Monday, July 26, 2010

Is a business VoIP platform the answer?

VoIP can be a great tool for the right business.  But VoIP is not the answer for all businesses; a relevant business driver is required.  Careful consideration of the need, benefits and drawbacks should be made before moving to a VoIP platform. 

What is VoIP? 
The two types of business VoIP communications discussed here are hosted-based (with network QoS) and premise-based.

  • Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) communications converts a telephone call (an analog signal) to a digital signal made up of IP data packets.  Using packets of data allows for robust calling applications and has the ability to avoid inefficient and expensive legacy telephone networks.
  • One of the goals of VoIP is to have the voice signal on the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) as little as possible because the cost of using physical legacy wires is high.  If the call’s final destination is on the PSTN, then the call is converted to an analog signal and travels the last mile like any other call.
  • Hosted VoIP services with network-based Quality of Service (QoS) use no traditional telephone lines and typically utilize a single internet connection for both voice and data traffic.  The “brains” of the phone system reside at the provider’s location and not the customer premise.  The provider typically houses the VoIP softwitch in an environmentally controlled secure data center with multiple power and internet feeds.  The customer’s location must have VoIP enabled telephone handsets, adaptors and routers with QoS and typically switches that are VLAN capable.  Essentially, the telephone system is “outsourced” to a professional 3rd party vendor. 
  • Premise-based VoIP communications require some special telephone equipment on-premises.  Although existing traditional TDM telephones may be used with adapters or software upgrades,      many features simply will not work well with this type of hybrid.  Typically SIP trunking (Session Initiation Protocol) is used to transport calls.  SIP trunking makes a logical connection from one point to another through the internet or private voice IP backbone, making it possible to treat voice communications as just another data application. 
 Why consider VoIP for business?
  • Is the existing phone system near end-of-life?  As a phone system approaches obsolescence it requires more maintenance, software patches, and investment.  It might not make economic sense to continue pouring money and resources into a system that ultimately can not be supported.   Additional costs will also be incurred if the business plans to change locations.  While additional costs are the main consideration in supporting an obsolete phone system perhaps the greatest hidden cost is the risk of a phone system failure.  How much does it cost a business if its customers, suppliers and employees can not communicate effectively for days or weeks?
  • Does the business operate multiple locations or have remote workers?  Traditional telephone systems simply do not provide advanced calling features for effectively manage these conditions.  This results in having to manage and maintain multiple phones systems, decentralized “main” operators and slower communications between key people.
  • Does the business lack the technical resources to manage, upgrade and maintain a traditional phone system?  While larger businesses usually have in-house technical expertise to manage traditional phones systems is that the best use of their time?  Smaller businesses typically do not have this technical expertise, thus they rely on expensive maintenance agreements from 3rd party vendors.  These businesses will experience interruptions with time delays in repairs, upgrades and “move-adds-and-changes”.
  • Does the business have a remote or mobile workforce?  Traditional phone systems simply do not offer a noncomplex solution for integrating these types of off-premise workers.  Hosted VoIP solutions are highly accessible by remote workers.  Workers will enjoys all the benefits of sitting on premise such as 4-digit dialing, shared reception and auto-attendant even out-pulsing the on-premise DID phone number. 
Benefits of VoIP for business
  • One provider – By integrating voice/data lines as well as multiple locations makes billing simpler.
  • Business continuity – VoIP can provide excellent business continuity compared to traditional phones systems.
      • Premise based have analog ports that allow POTs lines to failover in the event of a data outage.
      • Hosted VoIP is outsourced off-premise
    • Lower TCO (Total Cost of Ownership)
        • Maintenance and upgrades – no technical staff is required and software upgrades are automatic
        • Remote monitoring
        • Collapse voice and data networks/services results in more efficient use, and lower cost of these services.
        • Lower CapX with a hosted solution.
      • Increase productivity
          • Many advanced calling features.           
          • Remote workers and offices can all use the same system.
          • Outlook and CRM integration.
        • Flexible, Scalable
            • Move, adds and changes are simpler, faster and require little technical expertise.
            • Call routing easily changed for a changing workforce.
            • Add new users with little or no technical expertise.
        Drawback of VoIP
        ·        There are some problems that occur with internet based systems that just don’t happen with traditional telephone services.  If a simple internet connection is used, inevitably packet loss, latency, jitter dropped calls and generally poor voice quality can interrupt telephone calls.  Some providers overcome this technical challenge by routing call around the internet with private voice IP backbones.  Premise based VoIP systems overcome this by providing additional analog ports for back-up POTs lines.
        ·        Since VoIP services typically consolidate voice and data networks, a greater need for bandwidth exists.  More bandwidth is needed in order to have high quality voice services.  This will take away bandwidth from other data applications.  Greater attention needs to be given to properly sizing bandwidth requirements for both voice and data applications.
        ·        Training will be required for users and operators of advanced calling features.

        As can be seen, many considerations need to be made when making a decision to move to a business VoIP platform.  While “VoIP” might be considered the next great “killer” application, a business driver is really required to make such a move.  

        Wednesday, June 2, 2010

        Voice Services in a Business Continuity Plan - Part 2

        The previous article introduced the importance of business continuity planning and discussed some of the strategies around ‘network’ diversity.  This article will focus on some of the voice services and features that telecommunication providers offer that should be considered in any business continuity plan.
        In today’s economic climate it is more important than ever for businesses to provide responsive communications to their customers and suppliers.  Businesses use many types of communication including; emails, micro blogs, newsletters, call centers and yes, the telephone.  Sometimes it may seem that the traditional telephone conversation is losing ground to other high-tech communication tools.  However, short of a face-to-face conversation nothing beats the telephone in conveying important and timely information.  Nothing will turn off a customer or supplier faster that the inability to reach someone by phone.  Telecommunication providers offer services and features that help to ensure voice communications even in the event of an interruption.
        Interruption scenario:  A tree falls down on the telephone lines and knocks-out dial-tone to a business.  Inbound callers would get a fast-busy sound and outbound callers get no dial-tone.  Inbound callers will not be able to leave a voicemail message, as the voicemail is built into the phone system.  What image does the inbound caller now have of the business?  This is not just an inconvenience; this interruption has the potential to cause the business to miss obligations or jeopardize relationships with customers, suppliers and employees.
        One strategy an SMB can utilize includes using a call routing feature called CFNA.  CFNA, “call forward no answer” is a feature on the carrier’s Class 5 switch.  It says that if the caller’s destination gets “no answer” (after x rings), the call is then forwarded to a predetermined number.  This could be a cell phone or other office location.  Obviously this is configured with a predetermined number prior to any event. 
        Another SMB option using call routing would be to use it with the carrier’s voicemail platform.  Remember when the phone lines get knocked out, or when the phone system loses power, the traditional on-premise voice mail system will not work.  Inbound callers will not be able to leave a voicemail message.  However, the carrier could set up separate (hosted) voicemail box and CFNA after x +1 rings of the on-premise voicemail system.  So, if the on premise phone system’s voicemail normally picks up after 3 rings then the carrier’s voicemail could pick up after 4 or 5 rings.  Careful attention needs to be given when setting up call routing and hunt groups when employing this strategy.
        Larger businesses would not use the above features.  They typically do not use POTs lines for the majority of their voice services but instead use PRIs or SIP trunking.  Many carriers offer a solution for PRIs that is very similar to CFNA.  Although it goes by many names (inbound redirect, failsafe, etc.) it is classified as an advanced call routing feature.  It works the same as in the above example; however, it will “forward” all calls in the PRI trunk and not just the one phone number.  Again, careful attention needs to be given when setting up call routing and trunk overflow when employing this strategy.
        The one thing that a business could do to virtually eliminate the risk of an on-premise voice outage would be to take the phone system off-site.  A phone system, and other critical systems, could be colocated in a climate controlled, secure datacenter or “outsourced” completely with a hosted PBX/VoIP service.  Many carriers today offer a hosted PBX/VoIP solution.  Essentially the telephone system, software, voicemail, maintenance, upgrades and calling features reside in the telecom carrier’s cloud.  In the scenario above, inbound callers would seamlessly and automatically be connected to alternate offices or auto attendants, cell phones or home offices.  Worst case, the inbound callers would still be able to leave a voicemail message.  This topic deserves attention in future articles.
        None of the strategies above address outbound calling.  Unfortunately, if the phone lines are cut then these lines simply can not be used.  Cell phones are your best option. 
        In summary, voice is still a critical form of business communications.  Consideration and back-up plans for voice communications should be in place well in advance of a voice outage.  Some of these plans could include advanced carrier services and features along with and a little bit of forethought. 
        Please add your business continuity tips on maintaining voice services using the comments button below.

        Monday, May 3, 2010

        Network Diversity Strategies in a Business Continuity Plan - Part 1

        Telecommunication carriers have specific solutions that can be part of any business continuity plan. Future articles will address these types of solutions. This article will focus on some fundamentals of mitigating connectivity risk using diversity. The main principal of diversity is to have a variety of different elements in a system that can accomplish the same task.
        Today more than ever, companies need to insure that their operations are not disrupted. Extended disruptions jeopardize the health of the business and customer loyalty. It seems clear, the longer a business experiences interruptions the more likely it will lose customers and not recover. A business continuity plan uncovers vulnerabilities and address's ways to minimize the impacts of those vulnerabilities. A qualified business continuity professional can assist with such a plan. In addition to a Business Impact Analysis, other IT assessments could include: Remote Vulnerability, Data and Storage Protection.  
        Today, carrier networks are designed to be resilient. At the core of a carrier's network are redundant and diverse connectivity paths, building entrances, meshed network topology, and back-up CPE along with mirrored data centers. Business customers can employ some of these same strategies.
        Carrier diversity would include an alternate carrier circuit. Load balancing with CPE on the business premises or with BGP allows the network to share two different carrier connections. If one carrier goes down the second would provide  uninterrupted connectivity. Carrier diversity mitigates the risk of a carrier experiencing an interruption, typically at a core router. But what if both carriers have their cable along the same path and they are both cut? Access diversity addresses this risk.
        Access diversity includes a different type or location of access. This might mean having alternate circuits enter from the other side of the building. This is only diverse to the point where the two circuits merge into the same conduit. Alternate access could also include a different type of access such as cable or wireless. Cable providers especially have a completely separate network from the embedded telco infrastructure, bypassing even the telco’s central office. This mitigates the risk of a “the last mile” cut. Again, employing a load balancing strategy helps ensure on-going connectivity in the event of a line-cut.
        Carrier back-bones are typically built on MPLS platforms which provides resilience to the network. Unlike a hub and spoke architecture, MPLS is considered a “meshed network topology”. Any and all locations are connected to each and all. So, if one location “goes down” the other locations are still connected and unaffected. MPLS services are not just available to carriers. Many multi-location enterprises utilize this architecture today.
        If the Business Impact Analysis determines that the business can not afford to be disrupted for even a small amount of time then it would be wise to consider collocating critical systems and applications into a data center. Data centers mitigate the physical risks associated with having the core technology functions reside on the business premises. Risks mitigated are fire, flood, wind damage, power outage, fiber cuts and telephone pole destruction. Data centers have battery back-up, diesel generators, environmental controls, and multiple power and carrier connections. In short, your physical business location could be on fire and all of your critical information and systems are still up and running in the data center. Data center collocation is almost a requirement if your network needs to always be available.
        A common strategy might be to maintain a duplicate inventory of equipment. Having duplicate CPE implies that the business has the technical resources to make a speedy replacement at any hour. In almost all cases this strategy is not cost effective or efficient. As we have discussed above, much more than just hardware needs to be considered in business continuity planning.
        Probably, the most expensive and risky strategy is to do nothing. Incorporating some diversity strategies in a telecommunication infrastructure can go a long way in avoiding an extended business interruption.

        Please add your business continuity tips on diversity below using comments.

        Thursday, March 25, 2010

        Strategies to Maximize Voice and Data Services.

        I can't tell you how many times I have met with an SMB to find out that they do not know all of their billed telecom services. This article will examine some simple strategies to get the most out of your voice and data services.
        1) Perform a Telecommunications audit
        Along with payroll, telecommunications services account for one of the largest operating expenses within corporate America. You wouldn't let an employee collect a paycheck for doing absolutely nothing would you? So why would you risk spending money on the expense of telecommunication services that you don't use?

        An audit can have significant financial benefits. It can identify unused services, callout billing errors, and verify that your provider is in compliance with your contract. It can also provide recommendations for equipment and service upgrades that will promote ongoing efficiencies. An audit can save you money and result in big refunds.
        2) Perform an Internal bill review
        It is important to periodically check your bills. Very often bills contain errors, resulting in severe overcharges. A bill review can help you stay on top of: regulated billing changes, variations in your expenses (which could signal a billing error), misuse of the service by employees, or even fraud. Plus, you'll stay familiar with exactly what services you have, how they have been used, and how much you typically spend. It's a great way to avoid long-missed errors. Consider eliminating services like "line-backer".
        3) Understand the contract terms
        You can't predict what your communications needs will be three years from now. So why sign a contract that restricts you to the exact service and rates with which you started? Avoid being locked into long-term commitments with expensive termination charges. Be sure your phone company contract has the flexibility to grow and change with you.
        Also, review any "auto-renewal" clauses to insure that you are not locked into an "old" contract and terms. Many carriers have these clauses and if you do not give proper notice then you will be unable to shop around for a better deal.
        4) Watch out for short-term introductory rates or conflicting contract addendum's.
        Great offers make switching service enticing. So always ask "what's the catch?" You'll often find that buried within your agreement, lurks the potential for major rate increases or contract termination charges. To truly develop a successful, cost-effective, long-term telecommunications plan, companies offering instant monetary rewards are not usually the best choice. Instead, look for a provider that offers fair rates, improved service, and flexible terms. Also beware of contract addendum’s that contradict the master agreement. If the carrier can only offer an addendum instead of changing the original contract, beware. This can be an "unauthorized" offer by a local sales office and not sanctioned by the carrier.
        5) Look for a Solutions Provider
        Never switch your telecommunications services as-is. Instead, a prospective provider should always evaluate your service to ensure your communications needs are being met. Be sure to consider bids from a provider that intends to offer you a flexible solution. A knowledgeable salesperson should suggest ways to improve your communications plan and accommodate the ever-changing business atmosphere. It’s easy to focus on saving money. But, focusing on improving the functionality of your communications can actually have better long-term results for your bottom line.

        Tuesday, March 23, 2010

        It is time to blog telecom!

        Well, I have put it off too long. It is time to blog. I thought it would be interesting to explore strategies for the telecommunications manager. The focus will be on carrier solutions.

        Join me in these discussions.