Moving your voice traffic to your data network has become a default implementation for business phone service over the last 10 years. However, even though there are several easy-to-use solutions aimed at small to midsized business (SMB) customers available these days, including our Editors’ Choice winner in that category, RingCentral Office, you still need to prepare your network for this kind of data. Making this kind of project successful means staying aware of several key networking challenges that can spell the difference between clear conversations and sudden hang-ups or unintelligible call experiences. In some cases, switching to VoIP might require a physical office restructuring, a different approach to using wireless networking, or a trip to the store to purchase a lot more Ethernet cables.
To help you anticipate and prepare for these networking issues, I spoke with Curtis Peterson, Senior Vice President of Cloud Operations at cloud-based business phone system provider RingCentral (24.99 Per Month at RingCentral). We discussed some of the obstacles Peterson witnesses when helping companies move to RingCentral products. Keep in mind: Some of the terminology and phrasing you’ll read in this article may sound confusing, which is why companies such as RingCentral offer guided installation services to smaller organizations. If you’ve got networking expertise in-house, then you’ll be able to manage most of these issues on your own. However, if you don’t know the difference between WI-FI and dial-up service, well, then your vendor will work with you to get you set up pronto.
Before we get into networking specifics, you’ll have to determine the devices on which you’ll let your employees make VoIP calls. You can purchase dedicated VoIP phones that let employees make and receive calls from their desk. You can also make VoIP calls directly from a computer without ever touching an actual phone. To piggyback off that technique, you can also make VoIP calls from smartphones. Determine which, if not all, of these endpoints you’ll be using immediately. “Before the network requires more thought, determine that,” advised Peterson.
This is a no-brainer but, now that you’re making the switch to VoIP, you’ll need enough Ethernet cables to connect your devices to the internet. Additionally, you’ll need to purchase the right Ethernet cables. Peterson recommends buying Cat 6 cables if you can afford them. These cables can typically support 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10GbE) at 250 MHz for up to 328 feet. You can get 1,000 feet for anywhere from $90 to $170. If you can’t afford Cat 6, then Peterson recommends you use Cat 5e cables, which can support up to 100-MHz bandwidth. Peterson discourages his clients from using older Cat 3 cables, which he said presents a “troubleshooting nightmare.”
The easiest way to ensure that you’re getting power to your VoIP phones is by distributing Power over Ethernet (PoE) cables. PoE lets devices that aren’t plugged into AC sources pull in juice from your internet. Companies use PoE for surveillance cameras, ceiling-mounted access points, and even LED lights. If your Ethernet switch doesn’t allow for PoE, then you can order a PoE injector, which is an additional power source that can be used alongside non-PoE switches.
Building your network via a dedicated Virtual Local Area Network (VLAN) lets you better distribute network traffic to ensure that voice and video calls don’t get dropped when someone starts downloading a large file onto their computer. If you dedicate your VLAN only to phone and video traffic, then you’ll be able to isolate and manage VoIP traffic without having to worry about tertiary traffic.
“Traditional Wi-Fi networks are usually a small managed system designed for laptops and tablets, and not for voice and video,” said Peterson. Because of this discrepancy, it’s important that you analyze your network to determine how many simultaneous calls your wireless connection can manage. Peterson recommends managed Wi-Fi that supports access point (AP) handoff for when one network becomes overburdened. He also suggests a system that is set for smaller packet sizes as well as an on-premises or cloud-based controller that can manually control access points when necessary.
Peterson suggests taking a vendor’s maximum published throughput with a grain of salt. “This is not enough of a benchmark for how much media you can drive through a firewall,” he explained. If you don’t have someone in your organization who can help you determine the difference between media and data traffic, then contact a professional. Peterson recommends using software-defined firewalls, which are designed to filter internal data traffic and packets rather than just data traffic.
Determine if your routerhas Packets Per Second (PPS) capability. This functionality provides traffic shaping and policing, which lets you prioritize voice and video data on your network. “What we look for is basically assuming one out of every five people will be on a 1-megabits-per-second [Mbps] voice call, and one out of every 7 will be on a conference at 100 megabits per second,” he said. Multiply the number of voice users at your company who will be on a voice call and a video call at any given moment, and then multiple that number by a minimum of five. That’s how many Mbps of traffic your router should be able to manage without any issue.
Once you start running voice traffic over your data network, you’ll quickly realize that this traffic becomes real important real fast. For example, few things ruin a successful sales call faster than the customer getting cut off or having your sales pitch turned into a series of unintelligible bleeps and blurps. Bottom line: you want to protect your voice traffic over your application traffic because the latter can stand latency, jitter, and other network traffic problems much more resiliently than a voice experience can. And some of the best ways to protect any traffic stream is through judicious use of virtual LANs (VLAN) and quality of service (QoS) capabilities. Both of these features are based on industry standards but get implemented differently depending on which router and switch hardware your network is using. Sit down with your IT staff and your VoIP provider and work out a short but thorough test of these features on your existing network infrastructure and replace or update as necessary before rolling VoIP out in production. Your business will thank you.
VoIP is a long-time standard, and as with many mature technologies, security wasn’t exactly top-of-mind when it was invented. One of the key security issues with VoIP is its underlying transport mechanism, the Session Initiated Protocol (SIP). While there are a couple of ways you can secure SIP, one of the best is to simply encrypt the stream by running it through a virtual private network (VPN). While that’s relatively easy for a single call, however, it becomes complicated quickly when you’re talking about many phone calls in a business setting. Spend some time evaluating VPN solutions from vendors that understand the requirements of securing VoIP traffic, and test those solutions under load to make sure you’re not increasing your security at the cost of call quality.