In the world of small businesses, efficiency in all phases of operations is a must. That’s why many small companies try to squeeze as much use out of every dollar they spend on necessary office technology. As anyone that’s ever managed technology for a small business can tell you, however, there’s a fine line between cost-savings and sheer folly (if you ask small network administrators about their experiences with the all-in-one Windows Small Business Server, you’ll likely get some especially harrowing stories).
Still, there’s plenty to be said for multipurpose technology, when it’s deployed the right way. Today, a perfect example of this may be found in the variety of on-premises small business VoIP solutions available in the market. From open-source solutions like Asterisk to rack-mount SBS appliances from companies like Digium and Xorcom, there’s a VoIP system available to suit just about any need, and they all integrate with existing computer data networks.
Except when they don’t. Or suffer from performance issues. Or when they overload existing internet connections.
In truth, adding VoIP capability to an existing small business computer network isn’t really a plug-and-play affair. Some serious capacity planning is needed, and in most cases, some upgrades or reconfiguration of existing hardware. To help any small business network administrators approaching this challenging task, here are 4 essential features of a VoIP-ready business network.
No Sub-Gigabit Networks
The first essential feature of a VoIP-ready network is speed — and plenty of it. If you’re planning to use your company’s computer network to handle voice and data, it’s going to have to have throughput capacity to spare. In most situations, that means a network built with Cat5e or Cat6 cabling, gigabit switches, and no hubs if at all possible. Having full-gigabit connections will help to avoid transmission bottlenecks and reduce network latency, which can be a killer for stable VoIP operation.
In most situations, VoIP business telephone systems make use of desktop phones that are designed to draw power from their Ethernet connections. That power must be provided by a device known as a power injector which sits inline with each phone or must come from a network switch that includes Power over Ethernet (PoE) capability. For the most part, it’s best to upgrade the network’s switches to support PoE (or preferably, PoE+, which is a newer and more versatile standard), as it can get complicated to support countless power injectors in a business environment. Having PoE built into network switches makes it possible to remotely manage and troubleshoot power issues with every phone attached to the system, and is a major timesaver for network administrators.
Even a gigabit network can become overwhelmed from time to time when too much demand comes from a combination of internet activity, file transfers, and VoIP traffic. To make sure that calls don’t drop, experience quality degradation, or fail to connect at all, it’s necessary to implement a Quality of Service (QoS) system that prioritizes VoIP traffic when network demand is high. Most small business-level routers and hardware firewalls will include a QoS feature, that makes it possible to tag VoIP data and prioritize its’ transmission over the business network. The trick is that there’s no universal standard for QoS configuration, so it’s necessary to get to know whatever controls exist on the business’ specific hardware. The overview of the concepts found here is an excellent place to start.
A Segmented Network
By now, it should be obvious that most of the network requirements for VoIP deployments revolve around making sure that the voice traffic gets to the right destination with no interference from other network traffic. In an ideal environment, it’s best to take this idea a step further and isolate the VoIP connections from the rest of the network entirely. One way to do this is to make use of Virtual LAN (VLAN) technology to create port groups at the switch level. This has the effect of creating a separate and distinct network that’s reserved for voice traffic alone. Of course, this is only possible in environments where no other devices will share physical Ethernet connections with VoIP phones (and small businesses seem to love VoIP phones with built-in Ethernet ports), so your mileage may vary.
Putting It All Together
Although the complete list of network requirements for a VoIP deployment will vary depending on the brand, type, and size of the system, any network that features the above four characteristics should be well-positioned to handle any VoIP hardware you can find. With capable infrastructure components in place, there should be no issues with connectivity or call stability, and plenty of room for expansion. Then, the administrator can take the money saved by eliminating a separate voice network over to headsetplus.com and pick up a nice, comfortable phone headset to handle the countless support calls that always come after any new technology is put into production. After all, no amount of planning can make up for user error — so you can at least try to make yourself comfortable while you deal with it.