Internet Insight: IP PBX: Meeting Expectations

Before most companies deploy VOIP-based applications, they must link to a voice-over-IP carrier or set up an IP PBX.

First things first. Before most companies deploy VOIP-based applications, they must link to a voice-over-IP carrier or set up an IP PBX. As with any IT activity, there are best practices, not the least of which is letting corporate users know that a change is due.

Shem Steppe, an IT staffer for DPR Construction Inc., in Redwood City, Calif., was fed up with costs of $50 an hour for each station move, addition or change to the company PBX. Those costs hamstrung the $1 billion-plus global construction companys business operations, which often demanded quick, inexpensive setups of phone systems at remote offices near construction sites.

The effort, begun 18 months ago, has seen the installation of IP PBXes at nine of the 18 DPR regional offices. An aging circuit-switched PBX will eventually be replaced, and small switch models from 3Com Corp. will be used at small offices and at five-to-10-person trailers at job sites.

Steppe said he expects big savings in toll charges once headquarters gets its IP PBX and is linked via a T-1 line to the companys public, Internet-based virtual private network, which will use switch-based compression technology licensed from 3Com, of Santa Clara, Calif., to keep voice calls from choking WANs.

Steppe faced a challenge that was bigger than installing and linking switches. "The biggest challenge ... is meeting the expectations of your employees who have come to expect 100 percent system uptime from their ultrareliable traditional PBXes," Steppe said. "And they look at phones different than computers." At the same time, he said, "the IP PBX is not a phone switch—its really a computer, and computers go down. Theyre not happy about that, so weve worked to get uptime to 99 percent for the average business day. The problem was that our IT staff is data people without telephony background, which forced us to change our expectations of the system."

Steppe urges IT managers to meet with workers before buying anything to determine what calling and related functionality theyve been using so that the IP PBX can be equipped to ensure feature parity. And maintenance should be scheduled for off hours on weekends and holidays. Some staffers were sent to 3Com to get certified on the NBX and related systems.

The savings in toll charges on intracompany calls seem roughly equal to the business benefits DPR is realizing with its ongoing IP PBX deployment. Boosted productivity resulting from streamlined internal communications for meetings is realized thanks to the portability of IP phones.

"We can have a dozen people unplug their phones and laptops and reconnect them to LAN jacks in our conference room for ... a meeting," Steppe said. "When its over, the workers simply disconnect their gear and go reconnect it to the jacks in their work spaces." Another convenience is the creation of a three-digit dialing plan, initially for regional offices.

The speed and low cost with which 3Com IP PBXes can be installed, as well as their ease of use, are top reasons why Steppe envisions deploying them at offices smaller than regional headquarters. "We need to make sure we keep pace with DPRs business," he said.

3Coms smaller NBX 25 costs $2,500 to $3,000 when equipped with cards. DPR has used 3Com IP phones with 10M-bps interfaces that cost $300 a pop—roughly the same as modern digital sets for todays circuit-switched PBXes, Steppe said. The company also uses some of the more recent $450 IP phones with 100M-bps interfaces, depending on the LAN infrastructure of a building. "The beauty of the IP phones is that I can use them most anywhere else in the company," Steppe said.

The quality of service for calls traveling over LANs at DPR sites is high and hasnt created problems for workers. Part of that can be attributed to the fact that most of the buildings in the deployment are new and feature a 100M-bps switched LAN infrastructure.