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Voice communications are a key technology for businesses. But they're part of a much larger unified communications and collaboration framework that helps users interact with each other using voice and other technologies, including video, instant messaging, presence and file sharing. Today's enterprise voice over IP, or VoIP, platforms provide this functionality in a single system.
What VoIP is
VoIP is the standard method organizations use for transporting voice over data networks using the Internet Protocol. But intermingling voice and data networks creates both benefits and challenges to enterprise networks.
On one hand, merging voice communications with data on the same network allows businesses to build and maintain a single physical network as opposed to two independent networks. This includes sharing the physical cable plant and all routing and switching hardware.
On the other hand, voice communications are far more sensitive to packet delay and jitter. It's important that voice packets are prioritized ahead of other packets that can better withstand delays and out-of-sequence delivery. Prioritization can be accomplished using quality of service techniques across a corporate LAN or WAN.
How VoIP works
Most VoIP platforms deployed today are based on on-premises architecture. Traditional VoIP systems consist of one or more on-premises servers. These servers control call setup and termination, voicemail and a host of supplemental unified communications (UC) tools, such as video conferencing and instant messaging. The VoIP server connects to the corporate LAN as well as the public switched telephone network for calling outside the organization.
End users either have a desk phone, a conference phone or a softphone. Those voice communication endpoints connect to the network and reach out to the on-premises VoIP server, where it registers, obtains a phone number and, ultimately, is able to make and receive calls. For organizations with thousands of employees, the on-premises architecture may still be the most beneficial in terms of deployment architecture. Larger companies can save money deploying and managing their own hardware due to economies of scale.
More modern VoIP architectures remove the need for on-premises servers and place them in a public cloud to be managed by a cloud service provider. This SaaS model is becoming more popular due to its ease of management, simplified deployment and a tendency to operate better in businesses that are embracing a mobile workforce. SaaS VoIP platforms use the same desk and conference phone hardware as on-premises alternatives, but often with added capabilities, such as custom apps for smartphones for users on the go. While certainly not for everyone, SMBs can benefit from this public cloud model due to its low upfront costs and significantly reduced maintenance requirements.
Lastly, hybrid cloud VoIP architecture can support organizations that don't fit in either the on-premises or SaaS models. With the hybrid cloud, the organization maintains an on-premises server, yet the configuration, monitoring and management are performed in a public cloud. Hybrid-cloud VoIP platforms are best suited for midsize organizations that maintain multiple, highly distributed remote offices.
Features to look for
Beyond choosing the right VoIP deployment architecture, several features may be of interest to an organization and its users. While some features can be found within virtually all vendors' VoIP platforms, there are often subtle nuances that can help a company differentiate between products to select the system that's right for them.
For example, some companies require call center capabilities. But not all businesses have call centers; therefore, not all vendors offer this functionality. Additionally, the number of call center configuration and customization options can vary widely from one product to the next. It's best for the organization to determine its requirements and then find the vendor that best addresses those needs.
Organizations must also consider how security is managed. On-premises VoIP platforms put administrators in full control of how they want to secure voice and UC data as it traverses the network. If the organization has the necessary IT security resources and prefers to handle security in-house, this is certainly an option, as it allows for greater flexibility compared to SaaS and hybrid cloud models.
Another important capability that must be researched when choosing a new VoIP platform is integration with third-party applications. Again, because VoIP is just one part of the UC umbrella of tools, it's becoming increasingly common to integrate other business apps, including customer resource management, support and ticketing software, and various marketing tools with the UC platform. Third-party integrations can streamline communications processes and ultimately save end users considerable time.
Choosing a VoIP platform vendor for a system upgrade should be viewed from a long-term cost and support capabilities perspective. Cost is obviously an important factor, and will vary based on the wide range of product offerings and features an organization chooses. But it's also important to gauge how well a vendor can assist the organization in supporting its VoIP platform for years to come. Only then is it possible to properly determine the best overall value based on architecture, features and required level of service.
Despite voice and telephony communications being around for decades, there's a surprising amount of change happening in this technology. When it comes to organizations choosing the right VoIP and UC platform, the number of users, where they're located, and what features they need will all be important factors in ultimately selecting a platform that's going to provide the necessary services today -- as well as into the future.