VoIP: The migration dilemma

Looking for a VoIP system on eBay? It's not as crazy as it sounds, and neither are some of these other tips to keep in mind when migrating to VoIP.

As Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) rapidly gains critical mass -- some enterprise projects already involve more than 100,000 users -- it's hard to come up with reasons not to make the move to VoIP. Palo Alto, Calif.-based The Radicati Group Inc. recently forecast that nearly three-quarters of corporate phone lines will use VoIP within the next three years. Major rollouts are under way at blue chip companies like Bank of America and The New York Times Co.

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But for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), the decision is not a no-brainer. As SearchSMB.com noted in a recent article, SMBs can be intimidated by the scope and technical complexity of a migration, which can involve major changes to infrastructure as well as a complete replacement of desktop and server-room equipment. That's a shame, because SMBs are usually the first companies to benefit from a new technology. There are shortcuts to making the migration easier.

Assuming you've already decided that VoIP is a good idea for your business, consider some important deployment issues:

The outsourcing dilemma

The biggest issue is whether to outsource to a service provider. A service provider can take much of the pain out of a migration. Users generally upgrade to VoIP handsets and hand off network administration and maintenance to the vendor, which agrees to provide a set of services at an agreed-upon level of reliability.

There are many hosted services available, including offerings from big-brand companies like Sprint Nextel Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc. and ranging down to highly specialized SMB specialists like CBeyond Inc. in Atlanta and Voila IP Communications Inc. in Houston. There's a good list of services here.

The big issues with hosted services are price and features. Prices can range from less than $100 to almost $200 per month per employee Most carriers offer unlimited local and long distance calling, but that's not always the case. Some also throw in features like unified email integration mail or "follow-me" forwarding. Reporting capabilities can vary widely, but that is critical for SMBs that want to monitor employee calls or correlate that information with call reports. Be sure to ask about those features.

In the case of hosted services, migration is fairly straightforward. You plug in to the Internet and go. Be sure you write a clear request for proposal and get commitments on service levels before making the switch. You also need to consider your growth needs. Choosing a vendor that focuses on the sub-100-employee market may not serve you well if you plan to get big. Also, if integration with Saleforce.com Inc. is high on your priority list and not on the vendor's, it's probably a bad fit.

Keeping it in the family

The more challenging option is to install and operate your own equipment. This is no simple task, but it can be far less expensive in the long run. On-premise installation can also offer many options for expanding and enhancing your VoIP environment later.

Complexity is a concern, so several vendors are competing to sell appliances that combine hardware, software and management in a single physical box. Talkswitch in Ottawa, Ontario, sells an appliance that's smaller than a laptop PC and supports 14 extensions at a price of less than $700. Los Angeles-based Fonality Inc. has a box that supports unlimited IP telephones and up to 12 analog telephones for $1,000. For another $1,000, you can get a package of advanced call center features. Aastra Technologies Ltd. in Concord, Ontario, sells a serverless VoIP system that works on a peer-to-peer basis. You plug your phone into an Ethernet port and discover other phones on the network.

Of course, you can always go the safe route and choose Cisco Systems Inc., Nortel Networks Ltd. or Avaya Inc. These companies are big brands in VoIP, but they are enterprise-class players that have not necessary made a big push for smaller markets. You could spend a lot of money for capacity you don't need. A used market is developing on eBay. It may be worth a check before you call a vendor sales rep.

Whether you choose a hosted or on-premise approach, you will need to evaluate the handsets your employees use. This is more complicated than it may appear. People have an affinity for their telephone handsets that can torpedo the benefits of switching.

Most VoIP equipment works best with handsets that are optimized for the technology. However, those handsets can run well over $300 each, and you may want to stick with the investment you've got for a while. Just about every VoIP hardware vendor offers adapters that accommodate analog phones. You can buy yourself some investment protection with this approach. If you decide to go with the digital handset option, look for devices that can connect to Wi-Fi networks to give users the option of connecting to your voice network from anywhere in the world.

An on-premise approach will also require you to analyze your network. VoIP traffic needs to be elevated to a high priority in order to avoid interruptions and slowdowns. Become familiar with terms like quality of service and Multiprotocol Label Switching. These are the standards for network reliability, and you will need to know about them to optimize bandwidth.

If you do decide to go on-premise, consider Asterisk. This open source private branch exchange software is taking the market by storm. Asterisk buys you protection from the turmoil that characterizes the software market. It also holds the promise of supporting a rich community of enhancement applications that could give you many options to expand your VoIP network in the future. Asterisk is still young, but it shows promise as being the platform of choice for third-party developers who are innovating in VoIP.

You've decided to take the VoIP route and you'll be better off for it. Congratulations.

Paul Gillin is a technology writer and consultant and former editor-in-chief of TechTarget. His Web site is www.gillin.com.

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