and data communications between offices. And, the company needs to accomplish these goals without breaking the bank in the process.

Simplicity Central, Inc. needs what most businesses need to enter the Information Age: a network that can handle voice and data over local and wide area networks. First, let's examine the issue of disparate PBX systems from different vendors. The difficulty of integrating two different PBX systems is one of the big issues leading to the development of more open communications systems. If Simplicity Central, Inc. only wants to integrate voice communications across their network, without transferring features (such as DSS keys and BLF status or wide area voice mail integration), their voice communications could ride over some form of data network. This could be accomplished with existing equipment to a varying degree of effectiveness depending upon the age and sophistication of each legacy PBX. An IP telephony gateway, with or without router-based capabilities, would allow Simplicity Central, Inc. to use their WAN -- using protocols such as frame relay or ATM -- to send voice as digitized packets of information. An IP telephony gateway at the other would receive the digitized packets and convert the "voice-data" back into a signal that can be processed by the PBX on the other end.

Scenario #2: Next Generation Corp.
Next Generation Corp. already has the elements Simplicity Central, Inc. needs, but wants to take things a step further. They're beginning to field a growing number of inbound calls for sales and support, and want to begin investigating ways to be more responsive on a 24x7 basis.

Next Generation Corp. is ready to take advantage of more advanced computer-telephony integration (CTI). Call centers offer the greatest opportunity for companies to lower costs through automation and technology integration. Think of your personal banking: You can call into an automated attendant and enter the information required to access your accounts using your phone. This capability is enabled as a result of the integration of a PBX with one or more customer databases, plus additional hardware and software. The information in this sort of database could also be delivered to a customer service representative (CSR) at the time they receive a customer phone call. Now the CSR doesn't have to ask the customer for information that has already been collected in the database before doing their job -- helping the customer.

PBX systems today can offer all of these capabilities through a variety of integration methods. Each PBX vendor offers some form of computer telephony integration option -- some are better than others and none are identical. Because call center operations are mission critical, few companies today would trust this part of their operation to a PC-based PBX. Furthermore, most of today's PC-based PBXs deliver reliable, functional voice services, but lack the kinds of advanced applications and management features that companies with call centers require.

Scenario #3: Growing Fast, Ltd.
Growing Fast, Ltd. needs to figure out how to pull their operations together by distributing more communications (both voice and data) throughout their locations (and to mobile workers) while centralizing the administration and support functions for their offices. One person on the staff is responsible for all of the offices' MIS support.

Growing Fast needs an integrated network that not only delivers voice and data, but offers monitoring and control of these systems from a single point of entry to the network. This presents a particular challenge for older systems. Some PBX systems today offer standards-based network management through integration of the Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP), a PC network management standard. SNMP-based systems can be recognized by most of today's popular data network management systems, including Hewlett Packard's popular OpenView system. With OpenView, a network manager can recognize any SNMP-compliant device on a network and monitor its status. The most advanced systems today allow managers to make administrative changes remotely across the network. Most of today's PC-based PBX systems offer smooth integration into wide area network management systems, including easy-to-use, GUI-based interfaces. Taking the other application needs into account, migrating non-SNMP-compliant systems to PC-based systems could be an option.

Scenario #4: CuttingEdge.com
CuttingEdge.com is a data company that prides themselves on delivering innovation to their customers. They're setting up a new office and currently have only basic voice and data needs. But CuttingEdge.com sees themselves expanding rapidly, and already has plans for innovating operations as they grow. For instance, they'd like to offer real-time Web support to their customers, including integrating their Web site with a real-time call center. Because the company has a lot of programming expertise in house, they'd like a system that meets the skill sets of their tech employees so they can help design the kinds of unique applications CuttingEdge.com needs.

CuttingEdge.com may be the best candidate for today's PC-based PBX systems because they've made a commitment to innovation and are starting with a clean slate -- their legacy equipment investment is minimal. PC-based systems offer the most in terms of easy-to-manage and simpler application development. One could say that the technology as it exists today -- new, immature, but highly promising -- mirrors the kind of companies that could most benefit from the technology.

As the PC-PBX market reaches critical mass and the marketplace catches up to the technology at hand, these communications solutions will be embraced. It will become common for your customers to click on a button on your Web site to speak to a company representative. Likewise, with an IP/PBX, your phone number could travel with you. Plug your voice/data device into a network connection (phone line, DSL, wireless, etc.) and log onto your company voice server. Now any calls to your number will route to your phone. You can download voice mails along with your e-mails. You can even place phone calls via IP across your private data network for reduced long-distance calling costs. The technology is here now, and widespread use is not far behind.

Final Recommendations
In each of these scenarios, a number of technology options and some factors worth evaluating have been suggested. Regardless of which technology decision you make, choose a vendor and a reseller or systems integrator that has expertise with both voice and data systems. Vendors who refrain from being "evangelistic" in favor of being pragmatic will keep your business interests in mind, rather than the just the advancement of the latest technology solution.

Jeff Ford is a senior vice president and the chief technology officer of Inter-Tel, Inc. Inter-Tel is a single point of contact, full service provider of IP business telephone systems, IP voice and data convergence products, CTI applications, voice processing software and long distance calling services. Inter-Tel's award-winning products and services include the AXXESS and Inter-Tel Axxent digital business communication platforms, the AXXESSORY Talk voice processing platform, the InterPrise voice and data routers, and Inter-Tel.net, Inter-Tel's IP long distance network.

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