The Facility Technologist: Communication Frustrations

By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA

Published in the January 2005 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Voice Over Internet Protocol, or VoIP phone systems are getting tremendous publicity lately, and many facility executives are being asked to evaluate the cost/benefit of these systems and plan their implementation. However, the number of VoIP implementations that get off track is surprisingly large and can have a negative impact on the organization (not to mention the facility manager’s career). There are several keys to successful VoIP implementation that facility executives may not have heard about.

VoIP is a telephone system that uses the same type of network and communications protocol as the Internet. Every telephone has its own Internet Protocol (IP) address and communicates with the network and other phones just like a computer. Because each phone has an individual address, an employee can unplug his phone, take it to another location in the facility and plug it in, and his calls will follow him.

Because VoIP works on the same network as the computers, the system will only need one cabling infrastructure instead of two. This can provide savings in large facilities. VoIP offers other capabilities, such as integrated messaging, voice, and video that are not possible with a traditional phone system.

However, stories abound about VoIP implementations that have gone awry. Many organizations find their VoIP systems are not reliable or the implementations end up costing more than planned. A small number have tried to implement VoIP and have then gone back to their old PBX systems.

VoIP is not necessarily to blame; but facility executives need to attend to critical elements. The foremost problem in VoIP implementation concerns the facility’s computer network. If the network is not fast enough or is not configured properly, VoIP will have severe problems.

Many organizations have older networks or ones that are poorly designed. These systems are fine for retrieving a file, sending e-mail, or downloading a Web page, where a slight delay usually doesn’t even get noticed much of the time. However, that same tiny delay can mean a dropped VoIP call.

Voice traffic is different than the normal traffic most networks carry. VoIP traffic tends to spike dramatically during peak times, and a network must be designed to handle the peak capacity, even if it occurs only infrequently. Unlike a phone system which has only one system running, data networks have different streams of data that vary widely at different times.

Many organizations do not realize their networks are insufficient for VoIP, because they have no trouble with regular data traffic. The key is determining a network’s capacity; this may seem simple, but it is more difficult than it seems. Many facility executives assume it is like calculating electrical capacity; they add up the loads to arrive at a total. However, data networks are more complex, and capacity cannot be determined in the same way.

For example, network equipment must be configured properly to work efficiently. Each switch and router has a program inside that determines how it handles network traffic. If the device’s program script is designed properly, data will flow freely; but if even one device’s program script has incorrect settings, the entire network can bog down.

Other techniques, like Virtual Local Area Network (VLAN), are able to boost the capacity of the network dramatically simply by segregating traffic into separate “lanes” of data that do not intersect; sort of like the difference between a highway and city traffic.

Hubs are an impediment to network speed. While inexpensive and easy to use, hubs are inefficient. Switches and routers are intelligent devices that send information directly to where it needs to go. Hubs, however, are dumb devices and relay information to everything connected to them. This results in wasted capacity, as the hubs keep broadcasting traffic that switches and routers do not.

Another factor in VoIP implementation is cabling. Running high speed 100 megabit or gigabit data traffic on CAT 5 cables will cause problems, because the cable is susceptible to lectromechanical interference. Facilities may need to upgrade to CAT 5E or CAT 6 cabling to get optimal performance.

Determining a network’s capacity is also tricky. Many administrators rely solely on reading activity logs from switches and using “sniffer” software that clocks the speed of the network. However, these techniques do not provide a complete picture of the network and how it will react to VoIP data traffic.

Before attempting VoIP, facility professionals should hire a network consultant to perform a study that will examine all aspects of the network and provide a recommendation on whether or not the facility needs an upgrade, or just some tweaking. For example, one organization dramatically improved its network speeds when the network consultant found a few incorrect settings in one switch. The organization saved tens of thousands of dollars when the error was corrected.

Many facility professionals don’t want to hire a network consultant. Sometimes this occurs because facility executives are unfamiliar with the systems, or because the additional cost of the network equipment may alter the cost/benefit analysis they have used to justify VoIP implementation.

Having a strong, high capacity network is something that all facilities need since it is always a good investment. And having a smooth, trouble free implementation of the system is well worth the extra effort. While the challenge may seem daunting, organizations can benefit from the features of VoIP if facility executives address this application’s specific needs.

Condon, a Facility Technologist and former facility manager, is acontributing author for BOMI Institute’s revised Technologies in Facility Management textbook. He works for System Development Integration, a Chicago, IL-based firm committed to improving theperformance, quality, and reliability of client business through technology