Making a plan to implement unified communications (UC) in your organization requires some up-front preparation. First, you must examine how well your infrastructure can support UC and how business operations could be disrupted. As IT leaders, we must take into account all known factors and anticipate those unknowns that could pop up along the way once the project starts.
As part of the due diligence phase of your UC project, evaluating and documenting the following factors is essential. Maintaining a smooth highway today will help avoid a disaster down the road.
User habits and resistance to change
Are you considering an upgrade from a legacy platform to the latest and greatest with the current vendor? Or are you changing to a new platform altogether? The degree of change required in employee behavior can be crucial to project success. But even when the amount of change explicitly for UC is minimal, other issues may complicate matters (ask anyone forced to migrate from Windows XP). Buttons on phones are bound to be in different locations, and software may have a different look and feel. Voicemail options will change, and new headsets may be required. Prepare for things to be different.
The goal is to ensure you understand how employees use the current system, so that you can minimize the impact of changes you introduce into the organization.
Computer endpoints and mobile devices
When most people talk about the devices used in UC systems, the transition from a large, button-rich endpoint to a software or client-controlled device is one of the most significant changes among users. A large number of office users, receptionists, operators, and call center staff can benefit from moving to a softphone and USB headset running on a PC. Other workers, who communicate primarily through direct face-to-face interaction, may benefit most from a properly sized IP endpoint.
The trick is balancing needs and costs. A high-end IP phone can range from $250 to $800 if it includes a large screen, sidecars, and headsets. A USB headset and softphone can cut that cost to $100 per user.
It's crucial to understand how your device rollout will work with users, both on company-provided hardware and their personally owned devices. Plan each employee's equipment needs and a rollout strategy ahead of time.
Network cabling and hardware
How are your phones connected now? Legacy digital TDM with CAT3 wiring will not support current Ethernet-based IP endpoints. Older IP systems run at 10/100 Ethernet, so check to ensure that your network can support Gigabit Ethernet speeds. The physical plant and switching infrastructure directly affect the choice to run a separate network for voice or a converged voice/data network.
Both have pros and cons, as well as different associated costs. Companies that have a lot of TDM cable will need to rewire. If that's the case, installing a Gigabit Ethernet converged network makes a lot of sense, from a cost and effort perspective.
A converged network also reduces the number of switches required, which in turn reduces rack space, batteries, power, cooling, and management overhead.
If you already have Power over Ethernet (PoE) switches in place, verify that they are still supported and the speeds are acceptable. Moving from a basic IP phone to a higher-end model may require more power than the current switch can provide. Ultimately, a UC upgrade is a great chance to update your switching infrastructure. If you do upgrade, always plan ahead and size the project out for at least 20% extra available switch ports.
Legacy phone system
Your existing phone system could consist of a very large box on the wall, or several devices sitting in a rack. The Private Branch Exchange (PBX) is where your internal phones connect and reach out to the rest of the world over your carrier trunks. Legacy PBXs offered a wide variety of features that were typically linked to the buttons on the business desk phone.
The industry is moving to complete virtualized, software-based platforms. External gateways or FXO/FXS cards installed in a router or separate device can enable legacy phone connections. A carrier router/gateway will convert physical connections to Session Initiation Protocol (SIP/VoIP) and on to your network.
Based on vendor requirements, your existing VMware Hyper-V environment could house your new UC system. Or a vendor may recommend installing specific servers to house the new solution.
Voicemail can be integrated in a UC solution, or you can utilize unified messaging capabilities built into Exchange and similar platforms. This varies depending on manufacturer and whether your organization is upgrading or moving to a new system.
Analog devices and office machines
Besides telephony, organizations still rely on a lot of legacy TDM and analog devices. Fax machines usually top the list. Depending on your industry, you may also have postage machines, credit card swipers, night ringers, door buzzers and intercoms, overhead music, legacy test equipment, dialup remote access, and fire and burglar alarms.
If you plan to migrate to a new VoIP solution, you need to confirm how these devices are currently connected (most likely by an existing PBX or directly to a carrier analog line). Verify if the devices support VoIP. Analog postage machines, for instance, do not like anything to do with VoIP. If your current devices do not support VoIP, you'll need to upgrade to new equipment, or ensure you have enough analog lines in your building to support the legacy devices.
If you have a heavy reliance on faxing, it might be time to look at moving toward an efaxing service. The savings on paper, toner, and fax machine replacements usually justify the service in 12 to 14 months.
Chances are, your current corporate phone system is connected to your carrier via a physical Prime Rate Interface (PRI). This copper connection supports 23 concurrent calls per circuit. With the advent of VoIP, many organizations moved from TDM to an IP connection using SIP trunking. I am a major advocate of SIP trunking because of the huge benefits it offers when properly deployed.
When evaluating what is needed for a new UC system, it's important to examine underlying carrier requirements. Advanced collaboration features will use your data connection to deliver services over the Internet. The PRI will deliver the voice calls to the rest of the world.