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Relocation Challenges of the IT Department, Part 5: Installing a New Phone System

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In Part 5 of his series on IT relocation strategies, Greg Kirkland describes the process of selecting and installing a new phone system.
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My company, a large accounting firm, recently moved our Indianapolis headquarters. As part of the move, we decided to buy a new phone system. Previously, we used a shared-tenant phone system; that is, a system shared by multiple companies. Our provider owned the system, provided service, and maintained the system. We simply purchased our own phones. The great thing about the shared tenant program was that all of the maintenance was handled by the provider. The downside was paying for every move, addition, or change (called MAC work). It cost us about $80 every time we hired or lost an employee or moved someone from one office to another. In addition, we paid monthly maintenance fees for every phone line.

When planning our move, we decided to invest in owning and operating our own phone system. There are no extra fees, and our IT group now provides extra value to the firm by doing the phone setup and support internally. This increased responsibility was seen as a positive step by management, reflecting our ability and willingness to provide additional support to users.

We also gained considerable control over our operation. No longer do we have to pay $80 MAC fees every time we hook up a phone. In the first week in our new building, we moved about eight people. We saved $640 in just that one week by doing the MAC work ourselves.

It's also great not having to rely on other companies for such simple tasks. We used to have to call our shared tenant vendor five business days before we needed a change to be implemented. Now, we can make changes within minutes of the decision.

Phone Technologies

Let's talk a little bit about the types of phone systems on the market. Typically, they fall into two categories: Private Branch Exchange (PBX) or Internet Protocol (IP) Telephony.

PBX is the traditional type of phone system that most businesses have used for years. This proprietary system works only with specialized hardware and telephones, and is probably mounted on the wall in a telephone closet. The strongest asset of a PBX system is its reliability.

IP phone systems normally consist of PC servers running TCP/IP and interfacing with other servers in the computer room. They're new (less than five years old) and have a small share of the market. Their strengths are compatible functions on the PC network and toll-bypass functionality (free long distance). IP phones can also be used in remote locations—home, a client's office, a hotel—to connect to the main phone system. This is a very powerful feature for the work-from-home staff member or the "road warrior." To use it, you simply need an Internet connection and an IP address. The phone is registered on the system; when connecting, the system authenticates the phone by its IP address.

One weakness of an IP system is that it requires sophisticated routers and network switches to support the additional traffic on the data network. While this high-tech solution may well be the system of the future, buying new routers and switches on top of buying phone system server equipment puts the price out of reach for many of us.

IP phones are computers. Therefore they require power, which comes in one of two ways: A/C adapter or inline. Most of us are used to the phone running on the power provided through a single phone line plugged into the phone (inline power); PBX systems do this natively. Using A/C adapters on phones limits the placement of the phone on desks, tables, conference rooms, and kitchens that are not next to the wall (where the power outlet is).

IP phones also require upgraded routers to add electricity to the patch cords to power the phone in your office. That's expensive: Routers can cost $100,000. Add that to the price of your phone system, and it becomes difficult to justify the cost of IP for a small to mid-size company—especially if you have a single office, or multiple offices that can reach each other with a free local phone call.

A new hybrid phone system is available from a few vendors. It has the reliability of a PBX system, can be hooked up to your data network, and can even support IP telephones (when you're ready for them). This is the type of system we selected for our new office: Inter-Tel's Axxess system is a PBX system at heart, but has PC servers for call processing and voice mail, and includes a new feature called unified messaging.

Unified Messaging

For years was foretold a "universal inbox," the place where you could go to get all your messages: email, voice mail, and fax. That is what unified messaging (UM) is. It's real and it's great! Of course, you already get your email in your inbox, and many companies have fax servers that allow you to send and receive fax messages, but adding voice mail to this mix proves to be a powerful combination. Imagine getting a voice mail and forwarding it via email to a colleague—perhaps even adding a document or graphic. Regular PBX systems can forward messages to another voice mailbox, but by accessing a message from your computer, UM can convert voice mail into a .WAV sound file that can be forwarded outside of the phone system to any email client and played by any PC with speakers attached. This affords you many options in handling communications for your business.

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