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VoIP feature selection

For systems integrators and value-added resellers (VARs), helping a customer select features for their new VoIP system can be a difficult task. This tip offers a method of categorizing features dependent on the needs of each specific customer, from call waiting to security to mobility.

Helping your customer choose which VoIP features to deploy can be a complicated exercise, but this tip will help you sort features and make good choices for your customers. One reason why choosing VoIP features can be so complicated is because there are so many new features available. In addition, most VoIP systems are missing many features that were popular in traditional private branch exchanges (PBXs). This is no surprise as it's inherently easier to do some things on IP systems and more difficult to do others because of the nature of the systems. For instance, call recording was easy on traditional PBXs because everything you say actually goes through a central location. In a typical VoIP deployment, your conversation goes directly between the phones, so there's no convenient central location for a recorder. For these reasons, it makes sense to consider which features are most important to your customer before you decide which system to purchase.

In addition, because most features are included for free with the base VoIP system, your customer will likely want to implement all available features. However, many of the features included in base systems require significant additional labor to configure. Thinking in advance about which features your customer needs and wants will ensure that you can efficiently manage both your customer's expectations and your own time, and will provide you with an effective starting point for defining the scope of your engagement.

One way to approach this task systematically is to organize the features into categories. These categories might include the following:


  • Calling

  • Call waiting, forwarding, 3-way calling, multiple and shared line appearances, caller ID, speed dial, and distinctive rings.


  • Messaging

  • Voice mail and features that integrate it with email and the Internet.


  • Management

  • Features that enhance your ability to configure and manage a large number of phones, and provide reporting, SLA management, Call Detail Records, capacity management and trending.


  • Computer integration

  • Features that integrate contact lists, CRM software, PDAs, screen pops and CTI.


  • Security

  • Features that implement business policies, like restricting long distance or overseas calls or call times, or provide authentication, encryption and log analysis.


  • Call center

  • Features that facilitate and automate inbound callers based on business rules, including IVR/VRU, ACD, queue management and intelligent call routing.


  • Mobility

  • Features that untether you from land lines, such as 802.11 wireless and cellular integration.

    Of course, this list is not comprehensive, but you might try compiling your customer's list of features based on offerings from the vendors you are considering, then systematically evaluating the customer's requirements and matching them to the features you have compiled.

    Occasionally, the complete list of features your customer needs will come from a combination of several different products. For instance, it may be best to purchase a management software package separately in order to get the service level agreement (SLA) reporting features your customer requires. Because of this possibility, it makes sense to consider the compatibility of various products before advising your customer on feature selection. Though your customer might not be directly concerned with issues surrounding integration, it is important to remember that combining some products may be much more challenging than combining others. For example, some products use standards-based protocols, while others use proprietary protocols, and attempting to integrate the two can be impossible, or at the very least, time consuming.

    One more consideration to take into account when choosing features is to make sure you understand the product's roadmap. In some cases, the feature your customer needs may be available in the next version, but just as often, the product may be going in a different direction and features available today may not be supported in the future. If you take the time to do thorough research and account for future planning, you'll almost always find that your efforts pay off.

    About the author
    Tom Lancaster, CCIE# 8829 CNX# 1105, is a consultant with 15 years of experience in the networking industry. He is co-author of several books on networking, most recently,CCSP: Secure PIX and Secure VPN Study Guide, published by Sybex.

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