The Pros and Cons of Skype for Business - Page 2

By Gerry Blackwell
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What’s the Catch?

So if Skype is such a great free or very low-cost tool, why aren’t more businesses using it? Skype works over the open, often congested, Internet and employs peer-to-peer technology that involves other Skypers’ computers to help route calls.

For this reason, call and connection quality are not always as good as they are on the public switched telephone network (PSTN) or even on VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) services that use some of the same IP voice technology as Skype, but run over private networks. Security is also a concern.

Skype does not offer a service level agreement (SLA), which many other business telecom providers do, warranting that service will be available and quality good, often at risk of financial penalties to the provider. Skype in effect guarantees only “best effort.”  

Good Enough?

For small, budget-minded companies, using Skype some of the time may be a risk worth taking.  “Even if it is a little glitchy or static-y, we’re used to making compromises,” Marshall said of his young company. “If the voice connection is less than perfect, that’s not what we’re most concerned about.”

In fact, Skype has worked well for Brightstorm. He’s not among the front-line users in his organization, Marshall said, but he does not hear complaints about Skype from those who are. “It’s meeting the need.”

What are the possible downside risks for other organizations? There are a few.

On a bad Skype call, voices may break up, occasionally to the point of not being able to continue the conversation. And sometimes there will be latency – a noticeable lag in the signal reaching its destination, which makes for awkward, stilted conversations.

That said, on good Skype calls, voice quality is in fact better than on a regular phone call because Skype uses wide-band technology that sends twice as much audio information as the PSTN or most VoIP services. Voices sound fuller, less tinny, more realistic.

And many people and even some critics are often surprised at how good – and consistently good – Skype has become. Connections so poor that intelligible conversation is impossible have become much rarer.

“Skype is attractive because it is very good quality compared to other similar services,” noted Angl. (He’s referring to services such as Gizmo5, Google Talk  and Yahoo Messenger with voice.)

Security and Reliability

Angl’s firm, however, has more often urged clients to exercise caution when considering using Skype. Another reliability concern, he said, is that the service could go down completely. “It has happened before,” he pointed out, referring to a two-day outage in August 2007. “It could happen again.”  

The far greater concern is security. It’s not so much the risk that Skype conversations could be intercepted and proprietary information divulged. It’s more the threat that the IM client could infect a company network with malware, Angl said.

“Allowing a public instant messaging application on user workstations may conflict with corporate policy,” he pointed out. “Many companies have already banned Skype for that reason, similar to the way they’ve blocked Windows Live [Messenger] or Yahoo Messenger. Skype represents another threat. I can’t overstate that concern around security.”

Not that Skype in particular has often been implicated in malware attacks – the contrary, in fact. But it is a program outside the control of the organization that crosses its firewall.

If that wasn’t enough for IT professionals to want to err on the side of caution, the fact that Skype also could use their company’s computing and network resources to route other users’ calls clinches the case – even if, as Skype insists, its use of any one user’s computer is minimal.

Skype for PBXs

Can you somehow avoid these security concerns but still get at least some of the benefits of Skype? You can, said Angl.

Use the new Skype SIP technology, or a third-party solution such as a Skype PBX gateway appliance from VoSKY. (ZiPCOM Co. and others also have gateway appliances, and Skip2PBX has a software gateway solution.)

With this approach, you don’t install Skype software on each user’s desktop, you connect an existing IP PBX to the gateway and then to the open Internet and Skype.

This allows you to provision Skype “trunks” for long distance calling using SkypeOut. Instead of dialing ‘9’ from a regular phone to get an outside line, an employee might dial ‘8’ for a Skype trunk.

The Skype SIP technology and at least some of the other solutions also support SkypeIn. You could have a click-to-talk button at your Web site that allows customers to call you on Skype and then route the call through your PBX to a contact center agent’s desk phone.

This approach eliminates the malware risk because users don’t have the Skype client on their desktops. But it also means they don’t get the benefits of presence, instant messaging and video calling.

“I don’t think there’s enough value in the long distance savings [to make it worthwhile] for most companies,” Angl said. “But it might be for small organizations that have a high volume of overseas calls.”

Bottom Line

Is Skype for business an idea whose time has come? It depends entirely on the business and its tolerance for risk. Proceed with caution.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s.

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This article was originally published on April 22, 2009
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