Getting Branch Office VoIP Deployments Right

As voice over IP catches on, large enterprises are pushing the technology out to their smaller offices. But experts warn that preparation in five key areas is critical for success.

By Sandra Gittlen | Posted Jul 26, 2006
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As voice over IP catches on in large enterprises, companies are pushing the technology out to their smaller offices to reap the rewards of four-digit dialing, site-to-site calling and other cost-saving and collaborative features. But experts warn preparation in five key areas is critical for success.

“Managing technology at branch offices and remote offices consumes a huge amount of IT budgets. If conceived, deployed and managed correctly, voice over IP alleviates this financial burden,” says Johna Till Johnson, founder of Nemertes Research in New York City.

The conundrum for IT lies in the fact that 90% of employees work away from headquarters, yet IT is becoming increasingly more centralized, she says. In fact, in a recent study of 80 companies, Nemertes found that 34% of IT’s time is spent dealing with branch office problems. The firm estimates that between $9,600 and $48,000 is spent per IT person per year to troubleshoot branch office issues.

“What it takes to make voice over IP work is often underestimated and can lead to problems, so IT managers need to plan ahead,” Johnson says.

Here are some tips from Johnson and other voice over IP experts for guaranteeing a successful extension of your voice over IP network.

Keep it simple and centralize management

“The days when companies could have IT staff at each branch-office location are long gone,” Johnson says. “If IT designs a system where a user would have to run down the hall and grab a tech, that’s not going to work. Voice over IP use in those locations should be no more difficult than plugging in a toaster,” she says.

“The beauty of voice over IP is that it allows you to be more nimble, more agile. You can easily scale up or down,” says William Stofega, research manager for voice over IP services at IDC Corp. in Framingham, Mass.

However, to gain this benefit, he says companies need visibility into their networks from a central location. Whether you’re using a CPE solution or a hosted solution from a service provider, he says you should ensure that you have a console that allows you to troubleshoot from afar.

“You don’t want to have to hire someone to come out and service your gear or fix other problems,” he says.

You should be able to push out operating system upgrades, security patches and other important updates without leaving headquarters.

Johnson recommends rolling out tools that give you instant and constant visibility into how the VoIP network is performing. You should be able to tell whether the phones are up and running, where call quality stands, and if call cues are clear or congested. This will avoid user frustration and an overload of calls to the help desk.

“If you make it too complex, the project will get choked up, stall and you’ll lose all support and excitement,” says Lou Nardo, director of product management at IP telephony monitoring and management software maker Qovia, Inc. in Frederick, Md. “Voice over IP requires different troubleshooting techniques that allow you to easily fix problems and move on.”

Create a template for rollouts

“Each voice over IP implementation should have a unified look and feel,” says Eric Paulak, managing vice president of network services and infrastructure at Gartner in Boulder, Colo. He says companies should create a template for branch office rollouts that would make the process easier.

Johnson agrees that templating your voice over IP deployments is mission-critical.

“Create several templates that match the various sizes of your branch offices -– for instance, small, medium and large,” she says.

Within those cookie cutters, IT groups should blueprint the necessary facilities, networking and equipment requirements.

Once these blueprints are established, IT will be able to easily increase or decrease deployments depending on changes at each site. Johnson adds: “You need to keep tabs on what’s going on within your organization so if it grows, you know what to change out.”

Consolidate your telecom and networking teams

“A big advantage of moving to an all-IP network is that you can collapse down from having separate telecom and network functions to just network functions,” says Rod Hodgman, vice president of marketing at Covergence, Inc., a developer of tools that secure and manage real-time services in Maynard, Mass. “When you do this, you can narrow down your team.”

He warns companies not to completely get rid of either brain trust. “Make sure you keep some people who have knowledge of telecom quality of service and other important information as well as those who can tie telecom functions into network management tools. You need both to look out for security, reliability and quality,” he says.

Nardo agrees that companies should consolidate their telecom and networking, or data, teams and cross-train them.

“We see a number of companies that struggle bringing the two teams together over new technologies. The successful ones are where the data team has clear ownership,” he says.

Back up and cool down

“When you put voice over IP out to branch offices, you need to have emergency services,” Johnson says. “The biggest issues are power and 911.”

IT teams must look carefully at wiring in branch offices because most don’t feature the heating and cooling architectures necessary for voice over IP networks, she says. Because VoIP draws power over Ethernet from switches, you have to vastly increase the power capacity of your switches in wiring closets as well as your HVAC requirements such as ventilation and cooling.

While Paulak believes that the technology is mature enough for companies to go all voice over IP, they should carefully consider that decision.

“You can limit your use of traditional phone lines, but you don’t want to eliminate them,” he says. Because service is so inexpensive – around $20 per month for basic lines – he says you should maintain a few lines for disaster recovery and emergency services.

Consider future uses for your network now

Nardo says that as you deploy voice over IP, you should prepare for other applications that could take advantage of that infrastructure, such as videoconferencing.

“While voice is the first widespread real-time application that we’re seeing at the branch office, the next near-term one is video. IT groups are saying let’s expand what we can do with IP and enable other programs,” he says.

For instance, he recommends tweaking the network for quality of service and performance levels associated with real-time video.

Stofega says that branch offices are a great next move for IT organizations looking to capitalize on their voice over IP investment.

“I think voice over IP to the branch office is absolutely a good thing. It allows you to give everyone within an organization the same tools to conduct business. But the technology is still evolving, so you have to be smart about your deployments,” he says.

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