When budgets are crimped, open source voice over IP (VoIP) solutions look attractive -- a little extra work for a lower cap-ex. But those savings came at a high price for one Texas company, which -- after years of struggling and failing to tame open source VoIP -- opted for a hosted VoIP service from a local service provider.
"[Open source VoIP] became a money pit -- even at the very end, when we had to hire a consultant," said John DeRudder, vice president of CuDerm Corp., a Dallas-based skincare marketing and promotions company. "It was one of those things that no one really wanted to touch. We were pretty much afraid of it."
CuDerm employees frequently collaborate with colleagues at two partner companies while developing marketing campaigns for cosmetic products. Three years ago, the company recognized that this frequent collaboration would be more productive with direct inward dialing (DID), DeRudder said, because users were spending too much time retrieving and relaying individual phone numbers for incoming and outgoing calls.
"Even though we were small, we needed some robustness in our platform and [and the ability to] seamlessly get in contact with people [by dialing an extension] instead of saying, 'Oh, you've got to call [a number in] Houston or some other number to reach the plant,'" he said.
It wasn't until CuDerm adopted a hosted VoIP service from Cypress Communications, an Atlanta-based service provider specializing in hosted VoIP for small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs), that simple conveniences such as call transfers became a reality.
Open source VoIP: Not as easy as it looks
Looking to reap the cost benefits of VoIP but avoid the expense of buying and maintaining an IP-based private branch exchange (IP PBX), DeRudder chose the open source VoIP project Asterisk. He chose Asterisk because it required a custom-built server but no other dedicated hardware for the phone system.
The system was a perpetual headache, DeRudder said. Bandwidth maxed out, users complained of dropped calls and the main driver for the system, DID, never worked.
"One of the big hurdles for us was that it didn't really have what I'd call a great user interface," he said. "We were left with cryptic ways of doing things -- using pounds and asterisks in the little commands to get the phones to do what they needed to do and route what they needed to route."
CuDerm's IT staff had been able to do some "patchwork" workarounds to make the system function, but DeRudder eventually needed to hire a consultant -- wiping out the savings on capital expenses that he had hoped the open source platform would deliver. Even after the consultant finished his work, problems persisted for another six months, he said.
"My first expectation was that once it was set up, we could walk away from it," he said. "Quite possibly, someone with a PhD could [configure and maintain the system] very easily, but even our own IT/systems [staff], who weren't necessarily phone-dedicated resources, had difficulty making it work."
Hosted VoIP service can bring 'peace of mind'
As CuDerm prepared to relocate its headquarters last year, DeRudder knew the open source VoIP solution would go. He considered a hosted VoIP service after an IT staffer attended a networking trade show and met with Cypress.
"[The open source VoIP solution] was this broken down thing no one wanted to tackle. I would relate it to a dirty garage -- you don't clean it up until you're moving," he said. "We were pretty confident we weren't going to do this on our own ever again."
Since CuDerm relocated in September, all telephony hardware and software has been managed by Cypress. As part of its C4 IP service, the service provider also enables some unified communications features, such as unified messaging and find me/follow me call forwarding.
Reliability, responsiveness and instant support remain the major benefits of switching to a hosted VoIP service, DeRudder said.
"It's the peace of mind aspect," he said. "I have learned you must partner with people who do this stuff for a living or else risk a lot of heartache, disappointment and dollars."
Don't overlook scalability concerns with a hosted VoIP service
Although DeRudder endorses the hosted VoIP approach, he acknowledged that it does come with some challenges in terms of flexibility.
"The biggest trade-off has been our ability to add additional phones without considering additional costs," he said. "In a non-hosted solution, you could add phones on your own -- including configuration -- without considering any additional cost outlays other than the phone itself. In a hosted model, if you have four idle workstations … you are [still] paying for [those] phones."
But, conversely, a hosted VoIP service can be more scalable for some enterprises and SMBs, according to Cindy Whelan, a principal analyst at Current Analysis.
"It might be a little easier with a hosted [VoIP] solution to scale up as you need," she said. "You can add service as you need it instead of trying to provision [a budget that could accommodate] 50 more employees at the end of the year."
Enterprises and SMBs sometimes overlook bandwidth needs and let them take a backseat to cost savings in a hosted VoIP service, causing call quality to suffer, Whelan said. Service providers may also offer compression to squeeze more simultaneous calls in the pipe, but that too can damage call quality, she added.
"When you buy a hosted [VoIP] solution, the carrier is going to provide you with service-level agreements around voice quality," Whelan said. "You've got to look at voice quality because there's always a trade-off [when bandwidth is limited]."
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer