For enterprise corporations and businesses, it is critical to keep abreast of emerging trends in the realm of Unified Communications. ...
Too often, cloud hosted VoIP gets a bad rap on the internet. People bashing provider A because call quality stunk. Or giving provider B a tough time because staff constantly had "fishbowl effect" issues with the service. I've read many of the reviews out there, and I'm here to set the record straight about cloud VoIP: the majority of these negative reviews are pointing fingers the wrong direction.
Much of what people see online about cloud hosted VoIP negativity is FUD -- partially being peddled by customers with poor networks, and partially by some nefarious traditional premise-based VoIP telco providers trying to stem the wave of customers moving to the technology.
I'll be the first to admit that when done right, cloud hosted VoIP (or cloudPBX Solutions, as some refer to it) is a wonderful option for modern business telephone service. It's extremely cost effective; can be used nearly anywhere if needed; and requires none of the hardware investment that traditional on-prem systems necessitated in the past. But what exactly constitutes done right?
As a managed service provider (MSP), I've been responsible for proper implementation of dozens of successful cloud hosted VoIP installations. And I've also had to render just as many SOS cleanups for those who jumped in two feet first without doing their homework. Furthermore, some clients that decided to take the VoIP plunge without consulting us or adhering to best practices, ended up ditching their systems and pinning their misrouted blame on those "terrible providers" as they call them. Hence the reason the net is full of so many untruthful reviews on otherwise good and honest providers.
If there's one thing I've learned about cloud PBX over the years, it comes down to one simple theory:
On Cloud Hosted VoIP, You Are Only As Good as Your Weakest Link
That's it. Short and sweet as a concept, but the real meaning here is different depending on client situation. Therein lies the devil that sits within the details. Your weakest link may certainly be far different that someone else's weakest link. What shapes do weak links take when discussing cloud hosted VoIP?
I have to look no further than real client situations for examples here. It could be a terrible single DSL WAN link as an internet provider. It could be cruddy Cat5 wiring within the walls, without a proper patch panel system at the rack backbone. It very well could also be a terrible SMB router that they picked up from the local office supply store for under $100. You name it, we've seen it.
A clean network backbone for VoIP follows industry best practices, which includes discrete Cat6 wiring going into quality patch panels, which is then interconnected into business class switch equipment. A messy/incomplete network closet should be the first order of business before ordering VoIP service.
Before you decide to consider a transition to cloud hosted VoIP for your company's telephone needs, here are some tried and true best practices I've gleaned from years of handling this in the wild. We don't need any more facetious reviews of cloud VoIP providers that are getting an unjust bad wrap due to circumstances beyond their control.
10. Questions You Should Be Asking Any Prospective VoIP Provider
Too many times, we are pulling people out of bad provider situations that could have been avoided with either proper consultation in conjunction with a neutral VoIP expert. Or, due diligence could have been accomplished just by pegging a prospective VoIP provider with some simple questions that put providers' feet to the fire.
Before signing on the dotted line, here are the items you NEED to get answered:
Be sure to get input from key stakeholders in your organization BEFORE calling a sales rep, as you will likely build a question list with items that are custom to your needs. Fact finding up front is critical to avoid wasting time on providers who can't match your requirements list.
9. Don't Go With the Cheapest Provider Around
As if this one needs restating. But too many clients are purely shopping on price point. If you are one of those merely driven towards cloud hosted VoIP for cost alone, you may likely be sacrificing other important facets like stability/uptime or 24/7 support.
In fact, many of the "low cost" providers out there don't even have telephone support and rely on email based support or worse, forums. An example of a very low cost provider that advertises extremely cheap pricing, but skips on phone support, is CallCentric. Don't let cost alone override other considerations for a quality VoIP provider.
8. Don't Let Vendors Push On-Prem PBX Boxes as Silver Bullets
I see this a lot in our industry. Many vendors love to push traditional on-premise PBX units, like Avaya IP Office systems or similar, as they have shoe-ins which guarantee their ability to keep their feet in the door with service contracts, maintenance agreements, and the like. There are numerous reasons I dislike this approach for phone service these days:
There are other specifics I could get into, but the above three are the main items of interest I use as pushback when clients talk to PBX-centric vendors. Unless you have a compelling business reason to go the PBX route, cloud hosted VoIP is (usually) your better option.
7. Know Your VoIP Quality Metrics: Bandwidth, Latency, Loss, Jitter
Too many clients on the hunt for VoIP are stuck in a tunnel-vision discussion about their internet needs related to a single metric: bandwidth. While important, this metric only tells one part of the story. This is because, simply put, you can have a pipe that is quite fat (like a 40Mbps connection from your cell provider) but that doesn't mean it's necessarily fast. And this is where many well-intentioned people get burned with VoIP.
Here are the key metrics for internet and VoIP quality which you need to know:
There is an excellent primer on some of these terms with deeper explanation available onDSLReports.com.
And if you are interested in testing your WAN connection quality before getting VoIP, RingCentral has a great tool available for putting your line(s) to the test. They likewise also offer a capacity test tool to see how many VoIP connections your current setup can handle at various quality levels.
Bandwidth, which is the metric most ISPs sell their services upon, tells only part of the VoIP story. The term relates to how fat of a pipeline you are being given in two directions (upload/download) for your needs. But having a fat pipe doesn't always equate to a fast pipe.
After reading the above definitions, your goal should be clear: stay away from cellular/satellite ISP providers and opt for cable/fiber service where possible.
6. Wired Always Beats Wi-Fi, But if you Must...
The highest quality VoIP backbones are always built on solid, Cat6 entrusted networks from the core routing/switching equipment out to the actual endpoints (desk phones, soft phones, etc). This is because wired connectivity has a high level of assured delivery and quality guarantees that we just can't achieve with Wi-Fi-based VoIP yet.
I know situations will arise where it's not possible, or financially feasible, to get wired connectivity back to all desk phones. Or some workers have no choice but to use Wi-Fi off devices out in a warehouse or similar office setting. If you've got to go off Wi-Fi, here's how to make the best out of a bad situation:
As I said, wired is king... but Wi-Fi can be made to work decently well with the right equipment.
5. VLANs Have NOTHING to do with VoIP Quality
There is a long held belief on the internet, coming somewhere from the trenches of geekdom, that VLANs are somehow this saving grace and panacea when it comes to VoIP performance. It's as if any mention of VoIP issues always circles back to this notion of "just use VLANs." This is absolutely WRONG and couldn't be more short sighted and off base.
VLANs are strictly a SECURITY related function of network design. Many people mis-associate the usage of separate subnets for data and voice networks as VLAN'ing, but this is merely because many intelligent firewalls combine both aspects into one operation. The usage of separate subnets is the key part to any kind of segmentation you want to build into your network -- NOT the VLANs.
You don't have to take my word for it. Discussions like this do a great job at having other experts explain the nuances of why VLANs are ineffective for performance improvement or QoS needs.
The usage of strict VLANs unnecessarily complicates your network design with zero added benefit. Only if your DHCP backbone forces you into a combination VLAN/subnetting segmentation mentality should you be using VLANs (as do the Meraki MX series firewalls we usually employ in VoIP scenarios.)
4. It's UPLOAD, Not DOWNLOAD Speeds, That Kill Cloud VoIP
Most internet providers offer service in asymmetrical manner these days, aside from dedicated pipes in the form of expensive fiber or metro ethernet. While these are very cost effective pipes most of the time, they are usually dogged by the reality that download speeds are almost always FAR greater than upload speeds.
So take a typical Comcast coax cable line, for example. Comcast offers various speed levels, such as 16 down / 3 up, 25 down / 10 up, and 50 down / 10 up price points, to name a few. As you can see, upload speeds are never as generous as download speeds.
And this is why I mention this very point. Your download speed is likely not to be a factor in poor VoIP performance, as download bandwidth from the big players is usually very generous even on low plans.
WAN pipes like DSL lines, which we are sadly stuck with as a backup pipe at our own office, are pegged at nominal speeds like 6 down / 1.5 up. If you are sharing a single WAN line for both regular computer/server data needs and your VoIP connections, then you are at very high risk for VoIP quality issues on such small lines.
The logic here is pretty easy to remember: be more watchful of the UPLOAD you are getting from an ISP; download speeds will rarely if ever come to be an issue.
3. Go With Cat6 Wiring When Possible, And Always Use PoE Switches
Core wiring infrastructure is critical to great VoIP performance. As I said earlier, you're only as good as your weakest link. In many situations, customers are fighting with old wiring and failing switches, and calling me curious as to why their VoIP experience is sub optimal.
Without getting too technical, VoIP is a VERY delicate transmission on your network, and traffic degradation/fluctuations due to poor wiring or cheap switches/routers shows very quickly. In some cases, we have had to come in and re-wire a customer network with fresh Cat6 and brand new gigabit switches to solve the problem. Many times, we catch this up front before a client even is allowed to make a move to VoIP, so as to avoid a bad experience preemptively.
If a wiring contractor is offering to install lesser Cat5 or Cat5e, just say no. The extra cost of going Cat6/Cat6a is very minimal these days, and will not only guarantee a cleaner experience on cloud VoIP, but will also doubly future proof your network for 10gig ethernet which will likely be standard on devices in 6-10 years.
Going with PoE-enabled switches is a no brainer these days. It allows for the delivery of data and power over a single line (Cat6 usually) as opposed to forcing desk phones to use AC adapters plus a data line. Filtered power is guaranteed to all desk phones, and AC adapter hassles are completely avoided. We don't roll out VoIP without it these days. (Image Source: CableOrganizer.com)
Lastly, if you are replacing your wiring, it's usually a good time to address putting in new quality switches. Don't go with the cheap stuff here, but there's likewise no need to go top shelf either. We like to go with Meraki switches when possible, but due to their higher cost, great subs are Cisco Small Business SG200/SG300 series units, or Netgear's PROSAFE business line. And don't skip on the PoE (power over ethernet)!
The reason why using PoE to power your endpoint phones is critical is twofold. First, it allows you to ensure you are passing clean, filtered power to all phones since the switches should have power supplied from a secure power source like a UPS. Second, you are reducing the points of failure on the phones since you don't have to worry about staff unplugging AC adapters, kicking them, damaging them, or using up AC ports below desks.
PoE is almost a necessity if going with VoIP these days. The number of problems we have seen on non-PoE deployments is not worth the headache.
One last word on switches: if financially feasible, get separate dedicated switches for your VoIP phones and ones for data connections to computers. This is especially key on large deployments. We make this a requirement for most big VoIP rollouts we handle. The nice part about this is you can apply separate management/QoS policies to the switch ports for a given side en-masse without worrying about affecting the other side of your network. Plus, you can easily use subnetting segmentation that is controlled from the upstream port (in our case, usually a Meraki firewall) to hand out dedicated addressing for that side of the network.
This makes voice/data separation dirt easy and super manageable without much of the headache that traditional per-port VLAN mapping used to entail.
2. Two WAN Pipes Are Always Better Than One
Going with cloud hosted VoIP brings up the danger that we are potentially relying on the stability of a single pipeline back to the internet for our voice traffic. Pipes get cut, outages occur, and all of this is a common fact of life. Even dedicated circuits with supposed uptime policies/SLAs get hit -- and I've seen this countless times over the last few years.
Which is partially why I don't trust my eggs in one basket, even in the case of expensive fiber lines with lengthy SLA language. Going with dual WAN pipes, even from "best effort" carriers, is usually better than relying on the trusted word of a single carrier.
Our standard fare approach to dual WAN lines is usually to seek out two coax line providers that can offer great bang for the buck service, and likewise, bring in service from two separate networks. NEVER settle on two distinct pipes from a single carrier -- like Comcast, for example, which we've seen done on some installs. If the provider as a whole is experiencing issues with their coax backbone in the area, both of your supposed separate lines will be toast.
So double up with separate lines from different providers. Comcast as your primary, and maybe RCN as your secondary. Or ATT Uverse as your primary and WOW cable as your secondary. Whatever combination you choose, just be sure to size your bandwidth needs properly as mentioned earlier.
The likelihood of two carriers going down at the same time is super slim, and probably only going to happen in the face of a major disaster, like a tornado hitting a property. But at that point, you've got bigger issues on your hands than worrying about internet uptime.
The other bonus about dual pipes? As I discuss in further detail on my number 1 point below, dual pipes can be used to offer load balancing for your entire network. Given you are employing a smart firewall/router than can apply such logic, traffic load can be spread out amongst two lines simultaneously to take advantage of the additional bandwidth afforded by a second pipe.
In the case of a single line going down, your entire network then goes into a single-WAN operation until the other pipe comes back up. Then, you can go back to leveraging both connections at once. A crafty, neat feature which is well worth investigating. We use it at our own office on a Meraki MX60, and at many client sites, and it rocks.
One word of caution: stay away from cellular/satellite service as a primary or secondary line. VoIP, as mentioned before, does NOT like the latency/jitter problems with these wireless carrier services, and your VoIP quality will suffer greatly because of it.
1. Don't Skimp On the Firewall -- AKA the Brains of Your Network!
Not all routers/firewalls are created equal. And anyone that tries to say as much clearly doesn't have real world experience deploying high density, high stability VoIP environments. That $100 off the shelf unit from Best Buy or Staples likely won't do the trick. And yes, I do know many cloud hosted VoIP companies advertise some of these cruddy models on their websites. But the number of times we've had to replace these with business class units are innumerable thus far.
Even just searching for a "business class firewall" in general won't yield the right results without some fine toothed combing across what the innards of the actual devices truly offer. Here are the definite items you should be requiring of any new firewall to manage the backbone of a cloud hosted VoIP network:
While the above won't guarantee that you won't get stuck with a non-compatible or functional firewall when it comes to cloud VoIP, these are tried and true facets that we have come to rely on over the years.
In general, our company stands behind the reliability and stability that has been proven from the Meraki MX-series firewalls we have in the field. These units are so entrusted with our cloud hosted VoIP rollouts that we pretty much exclusively have settled on using them for nearly every client situation. In fact, if you want to come onboard as a managed support customer with our company, we won't let you on without having one of these boxes at your office.
The Meraki MX64W, shown above, is a firewall we have battle tested time and time again with excellent results handling cloud hosted VoIP. We've tried Sonicwalls, Cisco ASAs, Netgear units, and everything in between, and keep coming back to Meraki's MX line of devices. They just work. What more could we ask for?
Many people have had pretty decent luck with Sonicwall, but after a messy support experience during a stressful deployment on a TZ-series router last year, we are steering clear of the devices now. I know full well it's a situation that could be isolated to us, but we have little reason to move away from the rock-solid nature of Meraki's boxes.
Regardless of which direction you go with your router, just remember: DO NOT SKIMP HERE! A cheap firewall usually yields cheap results.
Cloud Hosted VoIP Works Well When Planned For Accordingly
Like with any new technology change at your business, proper planning is key and downright critical in many ways. Jumping the gun and ordering service from the likes of a RingCentral or CallTower Hosted Skype for Business offering without due diligence is recipe for disaster.
And trust me, we have seen it countless times out in the wild. Just like you can't push the best race car in the world to its peak performance if the road beneath it stinks, cloud hosted VoIP is very much a similar beast.
It loves low latency. It expects redundant, dual WAN pipes. It excels when delivered over quality Cat6 lines and matching switch equipment. And downright thrives when managed with intelligent, VoIP-aware firewalls such as Meraki MX-series boxes.
Is there a cookie cutter approach to delivering the sole "answer" for quality cloud hosted VoIP? Absolutely not. Each office and scenario will require its own dedicated plan for filling in the blanks.
Hopefully the above best practices can give you the tools necessary to make the right decisions when investing in cloud hosted VoIP. For most companies, they only have one solid chance to do VoIP right -- make it count on the first try.
About the Author:
Derrick Wlodarz is an IT Specialist who owns Park Ridge, IL (USA) based technology consulting & service company FireLogic, with over eight+ years of IT experience in the private and public sectors. He holds numerous technical credentials from Microsoft, Google, and CompTIA and specializes in consulting customers on growing hot technologies such as Office 365, Google Apps, cloud-hosted VoIP, among others. Derrick is an active member of CompTIA's Subject Matter Expert Technical Advisory Council that shapes the future of CompTIA exams across the world.
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