Archive for January, 2010
As this series of articles explains, many small and medium businesses are grappling with the choice of whether to adopt VoIP, and if they do, whether to go with a hosted or an on-premise solution. This article addresses how small and medium organizations can ready themselves to start evaluating solutions. The benefits to VoIP and unified communications are substantial (not sure what Voice over Internet Protocol or unified communications is? Read my previous article!).
What benefits should you expect? Lower costs, great productivity
The good news is that VoIP and unified communications can lower costs and help your employees respond to customers more quickly and more professionally. On the other hand, it can also increase network and business process complexity. If inexpensive long-distance isn’t critical to your business, VoIP many not be the best choice. If you do most of your business on the Web instead of by phone or fax, unified communications may not be worth the expense.
On the other hand, many new PBX replacements are much less expensive (even with all of the added features and benefits) than their traditional PBX competitors; many are much less expensive to install; and you never know when your business requirements might change substantially. The more flexible, less expensive, better-featured solution with more benefits is rarely a bad business decision.
The benefits are worth the costs for FAR. With VoIP, when I call a customer in Texas or in Australia (for example), I save on the long distance charges. FAR doesn’t even use a traditional phone company. We use an Internet Telephony Service Provider (ITSP). The company who provides me the service is BabyTel, and I can tell you, the calls are as reliable and the quality is just as good as a regular phone line I don’t even have to worry about the cost and apathy of dealing with a regular phone company.
In addition to the cost savings of VoIP, with NetVanta’s Unified Communications Server (the VoIP and UC solution FAR uses), FAR benefits from a wide range of productivity features with call control, unified messaging, simple administration, and more.
Building your checklist—identifying whether VoIP or UC can benefit your organization
When businesses consider an information technology purchase, they should always consider the nature of the specific challenges they are trying to meet. What’s most important is to figure out which features are most important to your business and which features are nice to have, and how much you want to spend up-front and overtime, as well as what you expect to pay in terms of ownership and finally, what kind of return on investment you hope to see. The last is very important, and it’s often the most difficult to calculate. Some other common questions follow, but this is by no means exhaustive:
First, are your customers widely distributed geographically? One of the best reasons to invest in a VoIP solution is to cut long distance call costs. If your business conducts a lot of its business by phone and has customers in Paris, France and Paris Texas, VoIP might be a good fit.
Second, do you have a lot of fax machines? If you do, your business can always replace your fax machines with a fax server product, but many VoIP solutions include fax. A fax server can help make your fax environment more secure where privacy is an issue. With customers who just want a fax server, FAR recommends they consider NetVanta just for his capability alone. It’s considerably less expensive than many off the shelf fax server alternatives and often more secure than stand-alone fax machines.
Third, do you have a lot of branch offices, teleworkers or a mobile sales force? This is increasingly true for most small and medium organizations. More people are working from home or remotely. Many industries are simply given to having a lot of branch offices (e.g., insurance and real estate, among others). Unified communications features (e.g., being about to route your calls to any phone with find me/follow me) and unified messaging (e.g. getting your office voicemail as an email attachment on your Blackberry at a customer site) and wonderful for today’s nimble small and medium organizations.
Unified messaging is not necessarily a part of all unified communications offerings, but I would never recommend that a client buy a unified communications solution that didn’t have UM. I can also have my calls ring my cell-phone, my home, to a hotel phone (or all four) with call control. Anyone who calls me at my desk can be routed to my cell. It’s not a bunch of arcane numbers and symbols I have to punch into my phone. Everything’s right in front of me on my desktop in Windows-based software.
Fourth, do you want to streamline customer service by providing information and account services to customers by phone self-service? In the old days, it was called Interactive Voice Response (IVR), and it still is in some cases. Today, it’s increasingly called CEBP (communications-enabled business process), but these phrases are painfully polysyllabic ways to describe the organizational productivity behind: “Press 1 one now to check the status of your package”-style phone applications.
A good unified communications solution should help any business streamline customer service with self-service phone applications. Whether it’s checking the status of their package or order, transferring funds, registering for college classes, reporting their kids absent and more, phone-based self-service is increasingly popular. It helps organizations work more intelligently and collaboratively. NetVanta UC Server has a great point and click service environment that allows organizations or their service providers to build these kinds of applications quickly and cost-effectively.
Fifth, how critical is it to your IT team to be able to manage VoIP? FAR uses NetVanta because it provides a simple, Windows-based environment for us to do administration remotely for our clients (I really like NetVanta, but yes, there are lots of other solutions on the market).
It’s all managed through simple, Windows-based software. It integrates simply and effectively with Microsoft Exchange and our Blackberries. If I need to add a new employee, one of my managers just opens Active Directory and adds them as a user to the system and then plugs their phone into the network. The software auto-configures phones from snom, Polycom, Grandstream and a lot of other vendors.
Sometimes, very obscure features offer a lot of value. For example, I had no idea what a “hunt group” was before FAR installed NetVanta UC Server (it was Objectworld UC Server back then). A “hunt group” means that a call rings one extension, and then another extension, and then another until someone picks up. It’s a good way to ensure that calls are routed to the most appropriate person first, but then escalated appropriately if that person can’t take a call. Today, that feature is very important to FAR’s business process and our customer response.
Once you have a clear idea of your expectations and a checklist, you’re reading to start evaluating specific hosted vs. on-premise solutions.
Once they have a clear idea of what communications challenges they’re hoping to meet, businesses should do is to determine how they want to communicate with their customers in order to compete effectively, decide what their costs tolerances are, and then start looking for specific solutions that meet those needs. If this sounds too complicated already, don’t worry. IT managed services firms work with small and medium organizations to help them conduct these kinds of evaluations and make the best choices for their businesses.
If there’s one thing that’s true about comparing VoIP and unified communications offerings, it’s that comparisons are rarely apples to apples and the feature descriptions are rarely intuitive. Unless you can really trust your vendor, be prepared to ask a lot of questions. Ask a lot of questions anyhow – if you trust your vendor, I’m sure s/he’ll be happy to answer any questions you have. Next week, I’m going to start talking about price, cost and value in hosted vs. on-premise solutions. Be sure to check back!
At some point, every business makes a purchase decision about a phone system. As one of the communications tools most critical to a successful business, which phone system to buy is one of the most important business decisions your business will make. These days, lots of small and medium businesses are trying to decide whether to move to VoIP. If they do want to move to VoIP, a lot of them are trying to decide whether it makes sense to put their phone system in The Cloud (with a hosted VoIP solution) or to keep it on-premise.
The question these days is: which VoIP solution is right for my business? Not always an easy question to answer. In some cases, the choices are very complicated, and this series of articles intends to help small and medium businesses make good decisions.
In my last two articles, I talked a bit about The Cloud and what it means for small and medium organization. This article continues a series that articles that advises small and medium businesses on what to host and what to keep on premise, and how IT managed services fits into the mix. I’ll be answering questions about whether to host a VoIP phone systems with its own small series of four articles, starting with some basic terms, and then moving through some discussions in terms of evaluate price and value. I’ll end with a summary of key buying criteria to help you make an informed decision.
What’s a PBX and what’s a PBX replacement?
My very first phone system was a Betamax waiting to happen. Some of you probably remember the Betamax (Sony’s competitor to VHS). It was the HD-DVD of the video cassette world. It was a technical marvel, technically superior to VHS in many ways, except the ways that customers seriously valued. From a technology standpoint, Betamax was a great technology. From the standpoint of general customers, it was an overpriced and under-featured solution to the problem of recording home movies.
As a technology, public branch exchange systems (PBXs) are similar. PBXs were a great technology in the 1970s. But in terms of today’s business communication needs, a PBX is fairly one-dimensional and not the broad communications solution most business need. The first corporate phone system I ever bought was manufactured by NEC. It was a traditional PBX, which sat in a closet. It was fairly expensive. It did provide consistent and reliable dial-tone to the desk phones in my office, but in terms of helping me and my team effectively respond to customers, helping to manage my email, faxes, cell phones, customer data, and so on, it didn’t do all that much.
Today, to keep it simple, “the PBX” is rapidly evolving from a particular kind of device to a term that describes a solution to the problem of business communication (with a focus on voice communication). Some vendors refer to their offerings as PBXs, some as soft-PBXs, some include their PBX capabilities within “unified communications”. Some refer t their offerings as PBX replacements. From an education standpoint, the product category is a big mess.
My current phone system is a VoIP soft-PBX with unified communications. That means instead of using regular phone lines, it uses the Internet, and instead of being a specialized computer that sits in a closet, it’s software that sits on a Microsoft Windows server in my server. How things have changed! They’re poised to change even more over the next decade.
“VoIP-enabled unified communications”: a lot of syllables for a lot of benefits
As complicated as choices have become, the news is good for customers. Businesses no longer have to wed themselves to hulking, closet-monster PBXs for 5-8 years, paying 10s to 100s of thousands of dollars just to get dial-tone to desk phones, locked into the same brands of phones and other peripherals. Prices for a phone system are rapidly decreasing and more and more offerings come with value added software (e.g., unified messaging, instant messaging, service creation, and a lot of other things I’ll be explaining in the articles in this series).
Suffice it to say, there are a number of different “PBX replacement” technologies. Some of them are network devices similar to routers. Some of them are purely software. Some of them are PBX systems with VoIP capabilities. Sometimes they’re called PBXs, IP-PBXs, SIP-PBXs depending on the specific offering. It all depends, and that’s part of the confusion when trying to make a purchase decision. The PBX replacement that FAR uses is called NetVanta Unified Communications Server (made by ADTRAN). It provides VoIP-enabled unified communications (you can learn more about NetVanta here).
Voice over Internet Protocol-enabled unified communications (VoIP-enabled UC) and the perhaps even more onerous “communications enabled business process” (CEBP) are a lot of complex syllables to describe basically three things:
- A phone system that uses the Internet and similar networks to make and take calls (the VoIP part); it makes network architecture a little simpler, provides a single point of management and it lowers costs on your phone bills.
- Productivity tools that help employees respond their customers by phone, fax, email, IM and other tools more quickly, more intelligently and more professionally (the unified communications part). UC helps small and medium organizations look bigger.
- Organizational productivity tools that tie communications systems into back-office databases to help business as a whole work more effectively with customers (e.g., imagine a package tracking system that allows you to enter your package PIN and get an update on its delivery over the phone – that’s CEBP).
What businesses really need to know is that today, almost all business communications solutions, whether voice, fax or data, should be a part of your information technology plan (that includes email, fax, instant messaging, operator consoles, call-routing, etc.). It’s no longer necessary (or advantageous) for these to be separate purchase decisions. Now that you have some ideas on the diversity of offerings to replace your PBX and some of the key terms, I’ll be talking about how to prepare your business to be VoIP-ready. Watch this space!
In my last blog, I mentioned “The FAR Cloud” and I talked a bit about what that means to FAR’s customers. In this blog, I’m going to address the concept in greater detail by explaining what FAR does as an IT managed service provider.
What does “IT managed services” mean?
One of the most common questions I’m asked is: what does FAR do? Most people already know that FAR does something IT related, but information technology is an extremely wide field. There are multiple layers and lots of niches. Historically, most IT firms have specialized in one of a handful of things.
Some IT firms focus on “consulting”, which typically means improving desktop and organization productivity. Some IT firms focus on technical support, and some on custom programming. Still others focus on rolling out and maintaining networks and core infrastructure systems. These are just broad categories, with lots of specific niches (for example, some IT companies focus entirely on setting up, maintaining and troubleshooting their clients’ connections to the Internet).
In contrast, IT managed services firms take a different, more end-to-end approach. IT managed services often includes everything from high-level consulting to very brass tacks technical support and monitoring. As my Chief Marketing Officer says, IT managed services firms provide customers with one back to pat. That’s really what FAR does and part of what sets us apart: we provide small and medium-sized businesses with one back to pat for all of their information technology needs, whether it’s a security audit and analysis, a network implementation, business analysis consulting, or a new laptop.
So, what’s the FAR Cloud?
In my last blog, I discussed the value and hype of cloud computing. I’ll be discussing what to host and what to put in The Cloud in a string of articles over the next few weeks. Cloud computing takes the information technology complexity out of the business premises and moves it to the Internet; FAR takes all of the IT complexities off of our clients’ shoulders, regardless of where the information technology actually sits.
As a managed service provider, FAR provides a cloud of its own so to speak. As far as our customers are concerned, whether a server sits in their server room or is virtualized somewhere on the Internet, FAR makes sure that it works as expected, that it is monitored 24/7 and that it is continuously improved. To use the industry jargon, FAR does the operations, the administration, the management, the provisioning and the troubleshooting (the OAMPT for short) for most of our clients’ IT systems, end-to-end.
Some of our clients have internal IT resources, but most do not. I would say that many of FAR’s clients don’t have an IT team, but that’s not true: that’s the service that FAR provides to them. FAR is their IT team. The FAR Cloud simply refers to the carefully planned, executed and monitored package of information technology software, hardware and software that FARs plans, put into place and then monitors in order to help our clients meet their business challenges.
The FAR Cloud includes doing everything from fixing mice and sound cards when they break, to making sure that servers don’t melt, to network rollouts, to unified communications and voice over IP systems, to making sure the network is secure, and more. “One back to pat” means that if our customers have a business process or information technology challenge, we help them to solve it in a way that’s transparent, but also doesn’t require them to master a lot of technical details. That’s the FAR Cloud.
What’s in it for customers? It’s all about values
The value that IT managed services firms provide to customers it that they (should) take all of that complexity off the customer’s plate, create a solution, put it in place, monitor it, make it work and improve it over time. That’s what the FAR Cloud provides to customers: all of the benefits of an enterprise-level IT solution at a reasonable cost with none of the complexity: peace of mind, the best possible value in terms of meeting their business requirements, and the strongest possible footing for continued growth. If you’re working with an IT vendor who’s not providing that to you, FAR definitely can!
But I’m not just going to say it and hope for the best. Over the next several articles, I’m going to be sharing many of FAR’s insights into what to host and what to keep on premise in terms of your business systems. I’m going to be blogging about how to work with your customers more securely, how to keep your costs low for your email systems, how you can get the most value from a VoIP phone system, how to make unified communications an integral part of your business and a lot more. Be sure to watch this space regularly!
First, what is The Cloud?
The Cloud simply refers to information technologies that are externally hosted or otherwise “virtualized”. For example, your Web site is probably hosted through an Internet service provider. It’s in The Cloud. If you’re using Gmail for email, your email is in The Cloud. If you have “hosted VoIP” or “hosted Microsoft Exchange”, then that means your most business critical tools are in The Cloud. If you use SalesForce.com, Autotask or other software as a service (SaaS) offerings, you’re using The Cloud.
For IT pros, The Cloud is just a new way to refer to a general trend in computing (usually referred to as cloud computing) over the last 20 years to move computing resources and applications off-premise. For businesses, using The Cloud means that they don’t have to worry as directly about administering, managing and provisioning the hardware and underlying software for those applications (along with some up-front savings). There’s nothing especially new about The Cloud (except for the recent round of hype).
Is The Cloud really gaining momentum? Reality bites.
I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, but The Cloud is still a fair amount of unrealized potential and, analysts and vendors aside, a source of confusion for us earthlings. That doesn’t mean The Cloud isn’t useful for some applications. It is. It’s just that small and medium business owners need to be careful to set their expectations accordingly and that IT professionals need to do a better job of educating customers about what the benefits and pitfalls of The Cloud are.
It’s always difficult to predict when a way of managing information technology is going to gain critical mass. Sun declared that the network was the computer in the 1990s. If you read the press at the time, we were all going to have thin-clients on our desks. Corel was converting Word Perfect to JAVA in anticipation of a swing in the market. Things didn’t turn out exactly as expected, did they?
That’s not unusual. Lots of good technologies and good ideas never transform the market. But that doesn’t mean The Cloud isn’t gathering momentum this time around. There are good reasons to believe that there is some truth to the hype about The Cloud. Security, bandwidth, decreasing costs for computing resources and other factors are looking very good for The Cloud, but there are rarely any guarantees with information technology. For now, The Cloud is still on the horizon, and FAR is advising clients to take a wait and see approach unless they have very compelling business reasons to switch to The Cloud.
What should small and medium businesses put in The Cloud and what should they keep on premise?
This is always the most difficult question to answer. It depends on the business. It depends on their costs and business model. It may even depend on the types of customers they service (their verticals). At FAR, we work with customers to put the right solutions in place for their needs. More and more, small and medium businesses, even if they have IT teams in place, need that kind of help from a company like FAR. What is important is using the right tool to meet the right challenge, and using the tools at your disposal (whether they’re in The Cloud or in your server room) in ways that work for your business.
But really, what should and shouldn’t small and medium businesses put in The Cloud?
Most companies can divide their information technology into two key groups: user productivity and related business systems (e.g,. their customer relationship management applications, their project management applications, and so on), and their core infrastructure applications (e.g., Microsoft Exchange, their VoIP phone system, their network and so on). These are general categories and some products straddle both.
The Cloud is sometimes a good way to address the needs of the first group. For example, FAR uses Autotask to manage its professional services automation. We love it. I love it. FAR also hosts a lot of our clients’ Web sites through a virtual Web server provided by an ISP. So, these are both in The Cloud.
The Cloud is often a bad (bad as in costly and potentially dicey) way to manage the second group (core infrastructure products). E-mail, phone services and unified communications, for example, are typically so critical to many businesses and so expensive to host over even a 2 year period that putting them in The Cloud doesn’t make much sense for many small and medium businesses. FAR hosts its Exchange and VoIP phone system on-premise for this reason, as do the majority of our clients.
What key factors should businesses consider?
The Cloud and on-premise solutions are not mutually exclusive ways to solve business problems. They are two different but increasingly related tools to solve the challenges many businesses face. There may be overlap between the two in the same business process.
For example, when I wrote this blog, I wrote it using Microsoft Word on my desktop computer. Then I uploaded it as an attachment to an Autotask project for the proofreader (into The Cloud). So, even though I didn’t write the document in The Cloud, we used The Cloud during the process; now that I am publishing it to this blog, the content is officially in The Cloud again.
Even though we could have used Google Docs to write the blog (and so, used The Cloud from beginning to end), we won’t be switching to Google Docs any time soon. Why not? Microsoft Office provides us with the right cost/benefit ratio and the features that we need. That’s really the best way to make a decision about what to put in The Cloud and what not to put in The Cloud: does it make financial and business process sense?
Beyond that, there are a number of factors to account, but the big questions are usually: What are the costs? How important is this information technology to our business? What level of service does this application require? In some cases, cost-wise, it may make sense to rent an application (in The Cloud), and in some cases, it makes sense to own (on-premise). In some cases, the business system is simply too critical or too complicated to put in The Cloud and an on-premise solution makes the most sense. In other cases, the level of service provided by an external service provider can’t match your business expectations or requirements. The answers to the questions will vary from business to business and from application to application.
The FAR Cloud
As a managed service provider, FAR provides its own “cloud” to our customers (The FAR Cloud, so to speak). We take the business challenges our customers face and put in place a seamless solution that combines on-premise and virtualized products and services with our boutique level of planning, execution, support and monitoring to meet their business requirements and to provide continuous improvement. We make sure that everything just works together.
That’s really the value that good information technology planning and execution provides (whether it’s in The Cloud, on-premise or a combination): reasonable peace of mind at reasonable cost. What FAR provides customers is that peace of mind extended to the whole of their information technology requirements. Over the next several blog entries, I will be giving you some of FARs most common answers to these questions and how The Cloud can be an effective part of your business.
Behind every great business practice, there’s a great tool and someone who knows how to use it. One of the many tools FAR uses to keep our employees productive and our customers happy is Autotask.
Every business has key productivity tools and one of the most critical to FAR is Autotask. Autotask is delivered as a “software as a service” (SaaS) or what is now commonly referred to as “The Cloud”. That means that Autotask hosts the application centrally, and FAR’s employees can login from anywhere.
The same is true for all of our customers. Autotask provides us with strong project management tools to organize our internal communications and workflow, but equally important, with ways to make that process and its status transparent to our clients. The Client Portal allows clients to login and track their tickets, issues and project status any time they like 24 hours a day,7 days a week.
What makes Autotask important to FAR?
We currently have 10 employees with a plan in place to grow to 15 in Q1 2010. A 50% increase in headcount is no small task by itself. Keeping everything smooth requires regular and expected process, but also the ability to improvise in real time to meet customer expectations when necessary. Autotask helps FAR do both.
A competitor enters
No business practice, no process, no tool, and no employee’s performance is ever entirely perfect. I was recently approached by a key competitor to Autotask. I’m mostly agnostic about technology: best tool for the job is the mantra at FAR, and like any business, FAR is always looking to reduce our costs, serve our clients more efficiently — or both!
When I asked this competitor why I should switch from Autotask, the response was surprisingly anemic. For FAR to switch out Autotask for this alternative solution would have provided us with less functionality, fewer benefits at greater cost. It was a no-brainer for us to stick with Autotask.
The moral of this story: if it ain’t broke, plan to continuously improve it.
To stay ahead of competitors, your business needs to improve continuously, and that means your business processes and information technology need to keep up. Human resources, business processes and information technology all require continuous improvement.
What’s important for a small and medium enterprise is to plan and execute that improvement over time — otherwise, you end up with an inflexible business process and an aging tool set that no longer helps your employees get the job done (or, just as likely, makes their jobs more difficult and less productive). In that situation, you go from continuous improvement for low, planned costs, to rip and replace for high and unpredictable costs. Having a plan for your business processes and how they should integrate and make use of your information technology is a simple way to save money and time for your business over time.
Also, businesses should be prepared to use the best tool for the job. Sometimes that means using the “The Cloud” and SaaS, but just as often, it means in-sourcing key components of your network (like your phone system, your Exchange deployment and other business critical tools). Watch this space for the next few weeks as I plan to be writing about The Cloud, and what small and medium enterprises should (or shouldn’t) host.