What is VoIP and why should I care?

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21May2010

What is VoIP and why should I care?

  • By Andrew Garrett
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If you’re active in the IT space, you become very familiar with far too many TLAs (that’s Three Letter Acronyms, for the uninitiated).  It’s very easy for those of us who know what they mean to forget that it’s not obvious to non-IT folk. Worse than the three letter acronyms are the six letter ones, like PCMCIA (that’s the name of the credit card sized devices that used to plug into the side of old laptops to provide things like modem and network interfaces).  Personally I can never remember what that expands to, except ‘People Can’t Memorise Confusing Industry Acronyms’.  While amusing, that doesn’t really tell anyone outside the industry what it does (see below for more information, if you’re interested*). In the last few years, once of these acronym’s that’s getting a lot more air time, is ‘VoIP’, or Voice over Internet Protocol. IP/Internet Protocol is the network communication method used by computers on internet-type networks (this is pretty much all networks in use these days).  Putting voice over it is a relatively new thing – previously, it wasn’t a viable thing to do (for a bunch of reasons you probably don’t care about too much). Voice communications over normal phone lines are well understood – but can be very expensive.  Voice over network has grown in popularity over the last few years, as it can offer significant cost savings, as well as configuration and control options that are simply not viable to implement in more traditional systems. Internal vs External VoIP You can use VoIP internally (to route calls around your office), externally (to route calls from your office to elsewhere), or both (or neither, I guess). Internal VoIP offers significant advantages with regard to flexibility – the sort of flexibility you’d normally only get with a multi-thousand (or tens of thousand) dollar PABX system.  Intelligent call routing/forwarding, voice mail that comes to you (personally, I prefer my voicemail messages to be emailed to me), configuration by the end-user rather than qualified technicians (often through a simple webpage). External VoIP uses your internet connection to send and receive voice signals to and from a central ‘exchange’ that links into the normal telephone system.  This will generally cost a lot less than the equivalent service from your traditional telephone service provider. Also bear in mind that you can combine traditional phone-lines with VoIP lines, both internally and externally.  Some organisations maintain both in parallel, with sophisticated failover between them. VoIP Downsides One of the most frequently reported problems with VoIP is call quality – and it’s true that there may well be quality issues with external VoIP setups.  These issues can often be minimised by paying careful attention to provider selection, and with configuration tweaks on the computer that manages the service. While you don’t have the high PABX costs of a traditional phone switchboard, the handsets (which, in many ways, are miniature computers) are more expensive than traditional handsets. Is VoIP for you?  The answer is a definitive ‘Maybe’.  It very much depends on what you’re trying to achieve, and how large your organisation is.  Like any other IT decision, the driver for change has to come from the business.  You need to weight up the ongoing cost savings you’re likely to realise by having cheaper calls and lower line rentals against the implementation costs (VoIP server computer, new handsets, and possibly new network cabling). We’re not VoIP experts, but we deal with companies who are. We don’t profess to know all the answers, but we do know many of the questions you should be asking in order to make sure you’re making the right decision.  We’ve worked with a number of companies who’ve successfully implemented VoIP (including ourselves), and generally consider it to be a positive move.  That said, we’re not fanatic, not evangelists on the subject. So, if VoIP is something you’re looking at, and you’d like someone to back you up and help you make the right decision for you, then please consider yourself encouraged to get in touch.
* “The Personal Computer Memory Card International Association (PCMCIA) was an international standards body that defined and promoted the PC Card (formerly known as “PCMCIA card”) and ExpressCard standards. Although the organization’s name referred to memory cards, its standards were not limited to memory devices. These cards are used for wireless connectivity, modem and other functions in laptop/notebook PCs that may be lacking them natively.”  Source: Wikipedia
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