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Considering VoIP for the enterprise

The authors of "Online! The Book" detail what companies should focus on when considering meshing their voice and data systems--and how VoIP must improve before becoming the norm.

    The authors of "Online! The Book" detail what companies should focus on when considering meshing their voice and data systems--and how VoIP must improve before becoming the norm:

    Within an enterprise or business communication environment, there are some distinct advantages of combining voice, fax, data and multimedia traffic onto a single multipurpose network.

    Lower recurring transmission charges, reduced long-term network ownership costs and the ability to implement a host of new and powerful voice-enabled applications all are compelling arguments. They have sparked interest in the business world for voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology.

    At the same time, however, information technology leaders have several reasons to move cautiously into the largely uncharted world of converged networks and "packetized" voice. Quality of voice calls on the data network, stability of VoIP solutions and the consequences of being prematurely locked into a given architecture are areas of concern.

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    There may be much discussion of the hows and whens of converging voice with other data services in the enterprise. However, the benefits of doing so are very convincing and already being proven by early adopters in the enterprise:

    Lower transmission charges
    Reduced monthly phone charges are one clear advantage of converging voice calls with the corporate data network. For some companies, this reason may be the most compelling of all, depending on several factors, including the volume of calls within the company and the distance between company offices.

    Companies that have overseas offices stand to reap the biggest rewards by eliminating international long-distance charges, especially to countries that have monopolistic long-distance markets.

    In addition to intracompany calls, savings can also be realized for extracompany calls. First, the call is routed to a destination outside of the company over the corporate network to the nearest remote office. As an example, a company that has offices in Los Angeles and Tokyo could route calls to and from each office over the corporate network, then hand the call off to a local carrier for another destination outside Tokyo but within Japan. In this case, a significant portion of long-distance charges have been avoided.

    Economically speaking, it is attractive to use data networks for voice for a couple reasons. First, data networks nearly always offer spare capacity; second, voice typically requires little bandwidth when compared with other data transactions. Compression of voice data typically makes it possible to integrate the new service into the existing network without additional capacity investments.

    Reduced cost of ownership
    The lower cost that's associated with VoIP systems is not just relegated to lower monthly bills. Converged data networks also reduce the recurring cost of owning two separate networks; one for voice and one for data.

    IT leaders have several reasons to move cautiously into the largely uncharted world of converged networks and "packetized" voice.
    As with any network, both human and equipment costs are associated with the purchase, implementation, maintenance, software licensing and traffic monitoring. Personnel costs have always been a major concern for businesses, and now more than ever, it is cost-intensive to attract and retain qualified IT personnel.

    Convergence of voice and data services gives companies an effective way to streamline their networks and make the most of their IT human resources. This in turn gives VoIP adopters a distinct advantage in the marketplace.

    Powerful new converged applications
    By providing a host of new converged voice and data applications such as Web-enabled call centers, unified messaging and real-time collaboration, VoIP allows companies to serve their customers better, giving them additional advantages in their markets.

    As an example, Web-enabled call centers present a way to overcome the communication problems inherent in turning site visitors from browsers into buyers. Historically, Web-based interaction between buyer and seller has been problematic at best.

    However, Web-based call centers enable a customer to simply click on a hyperlink in order to initiate a conversation with a live customer service agent who can answer questions and move the customer to a purchase decision more quickly.

    Real-time multimedia and audio conferencing, distance learning and the embedding of voice links into electronic documents are other coming VoIP applications. And these are just the beginning.

    Several risks of combining voice and data networks must also be considered, including:

    Voice quality
    Most companies are significantly concerned about any degradation in the voice quality over the current switched networks. Within a data network, packets move around in a somewhat nonlinear fashion, and they are sometimes even lost or dropped. This is especially true in Ethernet networks, which handle most data applications. With data, this doesn't present much of a problem, because Ethernet or IP error correction readily compensates for these events.

    Voice data, for which there must be an efficient, real-time packet flow throughout the network, is much more sensitive to these problems.

    Anyone who has worked with computers and network data applications understands the frustrations of having the system or the network down. At the same time, most take for granted that when they pick up their telephone receivers, there will always be dial tone, along with reliable, uninterrupted service. VoIP must achieve close to this same level of reliability before it as seen as a wholesale replacement for the switched networks.

    Technology adoption
    As businesses move to adopt converged voice and data networks, they are concerned about prematurely buying into the wrong technology.

    First, there is the concern over "buyer's remorse," the idea that a superior solution will become available just as the company has invested significant dollars in another solution. Second, the more far-reaching concern is that buy-in to a particular solution will result in a long-term commitment to a particular (possibly inferior) architecture that may limit the ability to choose services and management tools.

    Risk vs. reward
    The reality of VoIP and converged networks is simply put: They are coming, and the companies that implement them in an effective way will be the ones to benefit first from the new services and cost savings they enable. The companies that integrate VoIP technology will enjoy significant competitive advantages.