The voice environment is one that is critical to business and has been for many years. As a result, organisations are constantly looking to find ways of making voice run more cost effectively from an internal perspective, first with networking, by running pipes between branches to physically connect them, and then with voice over IP (VOIP) technology.
The issue that crept in with networking was once again that of bandwidth, as it has been historically too expensive to dedicate bandwidth solely to voice traffic. Added to this was the cost of duplicating equipment in every branch and office, and the trouble of networking different brands together, which happened with limited success.
"As connectivity has evolved and the cost of bandwidth has decreased in the last few years, and this bandwidth has become more reliable than previously, the latest discussion to emerge has been around centralisation of the voice environment," says Steve Webster, CEO at The Webcom Group.
"Centralisation ultimately involves one telephone number for the whole company, with one receptionist. Centralised administration will be put into place as a result, so only one IT manager is needed at the head office who can manage branches remotely, and there is only one set of SLAs around the voice environment for the entire organisation so managing this becomes a far simpler task," adds Bryant Dennis, co-owner of Converged Telecoms, a Webcom Group partner.
While talk of centralisation has grown over the last few years, cost remains the biggest stumbling block as a lot of big brand solutions are incredibly bandwidth hungry, and from a hardware perspective the environment itself can be complex and costly to implement.
However, technology as always is evolving and solutions are beginning to chew up less bandwidth than before, as much as 90% less than previously, making this type of solution a more viable and realistic option than before.
"In South Africa the centralised voice environment is particularly well suited, as a lot of organisations have a head office with smaller branches across the country, which is fairly simple to centralise and implement less local redundancy by placing a node at the head office and then licensing the branches as extensions on the main system.
"Slaves or gateway systems can be installed into branch offices, which can easily be replaced if things go wrong, and all configurations can be conducted remotely via a VPN, as well as the majority of maintenance," says Webster.
This model is particularly beneficial in South Africa as head offices tend to be based in Gauteng, which is also the technology hub of the country and as a result where all of the technical resources reside.
Centralisation then has added benefits in that the main system is located in the same region as the people required to manage and maintain it, which once again furthers cost effectiveness as it saves on travel expenses and time for resources.
"Centralisation not only has benefits from a manpower perspective, the one number concept turns organisations into true national concerns," says Dennis.
"Calls can be routed from the central number using VoIP, and with screen-based consoles it is easy to see if people are available on their lines. Fixed mobile extensions even allow for cellular phones and home telephones to form part of the network, enabling true mobile networking through seamless centralised communication."
When looking to implement a centralised environment it is vital to understand the requirements of the environment, as well as resiliency and redundancy. An intimate understanding of data and bandwidth is also required, often necessitating specialised skills, which generally means finding an organisation to partner with.
This partner needs to be able to work with an organisation's data and ISP providers to deliver a solution that will ensure seamless integration, otherwise the central environment will not deliver as expected.
"Finding the right people to work with only becomes more important as solutions continue to become increasingly complex," Dennis adds.
"It is also important to ensure that best of breed solutions can be delivered across the board, which does not necessarily mean solutions only from one vendor or brand, so open standards and interoperability become important as a result. Ensuring that a mixed environment will function correctly is key."
Developing a business case for centralising the voice environment requires an understanding of exactly what it is the organisation wishes to achieve, as the solution must fit the needs of the organisation.
A multi-branch environment in an organisation that sees the value in the one number concept is generally a good starting point for considering the centralised route, as if these factors are in place it is possible to reduce costs through free internal calls as well as reduce manpower costs, which can deliver significant savings through simplified IT administration.
Administration also becomes easier, and reaction times are faster, so maintenance is improved and downtime is greatly reduced particularly in more remote branches.
"At its heart, centralisation takes multiple branches countrywide or even across the globe and joins them together into one entity, saving on manpower costs and administration. It also has the power to put the technology where the brains are, and simplifies maintenance as VPN can be used to fix the majority of problems in branch systems," Webster adds.
"Now that the bandwidth issue in South Africa has for the most part been resolved and technology has evolved to use less bandwidth than previously, centralisation has become a viable solution in South Africa and organisations can begin to take advantage of the numerous benefits it delivers," he concludes.