Ready For VoIP? Think and Think Again

FEATURE: Sure, switching to lower-cost voice over IP sounds good. But there are pitfalls to look out for as you expand your IP network. VoIP Testers Prepare for Upgrades

Over the past year, carriers and network equipment makers have stepped-up efforts to stump for switching from traditional phone service to Voice over Internet Protocol offerings.

The campaign appears to be working.

According to new research from the Yankee Group, 54 percent of enterprises surveyed said they are testing or evaluating VoIP for their business. But that doesn't mean making the jump is all that simple, or easy.

Network managers must take a number of precautions during and after VoIP deployments, experts warn. Overlooking just one detail could cripple the performance of voice or data applications. The advice comes down to that well-worn but true phrase: fail to plan, plan to fail.

Should I Stay or Should I Go (With VoIP)?

Following the dot-com implosion, CFOs have as much say as CIOs when it comes to new technology investments, said Jeffrey Hicks, a principal software engineer at NetIQ and co-author of the book "Taking Charge of Your VoIP Project."

"You have to look at the benefits VOIP has to offer and what kind of (return-on-investment) you'll get," he said. "That's become more and more important."

Companies may slash long-distance bills as calls bypass some of the traditional phone networks. (Some estimates run as high as 40 percent, but the number is probably closer to 25 percent, experts said.) And managing a single network can be simpler and less expensive, since you are dealing with fewer service providers.

In addition to trimming monthly expenses, new VoIP features and applications, like follow-me messaging and video chat and conferencing, can boost workers' productivity. New applications that capitalize on closer ties between voice and data can make businesses more efficient.

"(VoIP) opens new ways of communication," said Pierre-Paul Allard, vice president of enterprise marketing for Cisco . "For example, banks can use it reduce the amount of time it takes to open an account or apply for a mortgage using voice and data interaction. It can be used for (customer relationship management)."

Uncertainty about return on investment remains the biggest impediment to enterprise VoIP adoption, according to the Yankee survey. High equipment costs and uncertain voice quality rounded out the top three reasons.

Besides ROI, there are other factors that might affect the timing and scope of a VoIP deployment. Hicks suggests looking at the company's structure and contracts.

"Is the company opening a new office building? Planning a data network upgrade? Are PBX leases or service contracts coming up soon?" he asks. These might be opportunities to phase-in VoIP for a test.

Bryan Van Dussen, a Yankee Group analyst, said companies should audit their call logs. This would provide an estimate of possible savings as well as help determine how much network capacity is needed for a VoIP deployment.

Oftentimes a company will need more bandwidth so activities such as videoconferencing won't knock off voice calls, he said.

Full Bandwidth Ahead

Once a VoIP project is approved, a full review of network systems, including routers, computing power, memory and wide area network links is crucial. If devices are already maxing out their available bandwidth, adding more traffic (voice packets) will only cause more problems, Hicks said.

Without knowing the impact of VoIP traffic, users risk impeding other important applications, such as e-mail delivery and Web site downloads, as well as database queries.

Above all, call quality is paramount. That's why testing should simulate the greatest possible stress on a system, such as 9 a.m. on a Monday morning when workers are getting on the phones and the Internet.

"When you're adding voice traffic to the network, you want to measure call quality in advance," Hicks said. "Voice traffic and data traffic have different requirements. VoIP has real time requirements -- if you lose a packet it's lost."

VoIP has a lot to live up to in the reliability department. The ironclad expectation that users will pick up the phone handset and get a dial-tone is the result of a century of technological standardization, investment and innovation.

"The adoption of VoIP depends on whether it looks, feels and acts like its predecessor -- it must be consistent and always available," Van Dussen added, rather than beset by delays and background noise.

A number of firms, including Empirix, Inet Technologies , NetIQ and Spirent Communications , provide testing, either directly, or through network operators and telecom equipment vendors.

In the last year, many vendors unveiled new product bundles specifically designed for VoIP deployments. The Yankee Group predicts these firms could see their revenues increase 10 percent annually over the next three to five years.

One area that's often overlooked in deployments is workforce training. VoIP deployments may include new IP phones, new Web-based interfaces and features. To realize the full benefit of the new technology, the people who use it have to be comfortable with it.

Who's Watching The Phones?

Finally, enterprises moving to deploy VoIP have to decide whether to do deploy and manage it themselves or outsource the project and later management.

The choice depends on how skilled the company's IT staff is on networking issues. Furthermore, if there are tight deadlines, an outsourcer may be the way to go.

Once VoIP is up and running, companies must also address management issues. Large telecom specialist, including AT&T , Equant and Global Crossing, are only too happy to help. Although these companies, as well as regional phone companies like Verizon and Qwest , are still developing their managed offerings.

They will manage equipment and software, either on-site or through hosting as well as provide VoIP virtual private networks, for secure service.

Yankee's Van Dussen said it's important to be sure that, whatever outsourcer is chosen, staffs have network management experience and can deal with interoperability issues between VoIP and legacy networks. That's especially true when trouble-shooting the source of any trouble on the network.

"Interoperability becomes one of those things that represent a hurdle for the industry because the network manager cannot afford to have dial-tone disappear," Van Dussen said. "If you lose e-mail, that's something you have to live with. But if you lose dial-tone, the world comes down around you."

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