Skype, the popular Voice- and Video over IP company, is pushing its way deeper into the enterprise, not only as an easy-to-use unified communications (UC) tool but also as a cheaper way to route international calls.
"It's just a great all-around tool," said Zeus Kerravala, a senior vice president at Yankee Group Research. "The sound quality is outstanding, it's great for people who travel the world. I think it's a must-have tool for any corporate worker."
For years, Skype has been sneaking into businesses, often installed by savvy end users while IT departments turn a blind eye or passively discourage its use.
Businesses fear the tool could open wide security holes if left unmanaged. Employees could use it to bypass corporate restrictions on how files are shared and protected.
But now Skype is offering a level of in-house management that has not been previously available, allowing more and more companies to take it mainstream.
Digium Inc., creator and maintainer of the popular open source IP PBX Asterisk, recently announced Skype For Asterisk, a new beta module that ties Skype access directly into its PBX.
Companies can benefit by routing international calls, for example, through the Skype servers and paying a fraction of what they normally would per minute. However, the calls would still go through the Asterisk PBX's call routing, voicemail, and policy features.
Since the traditional public switched telephone network (PSTN) stays in place for the majority of domestic calls with this type of solution, the risk of trying Skype is minimized. Even if Skype suffers a service outage, users can still make international calls over the legacy.
"Their basic story is we can do this because, worse comes to worst, we can dial direct," said Tom Nolle, president of telecommunications consultancy CIMI. "There's no reservation costs for maintaining a backup if these experiments don't work."
The benefits also come in two distinct forms: One is the simple cost savings Skype offers. Call are free between users, and relatively inexpensive for both international and domestic calls.
"I've seen it primarily used as a cheap UC tool," Kerravala said. "It might be one of the most unified communications tools we have." The software includes chat, file transfer, video chat and voice dialing to both other Skype users as well as landlines.
But even without the Skype application installed on the desktop, vendors like Digium and VoSKY are letting companies tap into the low rates, routing all international calls on the Skype network rather than PSTN. The routing is done directly from the PBX, meaning a company's old phones and other infrastructure still work perfectly.
Companies that do try Skype trunking or the Skype application should educate employees on how to use it properly.
"I certainly think the policy to shut it down and not use it is wrong," Kerravala said. "But you want to do the training to get people to understand the risks."
Security has been a perennial issue for Skype, and while Kerravala said strides had been made, there are still concerns. For example, the Bavarian government was recently accused of tapping Skype calls through a third-party company.
"You have to understand what you're getting," Kerravala said. "It's a public tool; it's not meant to replace your corporate phone system."
More sensitive communications should probably go through more traditional or at least more secured channels.
Call quality is also a concern. While Skype has vastly improved its call clarity, the peer-to-peer nature of the network means bad calls happen occasionally.
Nolle said high-value calls, such as a sales pitch or support for an important customer, aren't worth the savings, no matter how cheap the calls get. Routine internal calls, however, would be perfectly suited to the savings Skype provides.
Finally, the management of Skype is critically important to how well it's deployed. Many of the latest enterprise Skype offerings, particularly those that "trunk" distance calls over Skype's network, exclude many of the more innovative, yet worrisome features, such as multimedia and file transfer.
Having a clear idea of what your corporate policy does and does not allow will help ensure you are making the right purchase.