Voice over IP special report: Voice gets louder

Data has been the belle of the corporate IT ball for long enough. Now voice is getting the attention and users need to look at which form of VoIP is going to best suit the needs of their business

Data has been the belle of the corporate IT ball for long enough. Now voice is getting the attention and users need to look at which form of VoIP is going to best suit the needs of their business.

Voice has been a neglected aspect of corporate communications for the past few years. Both CIOs and the telecoms industry have focused on getting businesses moved on to an all-IP platform, from a data transport perspective. Voice is, however, still one of those critical business applications.

Admittedly, much of it is carried over mobile networks today, but the portion carried on the fixed network is receiving enormous amounts of attention. Some of the factors causing this will be red herrings, but some will shape the future of corporate communications. So, is voice over IP the answer? As with any question put to an analyst, the answer depends on the definition.

VoIP as a generic term covers a multitude of services. The principle of carrying voice service across an IP network is the issue at stake. How it gets delivered is a matter for the telecoms and networking industry. If users accept that they want to go into a VoIP environment they need to feel comfortable with the propositions of the industry.

The time for hiding behind technology should be gone, and that lovely word "transparency" needs to be at the fore. So, what are the options?

Traditional TDM PBX over the Wan

Since the people responsible for telecoms in most companies like the fact that the investment is sunk and the systems work, the first natural step is to link any different locations through the IP network and avoid the costs of inter-office calls. This can be done in several ways, but all result in savings on calls within the company.

IP PBX replacing the old guard

PBXs generally have a lifecycle of seven or eight years. With budgets having been squeezed in the past few years, many have left the devices happily running. Companies often have different PBX makes in different locations and little, if any, feature-rich inter-working.

Pilots of IP PBXs were carried out a few years ago, but the maturity of the final service and total cost of ownership was not convincing. Several years on, the reliability of the IP solution and the cost of delivering the service is now more compelling.

IP Centrex

Centrex had a bad press the first time around. Today we have many providers offering IP Centrex. The downside comes in the form of a generally more limited feature set, but the upside is the ability to serve down to very small locations off the shared platform.

Managed & hosted IP PBX

One of the major impacts of telcos' investment in infrastructure, and broadband in particular, is that we now have much better connectivity capable of supporting remote services.

Many end-users no longer want to have the headache of managing the PBX and its services, and service providers can manage these devices remotely on behalf of customers. This reduces the burden on the IT function within the company and, with financing deals, can even reduce capital expenditure.

If the end-user wishes, the IP PBX can even be hosted at a remote datacentre. This also offers a PBX consolidation play for larger companies, which might previously have had multiple PBXs out in different locations. A single hosted system can serve the whole of the company on a hosted basis.

One important addition to the PBX armory is the soft client. With the improved IP connectivity and IP PBX platform, come a range of IP phones that can deliver services over and above the traditional handsets.

The soft phone also adds a mobility component to the solution. Mobile workers can log on from home, a Wi-Fi hotspot or from a hotel room with a broadband connection and have their laptop act as their office phone, with access to all of the office PBX functions. This is particularly appealing in the light of the high proportion of total telecoms spend on mobile, which can be over 50% in some companies.

Another improvement, from the CIO perspective at least, is the chance to offer mobile extensions to the PBX. Dual-mode handsets allow the CIO to claw back some of the outgoing minutes that people currently send the way of the more expensive mobile operators. Routing outgoing calls over the internal network will reduce the total voice bill.

There are other VoIP options, including voice over a broadband connection from remote locations, and, of course, Skype and the like. These are important issues, but are generally addressed once the choice of one of the above has been made.

So, is VoIP the answer? Well, it isn't the question. The question is only when to move and which form of VoIP will suit the company.

Chris Lewis is enterprise practice leader at analyst firm Ovum

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