Contrary to what some vendors in the IP telephony arena would have you believe, not all IP PBXs are alike. And the fundamental reason they arent comes down to software versus hardware. On the software side, vendors who targeted the IP market early on started with IP telephony as a core base, and followed the applications and open standards path that IP communications were intended for. Most major proprietary telecom vendors, however, tried to launch their IP strategies from the same rigid hardware architectures theyve been recycling for years and for the most part are still fighting an uphill battle.
While the hardware strategies from proprietary vendors havent been entirely fruitless, they havent exactly reached the level of functionality for IP telephony that software has. Nor will they. Hardware simply doesnt offer the IP flexibility that open standards software does, and in fact often requires bolting on additional servers to fit a proprietary IP PBX into a voice over IP network. So its somewhat surprising that the proprietary folks claim their IP offerings are just as functional and easy to implement as the ones from the innovators offering software and standards-based solutions. You should therefore look under the hood to determine exactly what youre getting beyond dial tone and any claim that says Of course its IP-enabled.
Here are some critical issues to consider in choosing your organizations IP PBX solution, as well as the vendor you get it from.
Migrating to IP telephony over time. In an ideal technology world, implementing an IP infrastructure works best if its a straight-up installation enterprise-wide. Lets say thats the right way yet not always realistic since most organizations that already have TDM-based PBX phone systems cant afford to just take them out of commission and start from scratch: Cost-wise, or downtime-wise.
The best approach to migrating to IP telephony over time, then, is to develop a migration plan that blends existing traditional TDM resources and IP to get started. Scheduling your migration in phases for various departments, workgroups, etc. also lets IT teams work out issues on a small scale and set a better stage for extending voice over IP across an entire organization. Which brings us to a wrong way and right way for IP PBX vendors.
Its imperative to work with a vendor whose IP telephony offering allows you to install a new IP PBX on traditional telephony interfaces and ultimately migrate to VoIP with no forklift upgrades. Moreover, a vendor should offer VoIP for the telephony interface using SIP for all incoming calls and stations, or using SIP only for stations still connected to the PSTN via traditional trunk interfaces. With SIP and potential forklift upgrades playing such crucial roles, the right way to go is with a vendor whose IP telephony solutions are open and application-driven, since the SIP standard itself is software-based and open. Conversely, while most proprietary vendors advertise open solutions for VoIP, theyre still trying to adopt SIP to their traditional hardware products to leverage IP networks.
Open standards, or the same old proprietary approach? If a vendor is indeed trying to adopt SIP into a lineup of traditional hardware products, its safe to say theyre also taking a traditional proprietary approach to VoIP. That means such vendors will likely try to lock you in to using add-on hardware recycled for VoIP, and to costly end-user devices and soon-to-be-extinct PBX products. Which, again, is the wrong approach for IP communications.
Getting back to SIP as a prime example, standards-based IP PBX software is made for SIP, in that the SIP standard is software-based, open, and lightweight so it can support IP phones along with soft phones, analog phones, desktop PCs, and mobile devices. Yet because most proprietary vendors are still struggling to support the SIP standard in their hardware, they often try to compensate by saying SIP lacks sufficient interoperability for VoIP as an inherent flaw in the SIP standard. But the truth is, SIPs relative simplicity makes interoperability much easier than with older protocols such as ISDN that are infamous for system compatibility problems, which has driven IP technologies themselves to become primarily software-based since calls are directed to application servers on a data network the same way as e-mails, Web chats, and other media.
Applications, applications, applications. Along with real-time voice communications, SIP also provides the perfect blueprint for text messaging and application sharing. In conjunction, VoIP enables a business to use applications that share information between the data side and the telephony side using a common network and infrastructure. But if the applications arent developed and available, your business will definitely miss out on the potential of an IP PBX phone system and multimedia applications that go well beyond traditional voice mail and IVR.
In a wrong-way multimedia applications scenario, major proprietary vendors have had to acquire media applications such as fax servers, IVR systems and e-mail response management products from smaller vendors. Select an IP PBX from such a vendor and your business will often have to purchase all those proprietary hardware applications separately for IP-based multimedia capabilities. You also take the risk that your new multi-box systems wont pre-integrate to one another, let alone to your data systems leaving your business with no multimedia routing flexibility and much higher implementation costs.
With pre-integrated IP telephony application suites such as those from Interactive Intelligence and its Vonexus subsidiary, you can take the right approach to IP by replacing disjointed communications hardware with a single software-based application server on your network. Rather than proprietary third-party hardware, your business is able to handle all media types using one set of business rules integrated to your business systems. The depth of functionality in IP software also leads to less implementation for more features, like inbound multimedia ACD; voice response; pre-integrated screen pop; fax server; Web services; recording and quality monitoring; multi-site routing; and even outbound predictive dialing.
IP PBX system administration. Re-read that last sentence and consider that all those applications and their features are managed with a single administrative interface and IP network for voice as well as data communications. Simplified system administration is another way a software-based IP PBX does IP telephony the right way. And going one step further, the IP application suites from Interactive Intelligence and Vonexus take a Microsoft-centric approach to IP network management via SIP to streamline administration even more. On the other hand, proprietary hardware and third-party applications for IP telephony tend to cobble together administration processes, even with a voice and data network, since each hardware box often requires its own admin interface.
Co-existing with TDM systems located at other locations. As we said earlier about migrating to VoIP over time, finding a balance between an existing TDM-based PBX phone system and a new IP infrastructure is the key to early IP communications success. Its no different for an organization with branch offices.
Again, in order to marry a new IP PBX and existing TDM systems, especially in multiple locations, its important to choose a vendor whose IP offering can be installed on traditional telephony interfaces and migrated to VoIP later without forklift upgrades, no matter the location. Also remember the importance, and flexibility, of SIP. Vendors who take the right approach to their IP solution allow distributed organizations to use SIP for offices where stations are still connected to the PSTN via traditional trunk interfaces, and still extend VoIP to the telephony interface for incoming calls and new IP stations in offices that make the move to IP first.
An IP PBX equipped to leverage SIP also makes it easier to bring branch offices together over a SIP-enabled LAN or WAN and in a single administrative interface whether offices are using IP or TDM systems. Or, you can always take your chances with proprietary IP systems that attempt to bring multi-site offices together with third-party applications, separate administration interfaces, and a converged voice and data network that most times isnt converged at all.
VoIP for more than just cost savings. IP PBX solutions for VoIP can certainly lead to cost savings such as lower long-distance costs via toll bypass and reduced maintenance expenses over traditional PBX equipment. However, there are other tangible benefits to consider in making a business case for VoIP; for instance, its ability to make a mobile workforce more responsive from wherever they are. Many IP application suites offer features such as real-time presence management, Find-Me/Follow-Me, Web-based voice mail access and other availability tools. Also unlike proprietary hardware, IP telephony makes it easier to add functionality by simply adding applications, and also to customize and automate interaction processes for customers. In short, user and system capabilities that simply werent available before IP communications came along.
Consider the right factors, not the wrong vendors. If a new IP PBX and voice over IP is on your businesss radar, one essential factor can make your decision a right one or a wrong one: choosing flexible standards-based IP application suites from a true IP PBX vendor, or boxes of rigid hardware that some proprietary supplier is trying to convince you is open and equipped for VoIP. Because IP telephony and the SIP standard take a decidedly software-oriented approach and because most proprietary vendors are still trying to adopt SIP to their traditional hardware for IP deciding on the right vendor should be easy. Just look for one that combines the multimedia IP software innovation with the experience of being an IP industry leader to bring the least risk and best value to your business.
Joseph A. Staples is Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing for Interactive Intelligence, Inc., and the companys wholly-owned subsidiary, Vonexus, Inc.
As a global developer of software for contact centers and the enterprise since 1994, Interactive Intelligence integrated out-of-the-box IP functionality into its lineup of business communications software solutions in 2002, and along with Vonexus is a leading industry innovator in the IP telephony, VoIP, and SIP movement. For more on their suite of IP telephony, contact center, and enterprise solutions, contact Interactive Intelligence at 317.872.3000 (www.inin.com) and Vonexus at 888-817-5904 (www.vonexus.com).