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Sit back and let someone else manage your telephony

Voice as a service has arrived

If you are a small company, it takes a certain amount of time and effort to maintain a phone system. This is not a huge problem as the system sits in the corner and gets on with its job most of the time; you have to fiddle with it only to set up new extensions or change the names on items when people leave or join.

For a medium to large organisation with several offices, though, managing your telephony is more of a chore. Plus you have the cost of maintenance contracts, software and hardware upgrades, and potentially even consultancy when you get third parties in to tie your systems together so your multi-site setup can work as a coherent entity.

So why not let someone else take on the hassle of managing your phone setup?

It’s complicated

Phone systems are much less costly than they used to be but they are no less complex. I have done both the Cisco Unified Call Manager and Mitel 3300 ICP engineer courses and the fact that these courses exist at all shows how complicated the systems, concepts and protocols are. In the case of Mitel we are talking two five-day courses – far from a walk in the park.

Even if you have completed the courses, though, will you have done enough hands-on system maintenance to gain the knowledge and confidence you need to do, say, a software upgrade on your Cisco Unified Communications Manager (CUCM) when a new release comes out?

The answer is probably no. When I had a fleet of assorted phone systems I employed a service provider team for the tricky stuff because they did it several times a week whereas I did it once in a blue moon. As with any qualification, just because you have it doesn't mean you are competent to use it.

The wonderful thing about phone systems is that they are designed to be bulletproof and stable. You can be pretty certain that when you hit “Reboot” the system will be back up at some point in the nearish future (though some systems' reboot times redefine the word “interminable”).

Also phone systems are not inherent to the operation of the underlying infrastructure of your company.

I am not saying they are not important, but if the PBX dies you simply can't talk to each other. If, on the other hand, you mess up an upgrade on your storage, server or network infrastructure you can end up sawing off the electronic branch you are sitting on.

Bulletproof stability means that you can manage things from afar. I have dealt with service providers who visited my site only when we moved office; everything else was done over a secure VPN or dial-up connection.

If you can do this, you are opening up the concept of letting someone else manage the system while you handle only the simple stuff (adds, moves and changes of extensions and voicemail boxes) and hands-on tasks such as installing handsets on desks.

A service provider once set up a multi-site IP voice configuration on my worldwide phone system estate without having to visit any of the sites. Remote management is the order of the day so voice technology is perfect for a vendor to install and manage for you.

Beckoning cloud

Having said all that, there is the question of whether you need to have an on-site phone system at all. I used to have two offices with a reasonable WAN connection between them and one site had no phone system at all. The handsets simply registered against the PBX at the other site and the users didn't know the difference.

Why, then, shouldn’t you put the whole caboodle in the cloud and be done with it? After all, if you have a managed service why not let the vendor house it in a supplier-run data centre, with all the uptime guarantees that brings, instead of in your grotty little comms cupboard?

This is a concept that I used to bang on about a couple of years ago when I had a load of on-premise phone systems and wanted my service provider to sell me a hosted service – which in reality was synonymous with what we would call a cloud service today.

At the time the service provider couldn't offer it but that has since changed. I am no longer in that job but if I were I'd be signing up tomorrow.

Even two or three years ago IP Voice in the cloud was not feasible

Even two or three years ago IP Voice in the cloud was not feasible for a couple of reasons. First, most of the commercial phone systems' clustering protocols couldn't cope with the systems being more than a few tens of milliseconds apart in terms of the response time between devices.

While you could have, say, a CUCM or a 3300 ICP cluster within a country (which meant multiple systems acting as a single virtual entity) that was not possible with inter-continental distances. You had to connect them as separate systems and hence lose functionality such as shared directories and the like.

Second, the vendors' software and licensing models just didn't work in the cloud. To be financially viable a cloud service needs to be able to multi-tenant a single system, rather than having an individual one for each client, and it needs a licence model that means it can make some money out of it.

The first of these points has been solved over the years. As each new software release has appeared the acceptable inter-device response time has generally improved. With some systems you could get away with having a single cluster between London and Melbourne despite them being 270-plus milliseconds apart, connectivity-wise.

More importantly, in the last couple of years the PBX vendors have really sorted out their software models so that providers can start offering us services they can make money from.

Joy of renting

Commercial phone systems are complex things to manage. Unless you can maintain a significant level of in-house expertise you should seriously consider using a service provider to manage your setup.

The logical next step is to ask yourself whether you want to own the phone system at all. If the service provider is looking after it, why not think about renting it as an ongoing managed service instead of spending upfront on the hardware, software and licences?

And with vendors finally waking up to the fact that multi-tenanting is worth a stab, cloud-based IP Voice systems have become a reality.

Consider them carefully. I have been banging on about them to my vendors for ages and am absolutely convinced they are the future. ®

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