A real-world guide to business VoIP

If there were an Ig Nobel Prize for the most abused acronym in the history of technology, VoIP (voice over internet protocol) would be the hands-down winner.

A real-world guide to business VoIP

Most people think VoIP means Skype, and vice versa, which makes for uncomfortable silences when home-user experience collides with the world of business telephony and phone-system pricing.

Going from a free, if variable-quality, Skype setup straight to a £50,000 telephone system that triggers the ground-up re-engineering of your network commonly entails clambering up several learning curves simultaneously – and not exclusively technological ones.

Jargon busters

SIP (session initiation protocol) – The actual nuts-and-bolts part of making and responding to internet voice traffic. Similar in many ways to HTTP, but with a very different demand on routers and internet connections, SIP is widely regarded as the hard part of a VoIP implementation. Devices that support SIP inside a LAN are now a commonplace part of VoIP implementation – and a common source of difficulty.

STUN (session traversal utilities for NAT) – STUN refers to the right fix for problems with SIP traffic passing through dumb routers. Problems with network address translation (NAT) are resolved by operating a STUN server as the recipient of the SIP data stream.

H.323 – A wide-ranging standard for voice and video traffic in public and private networks. H.323 lies behind Skype and the various “messenger” chat applications, and sidesteps many of the implementation issues that hamper VoIP adoption.

An astonishing labyrinth of platforms and standards combines to make up business VoIP. Here, we’re going to run through what you need to know to make an informed decision when someone proposes VoIP for your business, and how to work out if the proposal suits the way your business uses that funny, old-fashioned telephone thing.

Skype’s not the limit

It isn’t the case that everyone in every business should give up on all options bar Skype. It isn’t Microsoft’s business telephony product, for one thing: Microsoft wants you to use Lync at work, which will be a good solution for some. However, the VoIP market is much wider than either of those platforms, and it’s worth going over the things that keep Skype out of the equation before we examine the other options.

Skype is a self-confessed consumer-facing cloud app. To help you better defend against the ignorant insistence of the under-informed, let’s expand that into a longer critique. Skype makes very little in the way of reliability guarantees: if your call drops midway through and you can’t reconnect, there’s very little you can do about it, other than wait for the “Skype weather” to improve. There’s no secret fleet of Skype vans full of engineers ready to come out and re-run the wires that link you to the rest of the planet. It’s very much a take-it-or-leave-it, as-found proposition.

That said, the more basic style of Skype connection is improving in reliability all the time. Also, international calls are still charged at local rates in the target country, so there are use cases in which it’s a strong winner. It’s definitely responsible for driving the traditional telcos to wake up and start competing, too, which is no bad thing.

However, the improvements are only partly under Skype’s control: it’s the overall uplift in bandwidth and the routing of the entire network that makes this stuff run more smoothly. A Skype fanboy might fantasise about Skype Gold or something similar, where more money delivers greater reliability. If such a thing is in the pipeline, Microsoft hasn’t dropped any hints yet.

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