Swiss-Army Networks

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted May 01, 2000
by Joe Rudich

Time is a valuable resource, and in the business world, any way to save or better utilize it is worth a look. A new breed of communications network technology, previously only available to big corporations, has arrived to do just that for small businesses. Today, companies of all sizes and shapes can link phones and computers together, simplify maintenance, and save time and money in the process.

These network devices, known in industry parlance as integrated communications products, combine telephone, data networking, messaging, and Internet access into one package with a single point of entry for all forms of communication. This saves time and increases efficiency for both IT professionals and end users alike. Having only one system to maintain and manage is not only easier, but it greatly reduces administrative costs as well. Service and maintenance are simpler too, as they require dealing with just one vendor.

This all sounds intriguing, but does it truly make sense to buy one product, from one vendor, for several functions that have traditionally been separate? For many businesses it does.

In the past year alone, the promise of increased efficiency has driven many small companies to look into combined voice and data networks. The lure of one all-purpose system to maintain and manage is just too significant a piece of bait to ignore.

Case In Point
Pinnacle Composite Solutions took the bait and decided to check out a combined network solution. Pinnacle's 60 employees transform composite materials like kevlar and carbon graphite fibers, which are primarily used by the aerospace industry to make jet fighters, into a variety of lower-cost products such as x-ray tables for hospitals and doctors' offices, police shields, and even sports equipment.

At Pinnacle, vice president of finance Barry Mori is also the network manager. Mori was keen on the reduced administrative costs that combined networks promise, but was also cautious. "I had some fear when we first considered an integrated system," Mori admits. He was a believer in the stereo system theory ­ no one vendor can provide the best product in more than one category.

The ultimate test of any new innovation, of course, is whether it works. Mori, now converted in his ways of thinking, feels that his company's multi-purpose network is a great success.

The Particulars
Late in 1998, Mori chose Praxon's PDX system when Pinnacle outgrew its old voice-mail system. "I wish I had seen this before we bought our first network hardware a few years ago, because this system took care of a lot of questions for us," he says.

"Before, we had a telephone system that was very time-consuming and inconvenient to manage, even for simple functions like adding new users. Now that I can manage voice and data together on my PC, I can set up a new person in less than one minute, literally." Making additions and changes is as easy as pointing and clicking through a series of options.

So exactly what do we mean when we talk of integrated communications products? We're talking about actual pieces of hardware that plug into any existing network (and PBX if applicable). Although most products work with all standard operating systems, some have their own proprietary OS built in.

Keep in mind that all of these products have built-in PBX phone systems for call management features. Any business that already has a PBX in place will be duplicating efforts to some extent. While this may initially seem wasteful, there are additional benefits. Most PBXs can be plugged into convergence products and still be used. But be sure to talk to vendors about how to best deal with existing hardware. The end result, one integrated system that manages all voice and data functions, should outweigh any initial loss.

One of the main advantages to these combined network products, especially for small business, is how simple they are to set up and configure. There is no need to hire and bring in a VAR to aid in the process. Setup is a matter of plugging wires into the appropriate ports, and configuration is handled via a menu-driven interface. In most cases, additional employee training will not be required, either. These products were designed for smaller-sized, non-technical companies. All functions are menu driven and designed to be easy to learn.

Since convergence products combine the functionality of what has traditionally been two separate networks, users will notice some changes. For example, phone calls and faxes will pop up on screen, similar to e-mail. Most products however, don't require users to make any drastic changes in the way they work. Employees can set up and manage all phone features through a graphical browser, virtual phone application, or by the method they are most used to ­ using the phone keypad.

The other great benefit of the integrated system, according to Mori, is the improved Internet access it provides for users. "At the time we bought the product, our demand for Internet access was exploding, and we were attaching modems and secondary phone lines to everyone's PCs to meet that need. Now we have shared access through a fast ISDN line attached to the convergence product, and it gives everyone their own e-mail address. We couldn't ask for more."

Pinnacle's investment paid for itself just by eliminating modem lines and reducing Internet configuration workload, Mori says.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly how much these products cost and how much users will have to lay out to get up and running. Prices are vendor-specific and depend upon what equipment customers already have and what they need. Place this kind of purchase in the same category as other big ticket items such as a server or PBX and expect to pay a few thousand dollars.

Some proponents of combined voice/data network hardware feel that such systems represent an emerging trend, and that telephones will eventually become just a sort of "super voice chat" performed through desktop PCs.

Many see the divisions between voice and data as artificial, left over from the (quickly passing) era of analog telephony. After all, voice is just another form of digital data. Others believe this new breed of product is simply a response to the growing number of small companies that are embracing networking for the first time and are receptive to the simplicity of a single-vendor solution.

But it doesn't matter which analysis proves accurate in the long run, so long as customers find the combined systems to be useful and cost-efficient. Depending on how your organization is set up and how much internal tech experience is available, an integrated communications product may be just the right fit.

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