Telecoms and network technologies for SMEs: IP-based comms on the cusp of success

Converged IP-based data and telecoms networks could deliver great benefits for SMEs. Suppliers of IP-based solutions are making...

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Converged IP-based data and telecoms networks could deliver great benefits for SMEs. Suppliers of IP-based solutions are making great claims for what these networks can offer, especially in terms of cost savings. But what must SMEs do to reap these rewards and avoid potential pitfalls? Joe O’Halloran weighs up the issues.

 

Convergence, in the context of a combined data and voice infrastructure over IP networks, is a word that is in grave danger of being overused and over hyped. Yet the truth is an IP-based network that supports both voice and data applications can offer your business potentially vast cost savings, especially that of voice services.

 

As companies look at every way of cutting the costs of both computing and telecoms, running a voice service over the same infrastructure as your data service must seem like the crushingly obvious route to follow. IP-based voice services are considerably, and demonstrably, cheaper than those using a traditional Private Branch Exchange (PBX): you manage only one network, you have only one group of people to be the network managers, you invest in only one hardware solution and one switch box. With separate voice and data networks your business has to look at cost multiples of at least two in these areas.

 

Yet the hard truth is that the benefits of an IP-based infrastructure can only be achieved through adroit planning, implementation and execution. Otherwise, it’s possible for your company to be held back from investing in something that places upon your company a

heavy financial burden instead of generating the savings envisaged.

 

Excellent technology

Despite the theoretical costs savings, your business should not see IP communications simply as a means of cutting costs. You will be investing in a technological infrastructure that could support, as well as voice applications such as IP telephony and Voice over IP (VoIP), business-enriching applications such as instant messaging, audio and video conferencing and applications sharing. In short, applications from which your company can increase its productivity and its competitive edge.

 

However, before making any investment, you need to look very carefully at what IP will replace in terms of a voice service infrastructure. PBXs have stood the test of time because, fundamentally, their fundamental technology is excellent. Despite its age, wired telephony has few peers in technical terms. And despite the claims made for them, some replacement IP services on offer do not include features common to traditional systems such as international direct dialling, number portability or common third party services, and neither do all guarantee that they will work during power cuts.

 

Even the leading system suppliers concede that in some IP-based offerings available, functionality that traditional voice systems offer is missing. One source from the voice supplier industry placed the blame squarely on the data supplier community who he said did not understand the complexity of voice solutions. The justification for this analysis is that ‘voice’ isn’t just an application that you buy, it’s a critical fundamental part of the convergence equation and robust and reliable voice solutions are, despite what anyone claims, difficult to configure.

 

However, Jay E. Pultz, an analyst from market research company Gartner, gives a slightly different view: “[Businesses] are having difficulty properly planning the introduction of VoIP and IP telephony. Gartner has been perhaps the harshest critic of the development of VoIP. While the direction made strategic sense, it was clear to us that vendors were over-hyping the capabilities of a rather immature technology. Additionally, even in the recent past, VoIP simply did not have compelling business benefits for most enterprise applications.”

 

Despite the concerns regarding reliability and the quality of voice services over IP networks, many vendors claim that the most pressing issues have been addressed. Peter Wignall, Marketing Manager IP Infrastructure of BT, comments, “Any fear of unreliability has hopefully long been fixed. IP technology is now much more reliable and up to the standard of traditional voice products.” Wignall points to the number of shipments of BT systems as proof of the issues being addressed.

 

Even Pultz concedes that progress is being made and claims that pressure from analysts and users has driven vendors to improve their products. He says: “Criticism has paid off… the technology is maturing, and the strategic drivers are changing, making the business value more clear.”

 

What this means is that by judicious examination of the offerings available from suppliers – insisting on absolute quality and reliability guarantees – you will actually be in a position to reap the benefits of IP.

 

Another key will be how you plan to implement effectively the new technology that you’ve invested in with regard to what system you already have. Even if you go down the IP route, you have to protect the investment in the reliable PBX technology that you have.

 

As a result of some companies making poor decisions, a received wisdom has developed that for SMEs IP-based telephony is a costly business. More than likely this arose from companies who did not plan properly and attempted to make wholesale changes to the tried-and-trusted traditional PBX technology by replacing them completely with IP-based equipment in too short a space of time. In this example, any potential costs savings from IP telephony would be dwarfed by the huge cost of wholesale replacement which, even the suppliers agree is not necessary. Tim Burne, CEO of VoIP gateway provider Vega Stream, sums up his advice: “Firms don’t need to pull out their PBX. In the current economic climate they don’t want to spend a whole lot of money.”

 

BT’s Wignall echoes this concern and outlined BT’s strategy: “A lot of traditional systems can be sensibly moved up when the customer is ready. You don’t need to rip out whole systems, you move up through an evolutionary path without throwing away your investment.”

 

Fundamentals

There has to be compelling reasons for your company to go down the route of a single data and voice pipeline. You should ensure that when you investigate an IP-based solution your supplier is able to offer you or support comprehensively the applications bundles that you base fit the exact needs of your business. Additionally you should quiz suppliers about presence, conferencing, security, and collaborative applications and also how to manage and integration the various systems effectively. More long term, you may want to look at wireless applications integrated with the IP infrastructure.

 

The bottom line of an IP-based infrastructure is precisely that: the bottom line. Your investment has to pay back; otherwise there is no point in making the transition. And in addition to investing in infrastructures capable of delivering sufficient quality of service, your business has to invest in skilled personnel to run and manage the networks. There is little room for leaving things to chance.

If communications to the outside world becomes a game of chance, then invariably your company will lose the bet. And the business.

 

The future’s unwritten

Publisher, record company owner, broadcaster, exhibition organiser: Jeff Pulver’s curriculum vitae makes interesting reading. More particularly, Pulver boasts over a decade of experience in Internet and IP communications and claims to be a pioneer in Internet telephony.

 

As part of his interest in IP, Pulver is the driving force behind the VON (voice over networks) show for which, it is fair to say, Pulver is more of a chief evangelist than organiser. In his keynote address to this year’s gathering, Pulver asserted that, for all businesses and especially SMEs, IP communications are on the cusp of a new era. That is to say that, presently, most IT service providers (SPs) and broadband IP voice service providers offered very similar telephony services, and merely competed on price (he called this ‘homomorphic’).

 

Instead, Pulver predicted that the future would ultimately see IP communications evolve as if the PSTN had never existed, with presence, text, video, and Internet enabled tools like vXML and SOAP, combined with voice technology to give a direct real-time communication method.

 

He outlined a future for SMEs in which the current rules could be ripped up. “As an industry we need to stop using the term ‘Internet telephony’. [We should] use IP communications instead. We need to build communication companies, not telephone companies. Think heteromorphic… the answer is real-time, multi-modal heteromorphic communications,” he said.

 

Yet Pulver was keen to point out that there is a danger in believing the hype, and that in order to realise this potential companies, in particular SMEs, have some basic tasks to attend to both in terms of technology and personnel. He said, “The key thing [SMEs] need to be aware of is that their networks are designed for voice. VoIP got a bad rap in the [SME] environments not because the technology didn’t work but because the networks that they were running on weren’t well managed. The other thing is finding experienced people who get it are very hard, particularly in small offices.

 

“You may make a significant investment in new technology, it may physically work, but if you don’t have anyone on staff that can do the provisioning, who can do the monitoring, who can do the day-to-day stuff, that’s an issue.”

 

One of the major drivers of the proliferation of IP-based communications is the roll-out of broadband networks. To those who used dial-up, it was no surprise to Pulver that they found the quality of communications was not what it should have been – that is, typically, worse than what it replaced. Such things have been addressed, he believes, with broadband, and the added quality of such networks should make SMEs realise why they are embarking on an IP route. SMEs had to understand that it was not just about cheaper calls, there had to be productivity gains or value added from the IP offerings and the service had to be robust. With the essential technology embedded at chip level, said Pulver, the quality issue had been addressed.

 

Pulver has some warnings for the SME community. He said SMEs had to develop a good recruitment policy towards skilled operators who understood networks and telecoms. Otherwise, SMEs would have to choose the option of outsourcing, typically with the company’s technology supplier. To Pulver, this potentially could be tantamount to being “held hostage”.

 

That issue aside, Pulver expresses confidence in an expanding market where IP communications would be packaged with mobile IP devices. The technology and services were there to create a few surprises, he said.

 

Click here for SME supplement home page >>

Click here for Part One of the SME supplement >>

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