Are you aware of the many benefits of implementing IP telephony in your business?
Modern-day communication is changing at an ever-accelerating pace. Since the inception of the first IP telephony system, it has been touted that placing the telephone system or PBX on an IP network would open up a whole new set of applications that would benefit business. These applications are now hitting the marketplace, and many companies that are at the forefront of adopting and implementing these technologies are reaping the benefits.
The writing is on the wall. In the not-too-distant future, IP-based phone systems will be the only option. Can you imagine your System i not being IP-capable? Connectivity limitations and the inability to interact with other systems and applications would be a major detriment to System i users. But IBM has systematically eliminated the proprietary connections to the System i. Years ago, IBM did away with the remote controllers that connected to the System i via SNA and encouraged remote sites to connect via IP. Today, certain System i models no longer even offer support for local Twinax printers and terminals; these devices also need to connect via IP to the System i. The modern, evolving phone systems have followed and will continue to follow this same path until there is no other option.
In this article, I will present some compelling benefits of IP-based unified communications systems over traditional PBX systems. Savvy MIS directors and IT managers will want to step out of the box, look at the big picture, and present these benefits to upper management. Presidents and CEO's often look highly upon employees who present creative solutions that improve the bottom line.
Companies have the option to own and maintain their own system or outsource the phone system. Outsourcing, also know as a hosted solution, can be more expensive in the long run, even though it may require less cash outlay at the outset. The hosted solution also is more rigid because you have to work with restrictions and limitations imposed by the hosting company. In other words, you have to do things their way. A company that implements its own system has full control of customizing and integrating with other systems and applications.
Examining the Benefits
These are some of the features and benefits now available on IP telephony systems. These applications, known as "horizontal applications," can be utilized by many types of companies.
•· Voice over IP (VoIP)--With VoIP, you send voice over data networks, thereby avoiding toll charges from telephone companies. It's nothing new. It's been available for years. Original benefits were significant when calling rates were higher, but it still can offer significant savings when calling charges are high (i.e., long-distance or overseas calling).
•· Easy Moves, Adds, and Changes--Moving a user is simple. Unplug the phone from the wall jack (which is connected to a port on a switch on the IP network) and plug it into the wall jack in the new office. The phone will still have its original configuration. Adding a user involves simply plugging the phone into the jack. If you're already set up for auto-configuration (automatically issued extensions and automatically issued IP addresses through DHCP), you're done. Otherwise, you can manually add the phone. This is usually done through a Web browser by browsing into the administration page of the phone system. These browser-based administration pages make it very easy to add phones and make configuration changes to the system. This is usually a lot easier than making administrative changes through traditional non-IP-based systems. Administrators also enjoy the benefit of being able to remotely administer these systems through the Web browser or through other tools that are at their disposal, such as Telnet or SSH.
•· Disaster Recovery/Business Continuity-- A company can achieve higher availability by using a hosted solution from a provider at a remote location or by implementing redundancy through backup servers at remote locations. This allows business to continue in case of damage to a facility. Users can still access the phone system from a new facility or from their homes through a softphone or IP phone. Even if no redundancy is implemented, these systems are easily backed up, allowing a company to set up somewhere else and take the system configuration and the data with it.
•· Unified Messaging--Integrating voicemail, email, and fax allows users to access all three from their inbox. Users can retrieve voicemails in the order preferred instead of having to go through meaningless or less-important voicemails to get to an important message. It also offers the ability to access emails via telephony interface and have them read to the user or have them displayed on the telephone display through XML applications such as Voice View Express.
•· Hotdesking--This functionality allows users to log in to any phone and have their profile downloaded to it (similar to logging into a computer through Microsoft terminal services or Citrix XenApp and having users access their specific profile or applications). This enables the company to set up shared workspaces for mobile workers or teleworkers who come into the office only occasionally. Users can also take an IP phone with them and access the company network via VPN. A receptionist can transfer the call to the user's extension without even knowing where the user is. The user could be in the office, at home, or even in China and will get the call. Instead of taking the IP phone with them, users can use a softphone application with VPN software from a notebook computer to achieve the same results.
•· Softphone--In a nutshell, this application loads on the computer and turns it into a telephone, which saves on the cost of a telephone and is one less thing the mobile user needs to carry. It can be used with a microphone and speakers but is usually used with a headset. Softphones typically offer the benefits of a full-featured phone, with speed-dial buttons and/or extensions. There's no need to have a separate VPN device for a single user since the softphone and the computer will have the same IP address on the data network. All you need is VPN client software on the computer, or you can use an SSL VPN.
•· Skype Integration--There are over 300 million Skype users worldwide. With a Skype user ID, users can call each other for free over the Internet. By integrating the telephony system with Skype, these free calls can be placed through the system so the company can track employee activity and maintain a centralized point of contact for customers, vendors, and other business associates.
•· Interaction with Outlook/CRM--Incoming calls can query multiple directories and display caller information to the company representative and even pop up the customer record so representatives can provide superior customer service. Click to Dial is also a feature that can be utilized to automatically dial a phone number in an Outlook address book, a CRM database, or even in an Internet Explorer browser.
•· Presence--A directory of all employees and their availability status tells whether they're at home, at the office, on the road and whether they're on the phone or not.
•· Single Number Reach (SNR)--This functionality (also known as "Find Me, Follow Me") provides the ability to contact an employee by dialing one number. If the employee is not at this number, other numbers can be dialed in sequence or all at once to reach the employee. Once the employee is reached, he has the ability to use the office phone system features, such as conferencing or call transfer, from the remote phone.
•· Dial in System Access (DISA)--With DISA, the employee can dial into the office system to make calls from the office when he's not there. This functionality can either expose or hide the caller ID, whichever is preferred. Office phone system features such as conferencing and call transfer are available to the caller.
•· HR Time Clock and Attendance--Applications can integrate the IP phones with a human resource system to track employees' time by monitoring when they log in and log out of their phone.
•· Video Conferencing and Virtual Meetings--Virtual meetings with business associates may be less effective than face-to-face conversations or meetings, but they're certainly less expensive and more convenient.
•· XML Applications--Once phones are on the IP network, XML applications can be run right from the phone. This is especially useful for situations when access to information is required but a computer workstation is inconvenient for the location or when there is no other use for computer applications at the site. An example would be a store clerk using a phone to check inventory at another location.
Other applications known as "vertical applications" are available for specific industries. Because there are so many vertical markets, we can't cover them in this article. But one example would be a time-billing application. Client information codes (e.g., client matter codes for attorneys) can be input so time can be tracked by client for billing or other purposes. This feature would benefit a law firm or any type of firm that bills by time or needs to keep track of phone calls by client or by job. These vertical market applications can be reason enough to justify the move to a new state-of-the-art IP telephony system.
The Virtualization Benefit
One of the main benefits of the 21st Century telephony system is that it offers companies the opportunity to virtualize. Virtualization is increasingly common these days. You can virtualize just about anything--from servers to desktops to applications. The modern IP telephony system allows a company to virtualize itself by not requiring its employees to work from a desk at the corporate or branch office.
In 2005, 60 percent of the workforce was involved in information work (an increase of 43 percent since 1990), allowing and encouraging decentralization of paid work to occur. This fact is stated in the Telework Tax Incentive Act introduced in the Senate in 2005 and could be a tax incentive to teleworkers and their employers. Other bills, such as the Parents' Tax Relief Act introduced in Congress, offer even larger incentives. It is encouraging that government is aware of the benefits and is trying to pass legislation to reward those who participate.
Going "green" is another hot topic today. Companies can do their part, save money, and have happier employees all at the same time.
Although this is an extreme scenario, imagine a company with no office building. This company has only a data center that hosts its IP telephony system and servers. A call center would be a good example. Calls come into the main number but ring the call agents' phones, which could be located anywhere in the world through IP telephony system features such as hotdesking or single number reach. These calls can be tracked and accounted for by the IP telephony system, and employee productivity can be easily tracked and monitored.
On the Best Workplaces for Commuters Web site, you can simulate your own scenario to determine the cost savings your company could recognize by going completely or partially virtual and thereby reducing transportation costs (parking, gas, public transportation, etc.), energy costs, recruiting costs, etc. Plug in the numbers appropriate for your business to determine the specific benefits that would be derived for your firm, your employees, and the environment if some or all of your employees worked virtually.
Other benefits of virtualization include happier employees, better customer service, improved communications, and improved productivity. These benefits should inevitably lead to increased revenues and possibly even lower expenses in other areas. Of course, forecasting how much business will increase or estimating other cost savings would be difficult and would vary with each implementation. However, it's clear that virtualization can and does result in cost savings.
Just think about it: the IP telephony system would be at the center of the virtual company, handling all corporate communications and employee activity tracking. When supplemented by technologies that deliver applications to the users, the virtual company is not just a dream anymore. These technologies exist today through Microsoft Terminal Services; Citrix XenApp, XenServer, and XenDesktop; IBM System i Access for the Web or its predecessor, Client Access; Bosanova Secure and Bosanova Web. Other technologies--such as collaboration, shadowing and shared desktops--make training and supporting a remote workforce more manageable.
The virtual company offers access to their employees anytime and anywhere and with one phone call. These employees have the ability to do their job anytime and anywhere and have at their disposal all of the resources that they require to do their job as if they were in the company office. Company employees are a major expense, and employers must make sure that they are as productive as possible. The virtual company has the advantage of selecting its workforce from a much larger pool. Virtual companies can select people from all over the world instead of from only their local area. Other benefits are avoiding relocation expenses and immigration issues for people outside of the country. The virtual company will be more productive and efficient and will have a competitive advantage over the competition.
What makes this all possible is that bandwidth is cheap compared to years ago. Also, we have available to us a free backbone in the Internet to connect multiple locations or remote workers. Along with the fact that the technology is now available to securely deliver applications to the user anywhere and at anytime and that these remote workers can be easily monitored through this technology, companies can make the virtual office a reality.