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July 2006
Volume 1 / Number 4
 

Why is it that companies often rush into VoIP, only to be disappointed by the results? Perhaps, it’s because no one can agree on what VoIP really is. Is it a consumer-grade, closed network like Skype? Is it low-cost access to the PSTN network, so that you can save a dime on a call to Milan from San Francisco? Or, is it best defined as the use of digitized signalling and voice packets and the applications that make it work, like SIP proxies or voicemail?

This confusion appears to be not as prevalent outside the United States. France, for example, is a heavy adopter of VoIP, where nearly 33% of all subscribers use some form of digital voice. The phone system has been digital for over 15 years and the quality is crystal clear and extremely reliable.

Meanwhile, these differing perceptions of VoIP and the “raw” state of the VoIP offerings available today are causing confusion and dissatisfaction among buyers. When CommuniGate Systems conducted a survey of CIOs and CTOs at enterprises and carriers, the findings revealed that 60% believe it is difficult to evaluate the true costs of VoIP and that the returns on the investment are unknown. It seems many people have no idea what they are implementing and are often taken by surprise when the hidden costs of a VoIP deployment offset the potential savings or revenues. This is clearly unacceptable in a world where accounting for IT spending is of utmost importance and where IT budgets are slashed routinely.

It is the intention of this article to bring some clarity by helping organizations planning a VoIP implementation to navigate their way through the most common hidden costs and pitfalls of VoIP.

Pitfall #1: What’s on your feature ‘wish list’?

What do you really want? Quality? Wideband? Secure access from everywhere? Do you lease a line and have QoS to your gateway? If it’s only to call a friend in Jerusalem a couple times a month, get one of those providers that are all over the ads and doing IPOs these days. If you want business-class telephony, add that to the top of your requirements list, as it will affect all of your decisions, in terms of purchasing and configuration of the architecture. In fact, you might think to outsource it all, because design of a strong and high-quality VoIP infrastructure is not a simple matter.

Many of the features VoIP promises, such as voice mail integrated into email and conferencing, are not included with standard VoIP systems. Many small business offerings don’t even provide voice mail as part of the standard cost.




The most productive features of VoIP are the “touch points” to all forms of IP-based communications, where voice and video touch scheduling, email, and IM. Imagine a system that calls you for conferences instead of relying on PIN codes and calendar reminders. Imagine being in a hotel and arranging a wake-up call by sending a text message to the server with a time and address to call.

To avoid pitfall number one, consider exactly which of these unified communications or messaging features your business, or your customers, need. Look closely at what your vendor means by unified messaging, then factor in any additional costs for features not included.

Pitfall #2: The true cost of security

Security is a must with VoIP implementations and it’s often not included as part of an installation, since VoIP system providers tend not to be in the security business. It should be included, though — security can add an extra 40% to the total cost, just in session border controllers for NAT traversal and flow control, as well as securing the media channel. The other major “gotcha” is that many of the systems being designed today are offerings from legacy telephony vendors that have little expertise with DDoS or other techniques, which can cripple systems exposed to the Internet.

Pitfall #3: Ensuring your VoIP implementation

Hardware for backup or failover is also required, but shouldn’t result in doubling of hardware costs. Hardware needs to be deployed intelligently, so it’s as cost-effective as possible. Voice communications need to retain tone quality and only carrier-grade solutions offer this. Products also need to be specifically designed for clustering or redundancy.

Be sure that the system designed for your VoIP deployment has capabilities for SIP load balancing and that you can add or remove hardware or update software without taking the entire system offline.

Pitfall #4: Keep an eye on the big ‘I’s’: Implementation and Integration

Naturally, speed of implementation is important, and it doesn’t have to be a lengthy process. A good-sized VoIP system can be deployed in as little as a week, providing appropriate evaluation is done in advance. Inquire about and ensure that contingency plans are in place for bad migrations.

Consider how the solution integrates with other external systems. Does it have open, standards-based APIs? Are there any development tools or capabilities to customize the product to suit your needs? Don’t get trapped into a closed system or one that requires the vendor to charge $400 an hour to add an extension or greeting to your IP PBX.

Pitfall #5: The domino effect

It’s also important to consider how other systems will be affected by the VoIP implementation. Will your legacy systems need upgrading or replacing? More significantly, can cost efficiencies be gained by integrating the new voice system with the existing collaboration or messaging platform — combining the three functions into one communications platform?

Pitfall #6: Underestimating scalability requirements

Insufficient scalability can drive up costs of hardware, power, and IT real estate to unexpected heights as organizations roll out VoIP to larger numbers of workers. Many VoIP systems have not yet been proven in large-scale deployments, and some initial implementations have required 80% more servers than a data network supporting the same user base. The key to smart business growth is to add system and storage resources in conjunction with revenue growth and user demands.

Conclusion

Many of these considerations are routine for any technology evaluation. But the fact is, with different vendors focusing on different parts of the whole VoIP picture — and with little incentive for them to coordinate efforts — it is exceptionally tricky for organizations to build a true assessment of the real cost of VoIP and, consequently, for them to truly appreciate the potential savings or revenues.

By asking the right questions of vendors and learning about the real benefits of productivity in VoIP application servers, CIOs should be able to cut through the confusion and root out any nasty surprises before it’s too late.

Fortunately, VoIP is starting to get a makeover and we can expect more focus on reliable, secure, business-class VoIP in the months ahead. Internet-based VoIP will replace the current telephony business model — and organizations will have the metrics to deploy VoIP successfully. It won’t be long before we catch up with, or overtake, European standards. Building a globally distributed VoIP network using standards is possible. I just wish that we had the DSL they have in France right now, so we could receive voice and video calls through our TVs or stream multi-party video to every room in the house.

Jon R. Doyle is Vice President of Business Development at CommuniGate Systems. (news - alert) For more information, please visit the company online at http://www.communigate.com.

 

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