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A Tale of Two VoIPs

A Tale of Two VoIPs

Ever since the first VoIP calls were made in 1973, packetized voice was supposed to be the nail in the coffin of enterprise PBX systems. Thirty-seven years later, conferencing and instant message and presence, or IM/P, have successfully penetrated the enterprise, but VoIP is still lagging behind traditional voice services in the large enterprise setting. It has found much broader acceptance among consumers and smaller businesses.

While there are several key barriers preventing widespread enterprise adoption of VoIP, more and more large companies are recognizing the usefulness of this technology. The enterprise VoIP equipment market will increase at a compound annual growth rate of 15 percent between 2010 and 2014, according to one study .

Meanwhile, more companies of all sizes have deployed unified communication (UC) solutions, including VoIP, this year than in 2010, found a recent report by InformationWeek.

The survey of more than 300 business technology professionals determined that 36 percent of organizations were using UC in 2012, compared to 30 percent in April 2010. Another 31 percent of businesses planned to implement a unified communications solution within the next two years.

In fact, over the last 15 years, and particularly within the last year, VoIP has continued to pick up enterprise momentum as a preferred approach for voice communications. A number of important factors are driving this adoption, including improved collaboration between employees and others, increased efficiencies and productivity, reduced telecommunications costs, and decreased travel expenses.

Plentiful Benefits

In addition to unifying instant messaging, phone messages and email, UC systems (with VoIP as their critical backbone) provide other benefits such as remote work, since the system operates on an IP-based server and can be accessed from virtually anywhere.

Microsoft's recent announcement of the long-rumored Lync-Skype integration for presence, instant messaging, telephony and eventually video will continue to encourage the trend toward VoIP as an integral part of UC.

After helping VoIP penetrate the consumer and small to medium-sized business space, Skype's free on-ramp is likely to help Lync do the same for the large enterprise market. Consumers have become increasingly comfortable using VoIP at home, so the learning curve has decreased significantly. For companies needing more features than Skype provides, Lync will be the next logical step.

That said, in order for VoIP to penetrate large enterprises, several key obstacles must be overcome, including quality of service, network security and the cost of infrastructure upgrades needed to support company-wide implementations.

Reliability and quality of service are critical and can be achieved using a high-speed Internet connection, network switches that separate voice traffic from data traffic, SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) trunks and QoS (Quality of Service) mechanisms that keep applications like VoIP working well even in congested scenarios.

Some companies are even migrating towards hosted VoIP systems that leverage the third-party processes, experience and expertise necessary to provide greatly improved quality of calls and system reliability.

Network security is another big concern when it comes to VoIP for the enterprise, which is why robust, 256-bit AES encryption is critical to protect against potential eavesdropping by malicious outsiders.

Still, many enterprises have yet to fully deploy a VoIP-based system like Microsoft Lync due to the cost of the infrastructure upgrades necessary to support a company-wide VoIP solution and concerns that it will be too complicated to manage.

If It Ain't Broke

While most CEOs would agree that VoIP is an easy choice for those needing advanced features or considering a new system altogether, companies with legacy phone systems that "work fine" may have a hard time justifying the benefits of upgrading.

In many organizations, the existing telephone system, usually a PBX or an IP-PBX, is an integral part of critical business processes and functions. With key tools like security and emergency-response systems based on the wired telephony infrastructure, its removal can be highly disruptive. As a result, figuring out where to start deploying and integrating new UC tools with existing technologies can be a challenge.

For example, should an organization use its existing PBX as the starting point and then add capabilities like video conferencing, email, mobility and presence into that infrastructure? Should it begin with its email system and then slowly add IM/P, audio conferencing and then finally enterprise voice into the mix? Or should it choose a middle route and preserve its existing email and PBX infrastructures and simply "glue" them together to provide unified communications capabilities?

In addition, the cost of replacing an outdated system will include user training, dedicated communications support personnel to efficiently handle high call volumes, complex routing and diverse dial plans, as well as specialized consoles for secretaries, attendants and others located at branch and remote offices.

Finally, enterprises need to decide which UC architecture best meets their needs. Is it on-premises, a public cloud-based Software as a Service (SaaS) model, a remote managed service in which infrastructure is in a private cloud or on-premises, or a hybrid approach that combines any of the above?

What will it take for VoIP to finally replace the PBX for good?

Gradual Shift

As companies grow, PBXes can become difficult to maintain. Meanwhile, businesses with geographically distributed facilities oftentimes must use the services of numerous phone companies, pay several different bills, and install new phone lines when existing infrastructure becomes overwhelmed.

In comparison, a single, scalable and centrally managed IP-based phone system that spans multiple locations is a very attractive alternative for most of today's enterprises.

Despite these benefits, legacy phone systems will likely coexist with VoIP for years to come. The success of VoIP solutions from Cisco and others will be a result of their added functionality -- not because they're a one-for-one IP-PBX replacement, according to Gartner.

While some enterprises will totally displace their existing phone systems, a more common approach will be for organizations to use a hybrid mix of both UC and PBX-based systems. In this scenario, different sets of employees, based on their needs, preferences or cost, may use various combinations of the two technologies.

So despite some of the initial challenges involved in upgrading, VoIP's advantages are just too compelling to ignore. In fact, many enterprises are already using VoIP not just to replace the PBX, but as a way to overcome its limitations. Sooner or later, for most large enterprises looking to increase employee productivity, reduce costs and improve customer engagement, VoIP will become the obvious choice.


Phil Van Etten is a senior vice president at Avanade, a global provider of business technology solutions and managed services.


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