VoIP choice: in-house or carrier?

With voice over IP now firmly on the radar of CIOs looking to reduce their communication expenses, and with the larger data carriers able to offer VoIP services, the age-old question remains - manage it in-house or via a service provider?

Law firm Clayton Utz's facilities manager Les Wark told Computerworld that the benefits of running you own VoIP infrastructure include control, being able to make changes and enhancements on your time, and the ability to gain the full feature set of the on-site system.

"The advantage in having a carrier-based managed solution is that the company does not require any in-house technical skills to implement and manage the network and may have access to some innovative commercial solutions," he said. "And if they are a small company the managed service may cost less than an in-house solution."

Wark, who managed the deployment of in-house VoIP at Clayton Utz, said carriers tend to offer a one-size-fits-all solution.

"We need specialist applications to interact with the phone system," he said. "Being internal increases security and flexibility and we were interested in developing further capabilities using IP telephony and related applications inside our business."

Wark believes that while cost is an important issue, the greater issues in deciding between in-house versus a managed service relate to a company's willingness or ability to have the necessary skills in-house to support the network, and its need to have total control or ownership of the network.

As to which is likely to be most cost-effective, Wark said: "The size of the business is the determining factor; in our case we have the economies of scale."

Regarding the possibility of a failed in-house VoIP project leading to higher-than-expected support costs, Wark said IP telephony is now past its infancy and with the correct QoS data network it is no more likely to fail than a conventional system.

"In fact, ours has the same inherent resilience as a conventional telephone system," he said. "The need to support a growing business is one of the true benefits of an IP telephony system - not a vulnerability; support costs will go down as we deploy more VoIP."

Wark said IP telephony has specific areas where it offers benefits, but it does not offer benefits in all areas.

"Some staff that rarely move, do not travel or work from home, currently do not benefit from IP telephony; however, those that do really reap the benefits," he said. "Therefore a mix of IP and digital is the best solution for a business like ours. Soft phone use for home-office users, staff that travel or move across offices, delivers significant savings and benefits to the organization."

Clayton Utz is now looking at the next stage of audio and videoconferencing, simultaneous voice, e-mail and instant messaging activities, and the ability to work collaboratively with one or more colleagues while on a voice call.

On the service provider's side, AAPT's head of VoIP strategy Jeff Putt, said comparing in-house and managed VoIP is akin to when Web sites first came out and people soon realized that unless it is their core business, running Web sites can be quite distracting.

"Now pretty much everyone has outsourced their Web sites to hosting providers and they are controlling their application, but the hardware is being managed by someone else," Putt said.

Putt said that for a point solution, doing VoIP yourself may be the right way to go, but using a carrier can provide more of a roadmap.

"For roadmap, growth, and future you want to invest your money with someone who you agree with, rather than trying to cobble it together yourself," he said. "You'll end up with different kinds of piecemeal solutions which may or may not integrate in the future and may or may not meet your future communications needs."

Speaking at this year's CIO conference in Sydney, Putt said IP telephony takes away the application from the infrastructure, and networking equipment "satisfies that need". However, CIOs need to remember they're on an application and feature-based roadmap.

"What about advanced features like videoconferencing? As each application comes along, how do you future-proof yourself?" he said.

"We will give you improved control, nationwide, over your voice system and deliver it as an IP service. And you can also use that IP service for other applications."

Putt said AAPT customers already have a voice VPN, which is not something "you have to pay another $100,000 to bolt on".

"For multiple location installations we have a real advantage over location-based solutions," he said. "Offices and locations advance at different rates and [carriers] give one pipe, one bill, and one interface."

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