Softphones provide better communication flexibility for BYOD era

Mobility has led some IT departments to deliver telephony and unified communication tools via softphone technology.

Enterprise mobility has begun to impact the way IT departments deliver unified communication systems, and may result in more companies moving to softphones.

The notion of a one-to-one relationship between a workplace phone extension and a hard phone in a cubicle will become a thing of the past, said Diane Myers, an analyst at Infonetics Research, a telecommunications market research firm based in Boston.

"To be able to have one phone number regardless of the device or where they are physically located is a huge benefit," Myers said. "What company doesn't want their employees reachable or working 24 hours per day?"

While organizations will likely never move to a single device that does both computing and telephony, it's not out of the realm of possibilities that a tablet and Bluetooth phone dongle could one day become the only equipment an IT department supplies to employees.

Organizations believe the pervasiveness of mobile devices will result in the need for a single phone extension and other bundled communication services to any number of devices, said Dave Michels, founder of TalkingPointz, an enterprise communications research firm based in Boulder, Colo.

"In terms of price and performance, it's a no-brainer because the tablet is a multi-purpose device capable of running lots of applications, as well as being a reasonable [unified communications] endpoint," Michels said.

Softphones unify devices

Having a phone extension that can ring a desk phone, a smartphone or tablet depending on the employee's location has already begun to pay dividends for IT pros.

Barry University, a college located in Miami Shores, Fla., had a small group of tech support staff that spent their entire shift shuffling around the numerous campuses from one help call to the other. They were rarely present at their physical desk, so IT staffers often gave out their personal cellphone numbers.

"That was raising our cellphone reimbursement costs," said Hernan Londono, the university's associate CIO.

The university uses an Avaya Inc. private branch exchange (PBX), but Avaya's one-X mobile client could only receive phone calls on a Wi-Fi network -- not make them.

To reduce the cost of cellphone minutes and make things easier on the tech support staff, the department licensed ShoreTel Inc.'s mobility product, an enterprise-grade version of Google Voice that provides one Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone extension delivered to multiple devices.

Now those roaming tech support IT guys have access to email, instant messaging and their office extension when connected to the campus Wi-Fi network through personal iPhones or Android devices.

Londono admits it's been hard to calculate exactly how much the university has saved on cellphone reimbursement plans for these employees, but said it has resulted in "significant savings."

"It makes them more productive because they never have to come back to the office and it saves them a lot of cellphone minutes," he said. "That's worth it to us."

The move has been such a success that the department may expand the "one extension, multiple devices" approach out to students and faculty. It would be especially useful for students in dorms with poor cellphone signals.

Those students -- the next generation of employees to enter the workforce -- are used to doing their work from mobile phones and tablets instead of desk phones and Windows PCs. It's a massive sea of change that "businesses need to address starting now," Myers said.

Enterprise softphone options

IT staff also must address network scaling to support more of these users and devices, provide more bandwidth to accommodate the increasing number of voice, data and video applications, as well as provide an enterprise-class level of service, security and management for all these new mobile devices, said Rich Costello, an analyst at IDC, a research firm based in Framingham, Mass.

As a result of this, most of the major unified communications (UC) vendors, such as Mitel Corp., Avaya, ShoreTel, Cisco Systems Inc., Siemens Enterprise and Microsoft have begun to update their unified communications products with an eye on the changes mobility brings, Costello said.

ShoreTel Mobility's baseline appliance supports up to 100 concurrent users and costs $4900. A high-end version for $15,000 supports up to 5,000 concurrent users. Additionally, there is a one-time licensing cost of $90 per user.

ShoreTel just released an iPad-optimized version of its mobility and conferencing products that lets employees make and receive VoIP calls from their iPads through the use of the speaker. They can also use the iPad to set up a conference bridge.

Both products from ShoreTel integrate with corporate directories, offer automatic VPN logon for end users and secure voice packets travelling over the network using SSL and 256-bit encryption, the company said.

Avaya's SBCE with SIP trunking is $85 per user for up to 500 users and then scales down based on the number of users. For remote worker capabilities, pricing starts at $65 per employee.

Avaya's recently released Session Border Controller for Enterprise (SBCE) product combines with its Aura Platform. The new platform makes Session Initiation Protocol (SIP)-based mobile VoIP applications, including its Flare Experience on the iPad and one-X mobile applications, more secure for IT and easier to use for employees, according to the company.

SBCE security features were previously limited to desk phones and VPN tunneling. Now, Avaya's SBCE protects against denial-of-service attacks, application-layer threats and toll fraud.

Instead of the entire mobile device connecting to the network via a VPN tunnel, only the Avaya mobile application connects to the network. That traffic is inspected by the SBCE before being routed into the network through the use of SIP trunking.

The SBCE also allows IT to set policies around UC tools, such as the ability to limit instant messaging or video outside the network.

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