You have to admire the speed at which small and medium businesses are moving towards UCaaS (Unified Communications as a Service), or at the very least VoIP. It’s not surprising as the business case for this move is compelling as we outlined in this recent post. UCaaS platforms are turnkey communications solutions that take away a lot of the heavy lifting from companies looking to modernize their communications by providing voice and video calling, collaboration and messaging solutions all in an online (and mobile) app and serve it up on their monster networks. They also take care of IP session setup and teardown by delivering SIP (session initiation protocol) trunking and provide security with session border controllers. Sounds like all SMB customers need to do is point their network to their UC provider and they are up and running, right? Not so fast, says Ryan Mann, a wholesale sales engineer at ANPI, a UCaaS solution provider focusing on the SMB market. Mann has worked with hundreds of companies as they have migrated their communications to their IP network and has found they often underestimate what sending real-time communications over their network entails.
“Most smaller businesses have never had comms and data going over the network at the same time. They are also often understaffed and undereducated on the IT team when it comes to VoIP and don’t have experience in identifying and addressing the various components of their network that may need to adapt,” says Mann. He says education is key when discussing what VoIP and UC will mean to their network and what they may need to do to ensure a successful roll-out. “Each company and situation is different, but many of the issues they need to examine are consistent,” says Mann.
Assessing Whether Your Small Business Network is Ready for UC
The first thing every business should do is take a step back and take a realistic look at their network. According to Mann many companies think that deploying IP communications is a bandwidth issue (throw more bandwidth at the problem that will take care of it), but that doesn’t always work. “It is important to start by taking a look at the network topology and assessing whether the various components of the network are capable of seamlessly handling communications traffic and ensuring that the most important packets, the real time communications, gets over the line first.”
Areas companies should focus their assessment on include:
Hardware: This includes firewalls, routers, switches and any device with an IDS/IPS component on the network, (their capacity and capability) whether the network has ethernet going to each desk or whether the network is all wireless (wired is going to work better) and even the terminating equipment from their service provider.
Bandwidth: What is the upload and download speed and reliability of their current provider. UC and VoIP is going to be sending more data upstream, so this needs to be taken into consideration
Phones: Do their current deskphones have IP capability or will they all need to be replaced? Also is the feature set for their device supported by their service provider.
Network Topology and Management: How is the network organized all the way from ISP to end user and what types of tools do they use to manage and monitor the network? Do they have the ability to prioritize certain types of packets (CoS Class of Service)?
Hardware Considerations and Prioritization of Voice and UC packets
“When it comes to hardware, many small businesses have consumer grade routers and switches and these usually won’t cut it when it comes to UC-as-a-Service and in most cases it makes sense to upgrade them, especially if a company is expecting to grow,” says Mann. The key is to get an enterprise grade switch that companies can get into and manage. “A Cisco or Juniper switch will allow the IT manager to configure the ports themselves. This is important when putting communications over the network.”
The most common method of taking advantage of this capability is called the dual drop scenario. In this instance the data network has its own port on the switch and the phones have their own port. According to Mann, “If you separate it out this way, you can easily prioritize the voice and conferencing packets and you are in a better position to deliver a quality experience to your team.” Another way to think about the importance of packet prioritization is, would you rather wait a few extra seconds for your email to show up or experience jitter on twenty percent of your phone calls? Having the right hardware to prioritize communications packets is critical.
How Much Bandwidth is Enough to Support VoIP Communications and UCaaS
Not only do businesses need to ensure their network is capable of handling voice and comms right up to the network edge, but they need to be sure they have enough bandwidth to seamlessly connect to their UCaaS provider and handle incoming and outgoing calls. According to Mann, businesses should use the 1 to 6 rule as a starting point. “The rule of thumb is that businesses need to plan for one active phone call for every six users. So if you have 60 employees, there will be 10 ongoing calls at any given time…more if you have a contact center.”
Toll quality calls require 80Kb per second, per call, so if a business needs to support 10 calls at a time the upload / download speed for voice calls alone is 800K per second. “Of course that is the baseline. Companies needs to leave extra room for overhead, extra usage and data,” says Mann, “They also need to take into consideration richer forms of communication like video conferencing, web conferencing and collaboration.”
The growth rate for cloud-based UC is expected to be 20% through 2018 and hundreds of thousands of businesses will be moving their communications onto their IP network. When asked if there was one thing that he could let these organizations know when it comes to networking, Mann said, “They need to know that everything is important when it comes to communications over IP. You want every company to be satisfied with the solution they deploy and they need to be aware this will likely require evaluating and possibly making changes to their network.”
Understanding what those requirements are early on so that you can plan and budget for those upgrades is a critical first step in every customer engagement.