5 Pain Points Found in SMB VoIP Deployments
Sometimes small and medium-sized businesses focus too much on cost and not enough on deployment details.
In deploying VoIP, small and medium-sized businesses often experience pain points in five critical areas, Adtran found in examining its Custom Extended Services deployments. The troubles crop up for a variety of reasons, from poor equipment choices to shoddy installation work.
Is Somebody Managing the Switch?
Large enterprises may take managed networks for granted, but to many SMBs the concept of a managed switch doesn't take hold until comparing a $119 stripped-down appliance lacking in features and performance to a fully managed switch appliance costing $1,000 or more. Throw in Power over Ethernet (PoE) and associated costs, and many SMBs will ask, "Why should we pay so much for a switch?"
In the answer to that is an old problem: value-added resellers (VARs) installing cheap retail solutions. While these "trusted" partners initially may garner kudos for providing low-cost deployments, they aren't really helping their customers in the long term. Unfortunately, issues will eventually surface for any number of reasons, including when customers attempt to deploy VoIP, call recording, or a local server supporting voice recognition. Trying to troubleshoot a LAN without managed switches is akin to chasing your tail -- and this can become very costly as VARs bill for time and material.
When installing managed switches back in the mid 1990s, we used to tell customers they had 10 days to cancel their orders. None ever did, because the managed switches resolved the target issues; business owners place value on solutions that address their problems.
During this same era, we had arguments with plenty of IT and non-IT people about ripping out hubs and replacing infrastructure with managed switches. Today, the argument spills over to managed vs. non-managed, with the inaccurate but deep-rooted perception that a switch is just a switch.
Got Enough Capacity on That LAN?
Insufficient bandwidth certainly impacts SMBs with streaming video requirements, but a sluggish switch is going to bog down performance for low-bandwidth applications, too. An unmanaged switch is going to allow havoc to occur on that customer network, and the ability to isolate core problems greatly diminishes.
When these off-the-shelf unmanaged switches are uplinked to other retail appliances, problems compound. "A switch is just a switch" -- well, no, it's not. This argument from the IT perspective isn't only lame, it is ill founded. How much backplane bandwidth a switch supports matters just as much as which features it includes.
Making cost the key consideration is where many SMBs err. They shouldn't be evaluating on price alone, but factoring in considerations such as productivity and ability to operate on a network with a degree of consistency. A user experience that involves constant rebooting as a "fix" is not a good one. A managed network can boost productivity, streamline business processes, and improve customer relationships.
You Really Think Your Cabling Infrastructure Is Ready?
In some cases, Adtran found that SMBs thought their cabling infrastructures were ready when they weren't. It would find, for example, that materials in use were not appropriate for the type of job or environment. With such errors comes problems like reverse polarity; in general, shoddy work on cabling infrastructure can end up costing an SMB in repairs and lead to lost revenue and even lost customers. Yet, it's totally avoidable.
Sometimes I find cabling infrastructure that's not just not ready, but a mess of old and new layers of cabling added in over the years. Different contractors touching the cable plant coupled with bad work or inferior or misaligned products spell trouble.
One of my favorite cabling anecdotes involves the men's room of a certain establishment -- its telephone connections are vulnerable and the work is shoddy. Even more importantly, who would hang a network interface over the men's room door?
How Much Value Is in That Low-End Solution?
Customers cite the benefit of being able to log in to their IP/SIP telephone sets from anywhere in the world, but when it comes to logging into their LAN infrastructure locally or from any other location there's a gap. Unmanaged LANs are troublesome and carry security and other risks. On the other hand, a managed switch can help an SMB meet compliance mandates and lock down the network and endpoint assets.
Many retail locations utilize low-end Wi-Fi to serve customers; however, these often uplink to unmanaged switches and a poorly secured LAN. These companies are putting themselves at risk and, when security issues arise, they disconnect and abandon the Wi-Fi. They utilize off-the-shelf products and, again, trusted partners or IT staffers throw in low-cost solutions that result in high-end problems.
The value of logging into a telephone is highly overrated; how often do employees really need this capability, and what are the real benefits of providing it? If the answer were to save on expenses for moves, adds, and changes, then I'd question that because most phones in most SMBs remain static for years or at least until there's a turnover. Even then, some SMBs simply don't manage or pay to manage these changes, and many users simply don't care so long as they can utilize the desk phone for what they want to accomplish.
Got the Right Power?
Adtran found switch ports suffering damage and other issues caused by the use of local power supplies for endpoints. This timeless problem is completely avoidable, too. Local power bricks create the potential for a wired lightning rod of sorts. Investing in a centralized managed PoE switch that is power protected and backed up with an uninterruptible power supply pays off.
These issues are real, but some SMBs with whom I've engaged head on at times don't fully understand the need to address them and the benefits in doing so -- until they experience low latency and high availability after deployment. Adtran offers free pre-sales engineering services, including heat mapping for Wi-Fi deployments, and this should entice the many if not the few SMBs that move from off-the-shelf appliances and step into solutions that managed PoE switches offer.
Adtran has incorporated power protection into its Netvanta 1550 series switches to prevent damaged ports from the numerous transients that occur on LAN infrastructures. LANs and local power infrastructure married together equate to increased risk and loss from local power disturbances. Unless you mitigate those risks you will continue to have losses.