For close to two decades, Argus Research Group, an independent investment research company in New York, struggled with its antiquated premises-based voice system. Simple communications that other companies took for granted were not possible with Argus Startech Telecommunications Executone phones, said Bill Lehn, vice president of technology at Argus Research Group.
Argus suffered a multitude of annoyances. It had a non-duplex speaker system, meaning both parties couldnt talk simultaneously via speakerphone. Internal three-person conference calls were ineffectual because the third person joining the call was barely audible. And, as employees traveled from office to office, there was no simple way to forward or transfer calls internally, Lehn said.
“Ive always hated those phones,” Lehn said. Yet as frustrated as he was, he knew an answer existed. “All of those things that I mentioned were problems with our phone system but solutions within VOIP [voice over IP],” Lehn said.
Since January 2005, Lehn had been investigating VOIP systems and talking to vendors. VOIPs feature set blended well with Argus existing business operations, Lehn said. The company had spent time and money building out systems to help employees work remotely, such as installing Citrix Systems MetaFrame for remote server connections and deploying Palm Treo devices for wireless e-mail, Lehn said.
Since Argus 100 employees were so mobile, Lehn said he wanted a system that could follow employees by seamlessly forwarding calls as they traveled to any of Argus four offices in Manhattan, Long Island, Connecticut or London. In addition, he wanted what his current system could not offer: better interoffice communications with four-digit extension dialing, a good speaker system and conference calls where everyone could be heard.
In the middle of Lehns independent investigation of VOIP companies, he stumbled upon the realization that Lincoln Computer Services, the Hicksville, N.Y., company currently handling Argus data integration, was also a reseller for many of these VOIP vendors.
“Because we were performing infrastructure-related services, it was natural for them to discuss a VOIP solution with us,” said Paul OBrien, managing partner at Lincoln.
Lehn agreed. He said he was happy with their relationship, and, better yet, Lincoln already knew Argus infrastructure and network scheme.
Lincoln began offering VOIP solutions in 2003. Dan Hoffman, president and CEO of M5 Networks, a provider of outsourced IP phone systems, also in New York, said he has noticed a trend of data integrators, such as Lincoln, incorporating VOIP as a part of their total offering.
“Whats happened to data integrators is voice has converged into their world,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman said he believes its a do-or-die solution for data integrators.
“[Lincolns choices are] they … risk losing their client to a competitor by not being able to take care of this, or they do it themselves, which means they hire a bunch of guys that have telecom and voice experience, or they partner with M5,” said Hoffman.
While Argus and Lincoln did look at several VOIP providers, they ultimately chose M5. According to OBrien, the hosted solution M5 offered was completely turnkey and more cost-effective than a traditional solution. In addition, Lincoln identified too many risks and network compatibility concerns with some of the competing providers implementation plans, OBrien said.
Argus was a good candidate for telephony outsourcing. The company had a thin IT staff (only three workers), a distributed office base and a need to contain costs. For an SMB (small and midsize business) such as Argus, Hoffman said it was a classic outsource decision that required the research company to ask itself some basic questions: Is this strategic for my business or not? Is there a cost savings or not? Do I have the staff and competence in-house?
Ultimately, after calculating the answers, Lehn said he realized “I was more interested in putting that responsibility [management of telephony] on the vendor and the overhead of that on the vendor.”
While Hoffman has offered hosted solutions to businesses with as many as 900 employees, the overwhelming majority of his customers have 30 to 50 employees. Enterprises dont traditionally make good hosted clients, he said, because they have many more systems integration points that you have to worry about, such as a varied environment, large IT departments, legacy vendors and directories across corporations.
It all adds up to a far more complicated and difficult project to manage, said Hoffman.
Cleaning up the messy
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Lincoln and Argus worked together to configure Argus WAN to carry the VOIP traffic. For Lincoln, this meant configuring voice and data VLANs (virtual LANs); voice QOS (quality of service) parameters; security; and, ultimately, post-installation testing, training, and support, OBrien said.
Argus initial outlay in cost was all Cisco Systems equipment—switches, routers, security products and Cisco 7960 IP phones (at $425 each). M5 provides for Argus a private, dedicated, and redundant voice and data infrastructure comprising a T-1 network backed up by DSL lines at all three U.S. locations. Employees plug their phones into the network connection, and then computers are plugged into the phone. The two devices share the same line, though their traffic rides on two separate VLANs, Hoffman said.
Those phones all point to central servers at the M5 data center, the reservoir for Argus call management, voice mail, conferencing and call routing. M5s data center has two points out—one goes to the phone networks of the world and the other to the Internet, Hoffman said.
While data traffic is managed by Lincoln, M5 manages the voice traffic, which requires constant monitoring—looking for strange calls, security breaches and intrusion detection on any circuit. In addition, Hoffman said both Lincoln and M5 handle basic maintenance tasks such as adding new users or back-end system administration such as managing the telephone companys connection to the gateways.
Everyone in the three U.S.-based offices is connected via M5s network and can call one another via a four-digit extension as if they were all physically in the same office. Lehn said he couldnt find a vendor that had a solution that could take into account the 15 employees in the London office. For now, that office has only two IP phones that connect over the Internet, not M5s network. Lehn said hes not concerned—its not a critical need right now.
What were once complicated communications to coordinate, such as conference calls, have become simple for Argus to initiate and conduct. With the M5 system, Lehn can begin a six-person conference call off his handset with no setup. Best of all, he said he can hear everyone.
“[There were] things you didnt even think of before because it was just a limitation of how,” Lehn said. “[Now] its just something you find that you use all the time.”
Probably the most commonly used feature in the Argus office is the “follow me” feature, which allows employees to telecommute, automatically rerouting calls to a home number, another office number or a cell phone.
“I could be in the middle of a conference call, and I have to leave the office. I can transfer that call to my cell phone, and people on the conference call dont even know I did that,” Lehn said.
This follow-me feature also gives the research company business continuity and redundancy.
“Any disaster affecting the Argus offices will be unnoticed by customers or people trying to call them,” said OBrien. For example, during the recent New York transit strike, the New York office forwarded its main number to another office, and everyone worked from home, causing no disruption in office communications.
“This is a huge benefit that most SMB companies dont have in place today or cant take advantage of through traditional phone systems,” said OBrien.
“Telecom is kind of a messy world. Theres a lot of pain and dissatisfaction out there,” said M5s Hoffman. He said he aims to make the lives of the chief technology officer and chief financial officer easier by offering a hosted solution.
“It is a great solution and entry point into VOIP services. In many cases, its completely bottom-line-driven. If the customer outgrows the solution due to size or advanced feature requirements, its investment in the handsets and internal infrastructure is completely protected,” OBrien said.
Hoffman said he hopes more SMB customers realize this about M5s VOIP solution. Hoffman said all he wants to hear from a client is: “This is so much better than the mess I was in before.”
“These guys just take care of it,” he said.
David Spark is a freelance writer in San Francisco. Contact him at email@example.com.
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