Voice over IP (VoIP) is by far the most popular business phone service, especially for small to midsized businesses (SMBs). It's generally cheaper, and because it's software it's far more flexible, which means it's able to provide not only voice conversations but other communications channels, too, like team chatting, conference calling, video conferencing, and even electronic faxing. But though basic setup is fairly easy, once you add real-life conversation load to your data network, things can get tricky.
Making this kind of project successful means staying aware of several key networking challenges that can spell the difference between clear conversations and sudden hang-ups or unintelligible call experiences. In some cases, switching to VoIP might require a physical office restructuring, a different approach to using wireless networking, or a trip to the store to purchase a lot more Ethernet cables.
To help you anticipate and prepare for these networking issues, we spoke with Curtis Peterson, Senior Vice President of Cloud Operations at cloud-based business phone system provider, and PCMag Editors' Choice winner, RingCentral. We discussed some of the obstacles Peterson witnesses when helping companies move to RingCentral products. Keep in mind: Some of the terminology and phrasing you'll read in this article may sound confusing, which is why most VoIP providers offer guided installation services to smaller organizations. If you've got networking expertise in-house, then you'll be able to manage most of these issues on your own. However, if you don't know the difference between Wi-Fi and dial-up service, well, then your vendor will work with you to get you set up fast.
1. Determine What Kinds of Calls You'll Need to Make
Before we get into networking specifics, there's some prep work you should do. First, figure out what the majority of your company's phone calls are about. Do you do a lot of sales over the phone? Handle a big help desk internally or to customers outside the organization? Are your workers at their desks most of the time or in the field? And a big one is: Are some of these common voice conversations moving to another medium, like chat? Figuring out the basic blue print of how your business communicates is key to choosing the features you'll want in a phone service as well as planning for how to implement them.
From that data, you can start choosing not only what kind of service provider you need, but what kinds of VoIP devices your organization will use. You can purchase dedicated VoIP phones that let employees make and receive calls from their desk. You can also make VoIP calls directly from a computer without ever touching an actual phone. To piggyback off that technique, you can also make VoIP calls from smartphones. Determine which, if not all, of these endpoints you'll be using immediately. "Before the network requires more thought, determine that," advised Peterson.
2. Check Your Cabling
This is a no-brainer but, now that you're making the switch to VoIP, you'll need not only enough Ethernet cables to connect your devices to the internet, but also the right Ethernet cables. Peterson recommends buying Cat 6 cables if you can afford them. These cables can typically support up to 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10GbE) at 250 MHz for up to 328 feet. You can get 1,000 feet for anywhere from $90 to $170. Just remember that if you're interested in running such a fast network of Ethernet, you'll likely also have to upgrade your networking infrastructure. Most SMB network devices default to a single gigabit rather than 10. Additionally, there are often some reliability and tweaking issues that go along with such a fast network, so if you're upgrading both your cables and your network infrastructure, too, then it pays to check out alternatives to Ethernet for 10 gigabit per second (Gbps) traffic, especially fiber.
If you're on more of a budget, then Ethernet is definitely the way to go. If you can't afford Cat 6, then Peterson recommends you use Cat 5e cables, which can still support the more popular 1GbE traffic loads. Peterson discourages his clients from using older Cat 3 cables, because those will have trouble handling not only the additional load but the reliability management that goes along with VoIP which he said can present a "troubleshooting nightmare" for Cat 3 users.
3. Plan Your Power
Most vendors will tell you that the easiest way to ensure you're getting power to your VoIP phones is to do it via Power over Ethernet (PoE). PoE simply lets lets devices that aren't plugged into AC sources pull that juice right through your Ethernet network, generally from the nearest device to which they're connected. So for phones, that's often the PC sitting right next to them or the router or switch in the closet down the hall. It sounds strange to newcomers, but if you look around, you'll probably see some examples of PoE around you right now. Companies use PoE for surveillance cameras, ceiling-mounted access points, and even LED lights.
The trick with PoE is twofold. First, you need devices that support it. Typically, anything either pulling or providing power will need to specifically support PoE. It's an independent standard, so you shouldn't have to worry about mixing and matching hardware from different vendors, but as is the case with most networking hardware, you're probably better off sticking with the same maker.
Second, while it's not traffic, electricity is still running over your network cables and that will have an affect on overall performance. That means testing and then preparing a workable management plan for your IT staff. Fortunately, PoE is a very popular solution for VoIP providers when delivering desktop phones, so your chosen provider should have lots of experience on hand in the customer service department should you need help. If your Ethernet switch doesn't allow for PoE, then you can order a PoE injector, which is an additional power source that can be used alongside non-PoE switches.
4. Explore the VLAN Option
There's lots of stuff competing for the limited space on your network. Every web page your employees open, every database query, every new customer relationship management (CRM) record, it's all running over the same wires. And for software, that's not a big deal as the network contains features that let data "heal" itself should a packet go missing or arrive at its destination a little late. Voice, however, is a different animal since it's a real-time application. The last few syllables of your sales pitch can't be healed if they arrive late, they're just dropped, which means your customer will hear static. You don't want that and there are several ways that network administrators and VoIP providers can configure your network to avoid. One of the most popular is the virtual LAN (VLAN).
Building one of these is the same principal as building a virtual PC "inside" your physical PC, only in this case it's a virtual network inside your physical network. Essentially a portion of your network cabling (or "pipe space") is now managed as a network unto itself, running its own traffic. That's advantageous for VoIP because if that's the only traffic running over your VLAN you're far less likely to have that traffic drop or have other difficulties. VLANs let you re-distribute voice network traffic into its own protected space to ensure that voice and video calls don't get dropped when someone starts downloading a large file. If you dedicate your VLAN only to phone and video traffic, then you'll be able to isolate and manage VoIP traffic without having to worry about tertiary traffic.
Of course, the flip side is (a) how much of your pipe should you apportion to this VLAN, and (b) how will the loss of that overall bandwidth affect your other applications? Those are important questions and you can really only answer them with some real-world testing, so make sure that's part of your roll-out process for any VoIP implementation. Voice is important, but if protecting it means crashing everything else on a regular basis, you're not doing yourself any favors. What are your most resilient apps when it comes to loss of bandwidth, and how can you configure your network infrastructure to support the rest of your software portfolio? Your network administrators need answers to these questions and only some quality testing time can provide them.
5. Manage Wireless Traffic with Access Point Handoff
Mobile VoIP is becoming a popular solution in many business settings, partially because it adds flexibility to certain workloads and partially because it reduces data transfer costs over mobile devices. That's essentially done by automatically having voice communications move to your Wi-Fi network whenever your company-owned mobile devices see your on-premises network. But many of the same challenges network managers face when adding voice traffic to their wired network are mirrored when it moves to wireless.
"Traditional Wi-Fi networks are usually a small managed system designed for laptops and tablets, and not for voice and video," said Peterson. Because of this discrepancy, it's important that you analyze your network to determine how many simultaneous calls your wireless connection can manage. Peterson recommends managed Wi-Fi that supports access point (AP) handoff for when one network becomes overburdened. That capability helps network administrators ensure a smooth traffic handoff when a mobile device moves out of the range of one access point and into the range of another. Failure to optimize that little step can result in auditory problems at a minimum all the way up to outright dropped calls. He also suggests a system that is set for smaller packet sizes as well as an on-premises or cloud-based controller that can manually control access points when necessary.
6. Expand Your Firewall Function
Peterson suggests taking any vendor's maximum published throughput with a grain of salt. "This is not enough of a benchmark for how much media you can drive through a firewall," he explained. If you don't have someone in your organization who can help you determine the difference between media and data traffic, then contact a professional, which companies like RingCentral or Intermedia are usually happy to provide.
If you're IT-savvy, then know that Peterson recommends using software-defined firewalls, which are designed to filter internal data traffic and packets rather than just data traffic. Of course, that means building a software-defined network on top of your physical network, which usually has it's own planning and implementation process.
7. Evaluate Your Router
Determine if your router has functionality dedicated to providing traffic shaping and policy-based management. This can make things drastically less complex and time consuming for your already-stressed IT managers because it lets you prioritize voice and video data on your network in multiple ways.
"What we look for is basically assuming one out of every five people will be on a 1-megabits-per-second [Mbps] voice call, and one out of every 7 will be on a [video] conference at 100 megabits per second," he said. Multiply the number of voice users at your company who will be on a voice call and a video call at any given moment, and then multiple that number by a minimum of five. That's how many Mbps of traffic your router should be able to manage without any issue. And, again, these same issues will happen on your wireless network should you opt for mobile VoIP connectivity.
Fortunately, this can all be solved with the same process: testing. Proper network testing is simply a matter of running the right kind of simulation traffic through your current network configuration and then tweaking our settings until VoIP and application traffic can exist peacefully. Naturally, IT managers and likely some professional services engineers from your VoIP provider will do this work, but on the upside you probably won't have to spend additional money on network tools as testing is generally part of any existing network monitoring tool suite. On the wireless side, however, you might want to look at beefing up your network management capability with tools dedicated to wireless traffic management.
8. Test Prioritization Options
As mentioned above, once you start running voice traffic over your data network, you'll quickly realize that this traffic becomes real important real fast. For example, few things ruin a successful sales call faster than the customer getting cut off or having your sales pitch turned into a series of unintelligible bleeps and blurps. Bottom line: you want to protect your voice traffic over your application traffic because the latter can withstand rough network conditions like latency, jitter, and other network traffic problems much more resiliently than voice.
We've mentioned that one of the best ways to protect any traffic stream is through judicious use of a virtual LANs (VLAN), but you've got other options as long as your router and other network infrastructure support it. One of the most popular is quality of service (QoS). This is a technology based on industry standards, but it can get implemented differently depending on which router and switch hardware your network is using. So if your IT manager thinks QoS is a better option than a VLAN first find out why and then second make sure to sit down with your IT staff and your VoIP provider. During that conversation work out a short but thorough test of these features on your existing network infrastructure and replace or update as necessary before rolling VoIP out in production. Your business will thank you.
9. Decide Whether a VPN Is Right for Your VoIP Calls
VoIP is a long-time standard, and as with many mature technologies, security wasn't exactly top-of-mind when it was invented. One of the key security issues with VoIP is its underlying transport mechanism, the Session Initiated Protocol (SIP). While there are a couple of ways you can secure SIP, one of the best is to simply encrypt the stream by running it through a virtual private network (VPN).
While that's relatively easy for a single call, however, it becomes complicated quickly when you're talking about many phone calls in a business setting. Spend some time evaluating VPN solutions from vendors that understand the requirements of securing VoIP traffic, and test those solutions under load to make sure you're not increasing your security at the cost of call quality.