11 November 2018

Your Phone System Is Not Going Anywhere

Rumors of your phone system's demise
are greatly exaggerated.
Perhaps the most common theme among telecommunications analysts and "experts" is the pending demise of the phone system, or PBX. Phone systems are obsolete, we are told, and desk phones are not far behind. Everything voice related will exist "in the cloud"--or so we are told.

As with most simplistic views of technology, this assessment is mostly wrong. Telecommunications technology has evolved and continues to evolve, but telecommunications is not a dying technology and telecommunications systems--including both the PBX and the desk phone--are not dying either.

Consider the three most common jobs in America:
The modern workplace still revolves around a desk and a phone
  • Retail Sales
  • Cashier
  • Office Clerk
No matter your industry or type of business, no matter how you organize your business, the odds are very high you employ at least one of these three types of workers--or your employees perform tasks that fall under one of these three categories of work. Add in other work categories such as customer service and call center occupations and one quickly touches upon virtually every business in America.

What do these occupations have in common? They all involve being in a single place, working from either a desk or a station of some kind. While the "future of work" might be some highly mobile and decentralized environment, the present of work is not mobile, not spread out, and takes place in a single location. Even remote workers are not drifting hither and yon, but work from a single place--oftentimes a home office.

With most work still occurring in a single central place, what is gained by decentralizing telecommunications? There is no functional efficiency gained within a business by discarding phones and phone systems in favor of ethereal "cloud" solutions that pretend as if telecommunications itself does not still mandate some physical device. Your phone system is not going anywhere, and neither is your desk phone--because that is not what you want or need.

VoIP Hardware is generic PC and Server Hardware
What is happening is that how that phone system operates is changing.  Instead of being a single purpose piece of hardware that cannot be repurposed for other use, or shared with other business functions, your phone system is now just another computer. Instead of your desk phone requiring a special connection that cannot be used by anything else, your desk phone is now a network device. The technological foundations of that phone system are now based on computer networking fundamentals, rather than on an isolated, non-integrated set of voice communications principles.  The phone system, as it were, is now a phone server.

Is that a major change to the end user? No. People still use phone systems the same way they have since the days of Alexander Graham Bell--to talk to other people, be they in the next room or in the next state. No matter what changes under the hood, this is still the mission of telecommunications, helping people talk to each other. If you are in business, you want to talk to people, you want to interact with them, you want to communicate with them--for otherwise there is no business to be had.

What is a major change to the end user is the cost of telecommunications.  Because a phone system is no longer a specialized device, it is now just another computer--be it server or appliance--that is connected to your network in some form or fashion, and runs software that does what traditional phone systems and switches used to do. Because your phone system is now your phone server, the cost of the system is much less--a small server or appliance that can be used for almost any type of application costs only a fraction of a specialized single-purpose device, and, thanks to the virtues of Open Source software, the necessary applications are oftentimes "free".

In actuality, Open Source software such as Asterisk™ and OpenSIPS are not completely without cost. Rather, the cost is all directed towards the telecommunications professional that can install and configure the software.  I characterize the distinction between commercial and Open Source software as the difference between investing in a product and investing in people--who are needed to set up the product no matter what. That companies such as IBM and Microsoft are acquiring businesses who are exclusively grounded in developing and distributing Open Source software demonstrates that it is not merely viable, but is in fact the future of software--which makes it the future of phone systems as well.

"But," I hear you say, "that software will be running out in the cloud. I don't need a server." Is that so? As I have written previously, the cloud can be more problem than solution. The cloud does not scale and is neither simple nor even economical. It may be convenient, but no more than that. Consider the following limitations of solutions off in the cloud:
  • They depend on you having a reliable and sufficiently robust Internet connection. While this is usually achievable, every Internet Service Provider will experience outages, and every Internet customer will suffer a loss of service, if only because of a cut fiber optic cable somewhere.  If the entirety of your telecommunications is off in the cloud, when your Internet connection goes down (and it will), you lose even internal communications; in a cloud telecommunications solution, without Internet there is not even communication from the front office to the back office within your place of business.
  • They depend on someone else showing good stewardship of the solution. Moving solutions to the cloud means moving control of your application and even your data into someone else's hands. It means moving your business processes onto someone else's infrastructure. If they fail to perform as needed, your only effective recourse is to move applications and processes to a different cloud provider. If the personnel supporting a premise-based solution fail to perform, your options range from replacing personnel to replacing applications to replacing both. The cloud inherently represents a loss of control.
However, even if the software is run off in the cloud, the phone system function is still being performed. Even a cloud telecommunications solution requires you have a phone in order to use it. There is no phone solution that does not involve phones. There is no voice solution that does not involve phones. Even with the cloud, you will still have a phone system of some kind.

Will your phone solution be in the cloud?  Possibly. If it makes sense, that is where it should be--and the most fundamental business question is always "does this make sense?" Where particular resources should reside should be driven by the needs of your particular business, by what makes sense for your business, and not by what is trending or popular among analysts and experts. Whether it makes sense for your phone system to be on premise or in the cloud, however, your phone system will always exist somewhere. A phone system in the cloud is still a phone system.

At Voice The Right Way, we deliver phone systems and services that utilize a full
At Voice TRW, we make technology valuable to you
range of both on-premise and cloud alternatives.  We have customers that use on-premise solutions, we have customers that rely on our cloud solutions, and we have customers that make creative use of both. We develop and extend our Open Source based platform to put phone services exactly where the customer needs them. This is how I know that, so long as our customers need to communicate with people, their phone systems are not going anywhere.

So long as you need to communicate with other people, your phone system is not going anywhere.

27 August 2018

SIP Is Not Just The Future, It's Also The Present. Your ISDN Lines Are Yesterday's Telecom.

Every business sector is highly competitive and no organisation can afford to stand still. Adaptation is a necessity, not just for your business processes, but for the technology and infrastructure which power those processes. Nowhere is this more true than in telecommunications.
For many years, the mainstay of business telecommunications has been ISDN lines delivered by one of the traditional carriers. However, even the traditional carriers are moving away from ISDN and embracing Voice Over IP for their future network plans--and many are embracing SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) as the VoIP technology of choice. If the carriers are moving away from ISDN, then it follows that businesses large and small must do so as well.
If your organisation is still using ISDN, not only is your telecom solution well down the road towards obsolescence, it very likely is stifling innovation and reducing your company's efficiency and competitiveness. SIP offers businesses many benefits over traditional ISDN. These include:
Speed of deployment:
ISDN requires a physical line from the carrier be installed.  Lead times on a physical circuit are under the best of conditions 30 to 45 days, and sometimes can go longer. Lead times for a SIP trunking solution can be measured in hours, or perhaps a few days, depending on the size and complexity of the requirements. 
One ISDN PRI line supports at most 23 concurrent phone calls. If that line is full, a new physical line must be installed (with the same 30 to 45 day lead time). Once SIP is in place, additional trunks can also be added much more quickly in order to meet increased demand at peak times--at Voice The Right Way, we can increase a client's SIP trunk capacity with literally just a few key strokes.
SIP utilizes your company's data networks, including its Internet connection. Even if a particular solution makes a business case for a dedicated data connection, it is still fundamentally an Internet connection, and can be shared with other applications. ISDN channels are for phone calls only. 
As a result of this transport-neutral aspect, SIP trunks can be immediately deployed wherever you need them.  Voice The Right Way customers generally see no configuration change with us when they relocate their offices or change Internet providers. With ISDN, an office move involves ordering of new physical lines for the new location, and coordinating the transfer of services from one set of lines to the other.
Moreover, telephone numbers provided with ISDN are, in the main, geographically defined--unless you pay extra. With SIP trunking, there is no mandatory linkage between where you are and which telephone numbers you use; one set of phone numbers can be shared among multiple sites, or a single site can have phone numbers from multiple localities. Voice The Right Way customers often have phone numbers in multiple localities--and can even obtain international numbers to build an overseas presence. 
With SIP trunking, your phone system can grow as your organisation grows. It’s easy to increase the number of lines you require and simple to extend your company phone system to new offices. 
Many businesses have peaks and troughs throughout the year when it comes call volume. A target sales or marketing campaign also can cause a temporary increase in call volume. ISDN is not rarely either the most flexible or cost-effective option to deal with this type of demand. Even if you can increase the number of ISDN lines to meet the demand, you are left paying for unused channels when demand falls. SIP trunking enables organisations to adjust capacity based on actual need, not transient peak loads. Simply put, with SIP trunking, you pay for what you use, not what you rent.
Resilience and Reliability
What would happen if your phone system failed, or there was a disaster at one of your sites? ISDN is vulnerable to a single point of failure – if ISDN lines go down, implementing call forwarding and rerouting of numbers can take hours--assuming the carrier even provides the option--and it is a costly exercise. Meanwhile, your customers, suppliers and contacts would be unable to reach you, leading to frustration at the very least. The inability to conduct business in the meantime is extremely costly--lost revenue is always by far the largest cost of downtime.
SIP trunking has no such limitations.  Again, the transport-neutral aspect means SIP trunks can be provisioned to offer automatic call rerouting to other sites and over additional lines, seamlessly and automatically. Whether the outage is a simple power outage or a catastrophic disaster forcing a temporary office closure, SIP trunks can seamlessly reroute to alternate destinations. At Voice The Right Way, such rollover options are part of our basic service, not a costly add-on, which means a robust disaster recovery plan becomes part of your standard service.
Cost-Effective Quality
SIP trunks can deliver enterprise-grade voice services over your existing data network and Internet connection, or can use a dedicated data connection when the business use can call volume warrant. Most commonly, businesses are able to combine Internet/data and VoIP telecommunications bandwidth on a single set of circuits, resulting in more efficient use of those circuits--with corresponding cost savings--without sacrificing call quality. 
These benefits of modern VoIP telecommunications and SIP trunking are what are driving both carriers and businesses to transition away from ISDN lines. Compared to yesterday's ISDN lines, leveraging SIP Trunking means that your organisation is able to enhance customer communications, which elevates the quality of service you can offer. This gives competitive advantage to companies using VoIP and places companies still using ISDN lines at a disadvantage.

Which group do you want to be in?

25 June 2018

WARNING: "The Cloud" Can Be More Problem Than Solution

The single most influential technology marketing phrase in the past decade has been "the cloud".  From ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt first using the term in 2006 until now, "the cloud" has been variously touted as both the solution to all technology problems and the greatest technological innovation since the transistor.

What a pity neither assertion is true.

The economic argument for the cloud comes from the presumed cost savings achieved by cloud infrastructures themselves.  To be simple and blunt, such savings do not exist. 

One need only look at Amazon's own dedicated pricing to realize this. When Amazon offers a 70% price discount for a dedicated server over their "on-demand" configurations, the economic conclusion is inescapable: cloud services do not scale. 

I say again: The cloud does not scale.

Nor are application-specific cloud solutions any different--in fact, for the quintessential cloud application, Voice Over IP (VoIP), the scalability is even worse.  If one takes the typical pricing for a VoIP "seat" or "user" (i.e., a single telephone extension), beyond approximately twelve users the average business will spend less money with a dedicated PBX system--nor does hosting the PBX with a co-location provider alter the cost picture:
“Cloud” Pricing
Voice The Right Way Hosted PBX +/-
# of Extensions Cost per Extension Total Cost
# SIP Trunks needed Cost per SIP Trunk Colo/Hosting fee Total Cost
1 $20.00 $20.00
1 $25.00 $100.00 $125.00 -$105.00
2 $20.00 $40.00
1 $25.00 $100.00 $125.00 -$85.00
3 $20.00 $60.00
2 $25.00 $100.00 $150.00 -$90.00
4 $20.00 $80.00
2 $25.00 $100.00 $150.00 -$70.00
5 $20.00 $100.00
3 $25.00 $100.00 $175.00 -$75.00
6 $20.00 $120.00
3 $25.00 $100.00 $175.00 -$55.00
7 $20.00 $140.00
3 $25.00 $100.00 $175.00 -$35.00
8 $20.00 $160.00
4 $25.00 $100.00 $200.00 -$40.00
9 $20.00 $180.00
4 $25.00 $100.00 $200.00 -$20.00
10 $20.00 $200.00
5 $25.00 $100.00 $225.00 -$25.00
11 $20.00 $220.00
5 $25.00 $100.00 $225.00 -$5.00
12 $20.00 $240.00
5 $25.00 $100.00 $225.00 $15.00
13 $20.00 $260.00
6 $25.00 $100.00 $250.00 $10.00
14 $20.00 $280.00
6 $25.00 $100.00 $250.00 $30.00
15 $20.00 $300.00
7 $25.00 $100.00 $275.00 $25.00
16 $20.00 $320.00
7 $25.00 $100.00 $275.00 $45.00
17 $20.00 $340.00
7 $25.00 $100.00 $275.00 $65.00
18 $20.00 $360.00
8 $25.00 $100.00 $300.00 $60.00
19 $20.00 $380.00
8 $25.00 $100.00 $300.00 $80.00
20 $20.00 $400.00
9 $25.00 $100.00 $325.00 $75.00

Where are the cost savings the cloud is supposed to provide?  The cost savings of a hosted PBX for just twenty users for one month, extended across two or three years, will more than cover any up front cost for the necessary hardware, and still leave enough for the occasional adds, moves, and changes that might be required.

The cloud does not scale.

Nor does the cloud simplify either application or infrastructure management--quite the opposite. Does this Amazon Web Service architecture look "simple"?

Example of redundant web hosting architecture built on AWS.  Requires seven different AWS services.

The cloud does not scale.

Can the cloud deliver superior performance? Hardly.  The laws of physics get in the way.  In a "shared" environment--which cloud infrastructures are, every computer operation must wait in line, and even if the delays are measured in nanoseconds or even picoseconds, the cumulative impact on application and system performance is noticeable.  Network latencies are even more impactful--the average network delay within a local network is less than a millisecond, but across even a private wide area network that delay quadruples to approximately 2 milliseconds at least, and across the Internet the delay is even greater. That delay applies to each and every packet that must traverse the network, thus adding multiple seconds to opening even a small spreadsheet or other document, and the larger the file, the longer it takes to open, save, and close properly.

The cloud does not scale.

The cloud is not cost effective. The cloud is not simple. The cloud is not robust.  Thus comes the question "why use the cloud?" The answer is "convenience".  Cloud storage is a convenient and easily implemented backup solution. VoIP in the cloud is easy to set up and operate for a single user. Businesses turn to the cloud because they believe, rightly or wrongly, that it is the easiest solution to implement.

The cloud does not scale, but scalability is not the sole virtue in any technology, system, or infrastructure.  The one-person business only needs but a single phone, and the convenience of the cloud means that phone--that extension--can follow the person wherever he or she goes. Even a large business' web site only consumes resources when visitors are browsing it, making it a great fit for an on-demand environment such as a cloud provider; for small applications, for simple applications, convenience is a greater virtue than scalability. Which virtue should be the primary virtue is a question that must be addressed per-application and per-system.  It is a design question, perhaps the design question--what are the best resources for the system or application?

The cloud is merely a resource. It is but one resource among many resources, one solution among many solutions.  It is a tool--it can be a useful tool, but it can never be more than a tool. Just as one does not use a screwdriver to pound a nail, or a chisel to tighten a screw, neither should one use the cloud where a server is the better tool.

Use the cloud where the cloud fits, and use other resources where other resources are a better fit. Attempting to make the cloud the solution to all technology problems will only result in the cloud being more problem than solution.

09 February 2018

For want of a nail: Technology demands attention to all details

For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
Little problems have big consequences
For want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For want of a horse the knight was lost,
For want of a knight the battle was lost,
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost--.
All for want of a nail!

This proverb dates back to the 13th century, yet, like most sayings, has lost none of its relevance.  One missed detail, one overlooked item, can bring the best, most elegant of plans crashing down in ruin.

Recently, one of our upstream carriers experienced a significant outage.  While outages are always troubling, the impact to our network was limited to certain blocks of telephone numbers not being able to call in.  However, the impact on the carrier's infrastructure was much more significant--not only were their VoIP transport services disrupted, but their support systems and even main website were affected.  They encountered the dreaded "single point of failure" in a major way.

What was the cause of this outage?  Hardware failure.  A key storage subsystem died unexpectedly, and the process of replacing that unit proved more challenging, more time consuming, and more disruptive than previously anticipated.

For the want of a hard drive, an array was lost.
Small failures can cause big problems
For want of an array, a storage server was lost.
For want of a storage server, an application server was lost.
For want of an application server, a service was lost.
For want of a service, a network was lost--
And all for the want of a hard drive!

I am, obviously, guilty of egregious oversimplification with that adaptation of the proverb. However, it does emphasize the continuing relevance of the tiniest of details, even in the most advanced of technologies.  No matter the application, no matter the vendor, no matter the infrastructure, all details matter--always.

Technology vendors in all forms are quite willing to boast of the sophistication of their technology.  Often, their boasts have real merit.  At Voice The Right Way, we pride ourselves in our leveraging of Open Source Voice over IP and network management technologies to deliver cost-effective telecommunications and network support services that are scalable and valuable to organizations large and small.  

Yet we also pride ourselves in our willingness and ability to address the tiny details.  We pay attention to network inventories and architectures when onboarding customers.  We emphasize the importance of working through the client's preferred dial plan, to ensure their calls are actually handled in the manner they want.  We are always striving to make our network more resilient and more fault tolerant, using redundant systems and a variety of failover protocols to achieve maximum uptime.

We do not claim perfection. We do not pretend our systems are invulnerable.  They are not, and they never will be.  
All Details Matter

What we do claim is a commitment to an ongoing process of improvement, of uncovering and addressing vulnerabilities. While we admit to our human capacity for mistake, we also claim a commitment to learning from all mistakes, to turning past failures into future successes.

Technology can be a valuable resource to any enterprise. Yet, to achieve its full potential for your enterprise, your technology partners must be able to address all the tiny details connected to their products and services.  Failure to address those details raises the risk of technology failure to your project, and ultimately to your business.  As the proverb suggests, all such failures are absolutely preventable--simply by paying attention to details.

15 January 2018

Who's Calling Me? Why Caller ID Spoofing is a growing concern.

Have you answered a call lately thinking it was from someone you knew, only to find out it was a telemarketer or robodialer? You are not alone. Caller ID tells us who is calling, or at least from what number they are calling--but Caller ID is not always reliable.  With a surprisingly small amount of effort, almost any one can pretend to be calling from a number wholly unrelated to them or anything they might be doing.  It's called Caller ID Spoofing, and as VoIP services continue to advance in the marketplace, Caller ID Spoofing is advancing right alongside.
What is Caller ID Spoofing?
Caller ID spoofing is the act of altering the phone number you present to when making a call. This is actually a longstanding feature of telecom services that predates Voice Over IP.  Legacy PBX systems have long inserted a specific origination number into outbound call sessions, and legacy telecommunications circuits support this--it is commonly known as "Enterprise Trunking", or "Enterprise SIP Trunking" on modern VoIP connections.  Because the origination number is specifically inserted, the PBX system can easily insert just about any number selected, and phone networks will almost always allow the call to proceed normally.  Enterprise SIP Trunking becomes Caller ID Spoofing when the number is inserted specifically to conceal the caller's identity, or to otherwise deceive the callee.
Spoofing can be a crime
There are circumstances where Caller ID Spoofing is illegal.  For example, if Caller ID is falsified in order to commit some form of fraud, the Truth in Caller ID Act (PL 111-331) makes that falsification a crime all on its own.
Where is spoofing "lawful"?  In general, Caller ID Spoofing is lawful when the purpose itself is not illegal or criminal.  Ride sharing services such as Uber and Lyft use the masking of caller ID to facilitate prospective drivers and riders communicating without sacrificing valued privacy. Many small businesses will want a specific number applied to all outbound calls, to ensure that returned calls are handled in a preplanned fashion--at Aruna Communications, part of onboarding a customer is determining what number they wish to have on their outbound calls, and that number is not always one that we host.
Then there is the grey area where Caller ID Spoofing is of questionable propriety.  Telemarketers use Caller ID Spoofing as a way to circumvent number blacklists and call blocking apps.  To the extent that telemarketing itself is a legal and legitimate activity, the law generally considers the spoofing to also be legal and legitimate.  The extent to which the spoofing in such cases is ethical and proper is at best problematic.
Spoofers pretend to be near you
On the legacy PSTN phone network, numbers have geographic significance.  The first six digits of a phone number, known as the NPA-NXX number, identify which incumbent exchange carrier central office supports that phone number.  Thus, if you have a legacy landline phone and phone number, your neighbors are going to have numbers that look similar, because those first six digits will often be the same.  Similarly, cellular companies obtain large blocks of phone numbers, and so any number whose first six digits matches your cellular number very likely is also supported by your cellular provider. As a general rule, we are more likely to answer numbers that appear close to our own--which gives telemarketers an incentive to spoof with numbers close to the called number.
Don't know who it is? Just don't answer.
The old adage of not talking to strangers is still sound advice.  If you do not recognize a number--or, more probably, your Google contacts doesn't have the number associated with someone--the best and safest approach is to just let the call go to voicemail. If you do not take such calls, you will not be tricked into revealing personal information that could lead to identity theft or otherwise have to contend with the dark side of spam calls.
Have you been spoofed?
Chances are, you have been spoofed just today, and more than once.  It happens that frequently.  Whether the spoofing can be prevented depends on what is happening--whether or not the call itself is in some fashion illegal, or if the caller's behavior is potentially harassing.  If you feel the caller has crossed the line, and you feel your privacy rights have been violated, you have the option to file a complaint with the FCC.
Caller ID Spoofing is somewhat inevitable, given the trend in telecommunications towards Voice Over IP and away from geographically-driven phone services. Still, every business and every consumer has both a basic right of privacy and a right not to take unwanted calls--and aggressive Caller ID Spoofing can easily infringe on both of these rights.  When that happens, know that there are options above and beyond just blocking the phone number itself (although everyone should do at least that much). Customers should not be afraid to utilize these options