June 26, 2008

There’s no getting around it: voice and data cabling is expensive. The cost of copper continues to rise, labor isn’t getting cheaper, and it’s arduous figuring out the cabling pathways and termination spaces in your data closet. We’re not big fans of cabling plant projects either, and when we mention this to clients the question we invariably get is –

“So why can’t we just go wireless?”

Here’s our opinion: a wireless network is a wonderful convenience for your guests and employees. But the technology’s not stable enough (nor secure enough) to where we’d advocate replacing a traditional cable plant. If you want access to your network, plug in; just want Internet connectivity, have at the wireless.

So why do we think this? First, stability. Wireless transmits data via radio waves, so connectivity can be inconsistent (think of radio signals in your car, even satellite; they can fade). A consistent connection to your network is a must for efficient utilization (if you’re a QuickBooks user you know what a network hiccup does to your session). Second, security. A wireless signal is not invisible to unauthorized users – it’s seen by one and all and protected by just an encryption key. Break that, you have access to whatever network is available on that signal. That’s not enough when dealing with sensitive business data. It’s why a wireless network is typically segmented off the domain. (Users still have access to the network through a secured connection such as VPN.)

Wireless will one day supplant traditional cable plant as the primary connectivity pathway, but until then you’ll just have to grit your teeth and pull those colorful cables.


June 19, 2008

Creating a good disaster recovery plan is a bit like exercising – you know you should do it but you never seem to get around to it. Make time, because it’s futile to create a disaster recovery plan after the disaster.

A disaster recovery plan (DRP) is part of an overall business continuity plan (BCP) (good definitions can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Business_continuity_plan & http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disaster_recovery). BCP is a much more involved discussion so we’re going to focus this post on DR.

Our definition of a disaster is any event that disrupts typical work processes of users, systems, or lines of business. These can be catastrophic events (e.g., September 11, 1989 SF earthquake, Hurricane Katrina), which tend to be infrequent (thankfully); or they can be common happenings (e.g., circuit outage, failed hard drive, virus infection), which tend to occur with more frequency (unfortunately). Disaster recovery is the process of bringing your users and systems back online, primarily access to data and communications.

Without going into detail overload, here are some practical steps to follow when building your DRP –

1. Communications: Here is where you have the least amount of control – when a circuit goes down all you have is the customer service number; if the outage is in the building facilities or out in the street you are at the mercy of the LEC to repair the issue. Your best plan is to have two circuits from different service providers, such as a primary T1 and a backup from cable or a wireless provider. It can be a pricey solution but it minimizes the risks an outage to your primary circuit takes down your voice, data, or both.

2. Data: Not all data are created equally. Identify the data that are most valuable to your business and execute a backup plan that secures those data on a regular basis (at least daily). Backup is step one; step two is your recovery plan. For common disruptions where access to your work environment is not compromised develop a plan for immediate recovery of data from your backups, whether those are tapes, an online solution, or even an external hard drive. As long as the data is safe, you have a lot of control over this part of your recovery.

3. Systems: This could be a desktop or a server or a faulty firewall. Again, as the equipment and software is under your control you have a greater number of options. Still, you may be limited in the type of response based on the outage cause. Hardware takes at least a day to replace (be sure to keep all machines under warranty); virus infections may require a full system rebuild (a few hours at minimum). Your best plan will assign a priority to each system and then reverse engineer the recovery based on how and who uses the systems. The final plan will have many tentacles but provide the perfect road map for returning your business functions to normal.


June 18, 2008

As much as I try to hide it, my girlfriend can always tell by just looking at the back of my head that the Phillies have lost. I admit it, I'm a man.

OK, chill out about Tiger Woods. I am as amazed as anyone that the guy had the 3rd surgery on his knee in April, doesn't play a competitive round of golf until last Thursday, and still wins the hardest tournament on the tour. But come on... enough with the deification. And I want to walk a round with Rocco Mediate just for a hug at the end.

Music pick of the week - VNV Nation. Favorite EBM band fronted by a fellow Irishman (though they're based in Germany). Check them out http://www.vnvnation.com.

Liked "The incredible Hulk" well enough (also liked the first one, "Hulk"). That said, something's still missing from the mix. And what's with making Hulk weaker than the first movie? I mean come on, Hulk threw a tank in the first one - I wanted to see him do that again. "Iron Man" is still favorite of the summer season (that is until "The Dark Knight" opens).

I hate to quit a book but I finally closed the book on Nostormo by Joseph Conrad. Got to page 90 and threw up the white flag. Going to read a Dennis Lehane book now just to get a little dirty. (Tidbit - Nostromo is the name of the ship in "Alien.")


June 12, 2008

While you can slice and dice VoIP into various flavors, the two prominent solutions we’ll discuss in this posting are hosted and premise-based systems.

By way of definition, a hosted VoIP solution is essentially voice as a service (SaaS – a ubiquitous acronym that is popping up for other services and equipment). Customers of hosted voice systems generally buy phones and switches – the hosting provider controls everything from the router to the switching gear in a data center, as well as the software that drives the functionality. The phones are configured to go out the voice switches (or a converged switching environment with QoS configured on the switch) and across a dedicated Internet connection (this provides guaranteed performance to the switch but the public Internet can be used as well) to the hosting provider’s switch, and then out to the world at large via the Internet of Public Switch Telephone Network (PSTN).

With premise-based VoIP, a Private Branch eXchange (PBX) sits in the data closet and connects to the outside world via a digital circuit. The phones are configured to travel through the PBX switch, across the digital circuit to the LEC Central Office (CO), and then out to the world via the Internet of PSTN. In this instance, all functionality is contained and configured on the PBX.

As to the better solution, like all things with technology, that depends on your business requirements. There are pros and cons for both solutions. If you’re looking for greater control and integration capabilities with other applications, a PBX-based system is the obvious choice. If you’re looking to minimize upfront expenses or have multiple offices, the hosted VoIP option would be a more appealing option. Both will provide failover options in the event of an outage to the primary circuit; both have the potential to grow with your business; both provide greater calling routing options, especially for remote users or those users out of the office on a regular basis; the list goes on.

So which one is best for your business? Take a hard look at your requirements and budget numbers; that will determine which route to take. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to get outside advice to be sure you make an informed decision.

June 05, 2008

The technology’s been around for decades but only recently are businesses making a push to ask – is VoIP right for my business? We can relay a number of success stories due to a VoIP installation: a client saved thousands of dollars on its annual phone bills; a shared office space created a more efficient virtual office offering for their tenants; a client with 200 satellite locations reduced the cost and time to deployment of these offices by switching to VoIP.

While success stories are great marketing for VoIP, if you’re like most business owners you still have a lot of questions about the reliability and real costs of VoIP. Is the technology solid enough for business use? Yes. Is it cheaper than traditional phone lines? In the long run almost always. Does it make sense for my company to switch? That depends.

VoIP, or Voice over IP, is a family of technologies that enable you to use your IP network for voice applications, such as telephony, voice instant messaging, and teleconferencing. In the last 10 years VoIP technology has evolved to where it’s a viable alternative to Ma Bell. Here are three things to consider as you decide if VoIP is right for your business:

1. How you use your phones. Do you make a lot of outbound calls? Do you conduct video conferences or traditional tele-conferences? Do you want to integrate your voice system with a customer relationship management (CRM) or time management software, or possibly a predictive dialer? Do you call internationally? How you use your voice system and service is the primary determinant of whether VoIP is right for your business. Take the time to conduct a usage audit and use that information as your baseline when study the VoIP option.

2. Where you use your phones. VoIP is a tremendous benefit for those who use their phones in geographically dispersed regions. Whether you have multiple offices in the same city, satellite offices in other cities, or home-based workers, VoIP provides a native infrastructure to handle the requirements posed by a multi-site configuration. You don’t even require a physical phone any longer; a soft phone (software on a computer that acts as phone) allows for a fully functional system with access to a high-speed Internet connection (allows your voice system to track calls instead of missing the conversation when a cell phone is used).

3. Supporting infrastructure. While VoIP is a still a voice application, it’s treated like data by your infrastructure (i.e., cable plant, switches, router, firewall). VoIP allows for the convergence of your voice and data traffic – one CAT 5e cable handles all traffic to your switches; the switches can be programmed with Quality of Service protocols (QoS) to assign priority to voice packets (avoid static, echo, delays); voice can even be programmed to fail over in case the primary connection is unavailable.

Next week’s topic… the difference between hosted and premise-based VoIP.