Voice-over IP Part 2: Working cheaply with IP systems

13 Apr 2004

The use of internet protocol (IP) as a carrier mechanism for voice by telcos will have a major impact on what services they are able to offer and at what price. At the same time businesses are implementing IP telephony systems on their own local area networks (LAN) – either ripping out and replacing older PBX systems, installing IP in tandem with PBX, or using the new technology in green field sites. So what benefits are these organisations reaping from their use of IP?

The first benefit that most organisations see is that instead of having two infrastructures to manage and support for voice and data, they have one. Data networking specialists are generally widely available and the tools for managing data networks are widely understood. Physically, only one set of cabling is required.

“You’re utilising the investment in your business to the maximum,” says Barry Moylan, Sales and Marketing Director with AllNet. “If your data network is not being used to the maximum you should either cut it back or add another service like voice over IP.”

In terms of management, adds, moves and changes on a PBX system require you to call on the company who sold you the system or who is providing your maintenance contract. This will generally incur an hourly charge, in addition to the inconvenience of waiting for an engineer to visit your premises. With an IP-based system all such alterations can be managed centrally on the call processing server which is generally a Windows based system with a graphical user interface that can be easily understood by IT staff.

Users can use any phone within an organisation simply by logging in. When they do so, the phone identifies them to the network and their speed dials, voice mail and other settings are immediately available on that phone.

The actual IP handsets, which currently carry a price premium over normal handsets, generally have a large screen for displaying data and a certain amount of processing power – think of them as a basic PC. They also have a built in network switch which means they can be directly connected to the network and the PC then connected to the phone for network access. Most manufacturers also offer software based phones which run on a user’s PC. They can then attach a USB headset to make and receive calls.

“Everything that is an add-on with PBX system – voice mail, auto attendant features – comes as standard with IP telephony,” says Stefan Callery, Business Development Manager with 3Com.

The technical architecture of an IP telephony system also delivers cost savings for firms with multiple offices. According to Neil Wisdom, Sales Director of LAN Communications, in a multi-site situation the call processing is centralised through a server that is connected to the WAN. “Traditionally if you had ten offices, you’d have ten PABX systems and ten maintenance contracts. With IP telephony it’s a central system and you can manage all the adds, moves and changes from a console you access through your Web browser.” In addition, because calls between branch offices now run over the company’s private wide area network, there is no longer a toll from the telco for internal company calls.

However, most of the experts agree that doing a straight swap of IP for PBX will not deliver the real benefits to users. The real business benefits come from the applications that are available on a converged network. Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) which delivers applications like unified messaging and deeper integration with customer relationship management (CRM) software is possible with PBX systems but it is expensive and requires specialist skills to implement. For example, in a call centre situation the scripts necessary to implement an interactive voice response system – where callers are able to navigate through a series of options using speech – is very complex using PBX. With the newer IP systems the necessary scripts can be created by dragging and dropping diagrams on a network diagram and can be done from a PC screen by non-specialist staff.

Unified messaging – where all emails and voice mails can be handled through an email client such as Microsoft Outlook – is also easily implemented. Customer service can also be enhanced by enabling inbound calls to automatically pull a customer’s details out of a contacts database such as ACT or Goldmine.

Thanks to the use of the SIP standard and technologies like XML, applications are not vendor specific, although each of the major vendors is working hard to get third parties developing for their platform. According to Mike Galvin, Country Manager for Cisco, there are over 200 partners in Cisco’s AVIDD programme who are creating innovative applications for IP telephony systems. These range from simple time management tools to a security system that allows users to view a security camera on their phone’s screen.

There can also be hidden costs to moving to the new technology. Any weak links in your existing LAN infrastructure will be exposed – as Neil Wisdom puts it: “Your LAN is only as good as the lowest speed link on it”. Your network needs to be able to give priority to voice traffic, guarantee a quality of service and be resilient enough so that you won’t be left without a dial tone.

“Having no single point of failure is just good design practice,” says Darren Sullivan, Sales Director with PlanNet 21. “It benefits all parts of the network – people should be doing it regardless of whether they are implementing IP telephony.”

By John Collins