Mastering Your VoIP Migration

By David Strom  |  Posted 2009-08-31

Getting your company ready for a telephone switch migration is never easy. It is especially difficult when you are trying to move toward a voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) implementation. Apparent Networks surveyed hundreds of network managers in June and found that more than 36 percent of them have delayed application deployments such as VoIP because of concerns with network performance.

Perhaps more of an issue is that 26 percent of the respondents did not have the capability to validate their service-level agreements. When asked which of their current applications place the most stress on their networks, 73 percent of the respondents chose VoIP, making it the clear “winner.”

With this survey information in mind, I offer the following guide to help you through the transition. The answers to these five simple questions, gleaned from others who have gone through the process, should prove helpful.

1. Do you still need to support any analog phone lines? Before you switch over to VoIP, it pays to do a careful census and determine where analog phone lines might be needed, such as to tie into a security system, a front-door intercom or a fax machine. Then, find out how to mix and match these analog lines with your digital PBX, or determine what additional equipment will be needed to support these lines.

Take the city of Powell, Wyo., for example, which was using an aging PBX and looking to upgrade to VoIP. However, city officials were worried about their connections to the 911 emergency-response system, which made use of analog lines. “We were able to put an analog card in our new AltiGen PBX and mix and match just fine,” says Zack Thorington, the IT specialist for the city. “We got the best of both worlds.”

2. Do you know what your WAN bandwidth usage is and what is running on it? Your VoIP system puts particular stress on wide-area links, so it is important to understand overall usage, particularly during peak times of day. “We have a metropolitan fiber loop with 10 megabits up and down to our offices here, so bandwidth isn’t an issue,” says Duncan Hill, a partner at the incubator Basecamp Partners in Toronto, which uses the Jazinga VoIP small business system.

“The main challenge with VoIP is understanding quality of service [QoS] issues,” says Bill Di Nardo, managing partner at Eventi Capital Partners, a Toronto-based venture capital firm. “The Jazinga system ensures that my voice traffic gets priority on my network so that IP calls are successful. I don’t have to do anything—the system takes care of it.”

One of the reasons Di Nardo chose Jazinga was that it automatically prioritizes the voice traffic on his network. “It shapes your traffic and manages your voice PBX, all in one small appliance,” he explained. “And the call quality is consistently better than all the hosted VoIP solutions that we tried. It’s so easy to use that I can manage it myself, keeping the total cost of ownership low.”

“Customers don’t realize how top-notch their networks need to be to handle VoIP,” says Daniel Song, senior services engineer with Indianapolis-based Interactive Intelligence, which builds call center applications and other business communications solutions. “We noticed that many of our customers were not yet ready for VoIP, so we needed a way to proactively address any potential voice-quality issues before implementing our solutions.”

The company purchased AppCritical from Apparent Networks to test its customers’ networks and to assess call quality before it deployed anything. “AppCritical looks at the end-to-end network path to find problems, such as duplex mismatches, congestion, QoS alterations and bandwidth limitations,” Song explains.

”We are able to diagnose the behavior of the voice packets at each network hop and pinpoint where the problem is occurring. We are also able to verify QoS policies and make sure that service-level agreements are being met.”

And while you are looking at your WAN bandwidth, be sure to examine your network switches, too. “Most companies are going to need a good amount of bandwidth for their internal VoIP network—perhaps 100 Mbps throughout their buildings,” says Joseph Bennett, the IT manager at PTR Baler, a Philadelphia-based industrial company that has been using Alteva VoIP products for about a year.

“But we did need to upgrade our switches to support Power over Ethernet because we wanted to power all our phones from the wiring closets. Even with these upgrades, we are still saving around $2,000 to $3,000 a month on our phone bills, which works out to a nine-month return on the new system.”

3. Do you need any virtual LANs for voice—or some other way to segregate your voice traffic? “We have one vLAN for VoIP internally, and we’ll eventually be using it on 70 phones,” says Tomeu Vidal, IT manager for the city of Campos, Spain, where they have deployed Entrasys switches.

“Many of our customers are setting up segregated voice vLANs or using QoS policies to ensure that voice packets have priority and won’t get dropped,” says Song of Interactive Intelligence. “Part of the problem is being able to understand when the peak call volumes are during the day and making sure you run your assessment during those times to see how many concurrent calls the network can handle while other types of traffic are present.”

4. Can you leverage a new office move or take advantage of a system coming off lease to do a wholesale upgrade? As PBXes age, they become less reliable—a compelling time to do an upgrade. That’s what McCune-Brooks Regional Hospital in Carthage, Mo., did with an aging PBX. They upgraded while moving to a new hospital complex. “It wasn’t going to make much sense to relocate the Nortel PBX, and we had to have a new system in place before we made the move, so we went with Siemens,” says Wes Pool, a technician with the hospital.

5. Do you need particular features that your current phone system can’t easily provide or cost-effectively implement? “We wanted certain features, but we weren’t willing to pay the traditional PBX and landline prices for those features,” explains Basecamp Partners’ Hill. “We managed, however, to get them for a reasonable cost with our VoIP system.”

Some VoIP features provide a big productivity win. “I’m not sitting at my desk 9-to-5 every day,” says Eventi Capital Partners’ Di Nardo. “My Jazinga system allows me to have an extension to the office system at home and at other office locations where I work. It even has the ability to simultaneously ring my desk and cell phones.”

Robert Paglione, CEO of Benefit Consultants Group Securities, in Riverton, N.J., was also impressed by the benefits of VoIP. “We were using a traditional PBX and needed real-time call reporting, as well as the ability to record our call center conversations,” he says. “We also needed to be able to reference a prior call in case there was a disputed transaction or instructions from our clients.

"We handle a lot of wealth management with high-net- worth individuals, so getting things right is paramount. The Alteva system we purchased is better than what we were using, even though I initially had my doubts.”

In the three years that Benefits Consultants Group has been using the system, the company has never had an interruption in service. “We had a lot of downtime with the old system and a lot of finger-pointing as to who was responsible,” Paglione recalls. “What’s more, with Alteva, we’ve experienced about a 15 percent cost saving.”

“One of our favorite features with the new Siemens PBX is the ability to retrieve voice mail from a trusted number without having to always key in your password,” says Pool of McCune-Brooks Regional Hospital. “That makes it much easier to dial in for your messages when you’re calling from the road, since you are taken right to your in-box.”

Part of the features game is making sure you write detailed specifications in your request for proposal. “We wrote our specs to be very demanding,” says the city of Powell’s Thorington. “That included support for call parking and call waiting and having great auto-attendant and management features. Once you’ve experienced a system that lacks these features, it becomes easier to figure out what you want in a more modern phone system.”