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Doing Key System Behavior Better Than Key Systems

By Steve Timmerman


Many branch offices and small businesses are clinging to their trusty key systems, and no wonder: IP-based key system solutions are perceived as awkward, overpriced compromises that fail to exploit the power of the new technology or retain the full and familiar functionality of the old one. This is ironic, because a properly architected IP telephony system can deliver better key system behavior than traditional key systems themselves, plus a whole lot more.

Traditional key systems have been a mainstay of business voice platforms for decades, providing a cost-effective and reliable turnkey solution for small companies and branch offices. They are simple and straightforward, offering a focused subset of telephony features and functions without all the complexity of an enterprise voice switch loaded with features and functions that smaller locations and companies dont need or want.

At issue is whether key systems can accommodate the rising expectations of business users. Increasingly, even small outfits want voice systems that support unified messaging, desktop call control, contact center functionality, workgroup collaboration, hoteling, teleworking, and mobility.

And enterprises with multiple small locations dont want as many standalone phone systems to manage as they have sites. Even individually, key systems are inflexible and difficult to program, often requiring cryptic coding through the telephone key pad, or needing outsourced management altogether.

IP telephony offers the opportunity to eliminate these shortcomings, mimicking key system functionality while supporting advanced applications, provisioning a single feature set across all locations, and offering remote GUI-based management. In practice, many VoIP platforms have a centralized architecture that makes dial tone dependent on central servers and strips them of their standalone reliability. In some cases, dial tone is dependent on software and hardware such that, when the central servers or WAN links go down, the remote sites lose most or all of their voice capabilities unless very expensive 1:1 redundancy has been implemented throughout the infrastructure.

IP-based key system solutions can be limited by the lack of specialized key system phones. Users are expected to move from their familiar key system devices to IP phones originally designed for more general purposes enterprise users. Some users may find this confusing.

Instead, consider the level of key system functionality that can be delivered by a fully distributed IP telephony architecture. While there is a single system image for the entire enterprise, full call control capabilities are embedded in the switches at each site. Remote offices can go on offering full key system functionality even after being cut off from the WAN or the corporate data center.

In short, you get IP telephonys ease of administration and management without sacrificing key system autonomy and reliability. You also get unlimited scalability, with no need to deploy and support different platforms in small, medium, and large offices. Imagine the possibilities when key system behavior can be enhanced by all manner of advanced applications and is supported by state-of-the-art IP key system phones, which retain the simplicity of traditional key system phones.

One of the main benefits is the ability to set up bridged call appearances, creating virtual line appearances for inbound calls. This feature enables very fast call handling among users in environments requiring shared call answering. It also works across multiple sites so the employees in the answering pool dont have to be at one location.

Specialized IP key system phones with lots of buttons can offer the best of both worlds, providing one-touch access to hard-wired and programmable features. These include traditional telephony functions such as transfer, hold, conference, intercom, redial, voice mail, and more advanced features such as directory access and group and whisper paging.

In fact, pretty much any feature that can be added to an IP telephony system can be accessed from a button on the IP key system phone. If more buttons are needed for more functions, just daisy-chain some IP button boxes to the phone. More than 100 buttons can be configured in a single key system solution this way. And all the buttons can be self-labeling, making inefficient paper labels a thing of the past.

IP telephony can enable new and better ways of doing business, but it doesnt have to force compromises on business users as they relinquish their key systems. Done right, IP telephony can be anything you want it to be, and deliver a full complement of key system features and functionality. When the IP telephony architecture is fully distributed, a single VoIP system can scale from 10 to 10,000 users across hundreds of locations and include a rich set of key system behavior wherever it is needed. IT

Steve Timmerman is a board member of the Enterprise Communications Association ( (news - alerts) as well as the vice president of ShoreTel, Inc. For more information, please visit the company online at (news - alerts).

If you are interested in purchasing reprints of this article (in either print or PDF format), please visit Reprint Management Services online at or contact a representative via e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 800-290-5460.

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