Want VoIP? Check your network

It's easy to set up VoIP on a customer's network if you follow these best practices. The first is to help your customer understand how they want to use VoIP, which then determines the type of VoIP services you'll provide.

With Henry Kaestner, CEO of Bandwidth.com.

Question: What does a business have to worry about in terms of its network preparedness before deploying VoIP?

Kaestner: There's no doubt that VoIP is not turnkey for every business. Lots of customer disasters come from not understanding a couple of key issues. All of which, when you understand them, seem easy. There is nothing complicated about getting a network set for VoIP. But there are some important steps that a business should consider.

Question: What is the key realization?

Kaestner: The first thing that a business needs to understand is what they would like the telecommunications system to do. That seems like such a statement of the obvious. One of the key attributes of VoIP is that it provides the functionality to be a better real estate firm or law firm or accounting firm or whatever. Features that VoIP brings to a business include presence, turning voice mail to e-mail, find me-follow me and other services. All these things can help a business do better. It also helps in making the decision of what kind of service to get. There are two different flavors, and putting yourself in a position to choose the right one is the most important step.

Question: What are they?

Kaestner: The two most important are SIP [Session Initiation Protocol] trunking and VoIP. SIP trunking came into popularity over the last nine to 12 months. Think of it as VoIP dialtone. It's VoIP that is plugged into the back of a PBX or a general phone system. In that instance, the business continues to get features from same phone system that they previously got. The real advantages are the cost savings. Rather than using a PRI [primary rate interface] or analog line, the business can operate much more cost-effectively and flexibly.

Question: Is it VoIP or a hybrid VoIP/time-division multiplexed (TDM) system?

Kaestner: It's still very much VoIP. It's a T1 connection to the Internet, pure IP. But it's less of a departure from what the business is used to. Businesses make the move to VoIP for two primary reasons: One is cost and the other one is features. Some businesses just want to save money, others, especially in professional services, want cool new features. The first step for business is to understand what it wants: SIP trunking or hosted services. In both, they save money. In hosted, they get features they did not have before.

Question: That's a business decision. Are there important networking issues?

Kaestner: You have to really understand that when you are using VoIP, you are transmitting over both the LAN and the WAN [local area and wide area network] environments. So you have to make sure that you don't have any hubs in the network. It's one thing to send an e-mail that arrives 20 milliseconds late. It's another thing when you are talking. It means latency and jitter. Just because the LAN supports e-mail and file transfer, that doesn't mean that it will support business-class VoIP.

Question: So what are key questions on making sure the network is robust enough?

Kaestner: The questions to ask: Do I have cat 5 cabling? Do I have hubs in the network? Those are the things to ask to make sure the network is ready. We took arrows in the back in 2004 when [we took clients] with hubs in the network or the cabling was bad. What we do with every customer is a managed network assessment in which we diagram their network. We see where the firewalls are and make sure ports aren't blocked. We want to make sure that there is modern cat 5 or 6 cabling and we want to make sure there aren't hubs, which you can think of as extensions in the network that degrade quality.

Question: Do you ever walk away from deals due to the fact that a network is so bad that these issues can't be remediated?

Kaestner: Rarely.

Question: Okay, what does make you walk away?

Kaestner: We will not provision VoIP over ADSL or cable modems because they are not synchronous connections. VoIP requires synchronous connections to the Internet and enough bandwidth. The throughput is only as great as the narrowest link. Most people have 100 Megabit per second Ethernet connections on their LANs. Typically, that's not the problem. The question is in the last mile. The narrowest connection at both ends is the last mile. Customers come to us and say, "We want VoIP, we want 10 trunks." If we find out they have ADSL or a cable connection, we won't provision it. While it works most of the time, they will experience latency and jitter in their connection.

Question: That's a problem, isn't it, because one of the big sales points of VoIP is that it saves money. Now you are telling prospects they have to spend more for connectivity. Doesn't that hurt the sales pitch?

Kaestner: Most of the time it's a big jump [in costs]. That's why we rarely sell to companies with less than five employees. Cost is the primary driver for a business to make the move to VoIP. If you start thinking about tripling or quadrupling the investment on Internet access for VoIP, you have to have five or six employees to recoup the investment.

Question: How is that dynamic playing out?

Kaestner: When we started selling VoIP three or four years ago, that magic number was around 10 employees. Now small businesses are doing so much business using Salesforce.com or WebEx [and other services] that they want to upgrade to a T1 anyway. It's not as much of a barrier to entry.

Question: What else is important to do at an early stage of the transition to VoIP?

Kaestner: We want to make sure they know how they do call flows. The best way to have a successful installation of VoIP is to be able to thoroughly map out calls. Customer calls go to the auto attendant. For example, if somebody presses one, the call goes to sales, whose desk phone rings. Having that properly mapped out is definitely key. Having stakeholders sign off on that is important. VoIP is great, it works, it saves companies money. In many cases, it brings features not available before. However, it is a change. Every change has to be properly managed. There must be the right type of planning, the right type of transitioning.

Question: Are organizations generally onboard?

Kaestner: The worst are the salespeople. Salespeople hate change. At the same time, it can be the greatest friend of salespeople because they can communicate with customers so much better, such as through find me-follow me, they can have voice mail become e-mail and so on. In general, it's understanding that it's a business decision that often leads to cost savings and sometimes new features. Between getting the right type of Internet access, checking the LAN, it's mostly non-technical. These are easy things.

This Executive Briefing originally appeared in a weekly report from IT Business Edge.

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