Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Hosted Voice over IP (VoIP) and PBX: Vocalocity Review

Over the last couple years more and more small and medium businesses (SMBs) have been considering new answers to the question: "how do I get enterprise-class telecommunications on a SMB budget?"

Highly reliable, low-cost telecommunications services like T1's and fiber have combined with hosted "cloud" services and advances in Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) digital phone systems.  The result is hosted PBX services in the cloud.  Over the last couple years I went looking for hosted PBX options for a couple of clients and after considering several competitors we selected Vocalocity.

Voice over Internet Protocol, how it works
Voice Over IP (VoIP) - Image via Wikipedia
Vocalocity made sign-up and set-up a breeze.  As a reseller we walked through a well documented process to get our clients up and running.  We went through a quoting process where the final quote and pricing was evaluated and then approved by the sales team at Vocalocity.  With a quote, credit card, and a few approval documents (for number porting and such) signed Vocalocity had the account created within a day and had scheduled the number port from the existing Internet Service Provider (ISP) within a week.

Set up of the service was relatively quick and easy.  All of the expected features where there, at least those you would expect from a hosted system.  Even before the phones arrived we could go in and set up users, call groups, and voice mails.  Unlike some competitors we were allowed to select any SIP phone we liked although they would only guarantee support on some of the more popular models.  All the same, they had a great selection of quality, affordable phones available.

By the time we had phones to hook up we were ready to test the service.  I highly recommend testing the service (any service, not just Vocalocity) for a a few days before you port your numbers.  This gives you time to train your employees on the new system and work out wrinkles with regards to business process and functionality.

There were really not very many features that you expect from on premise systems that weren't included, but everything was an additional cost.  At times I felt like I was being nickel and dimed even though the actual total cost was very reasonable.  Vocalocity could do some simplification and bundle more of their features in a base service to fix this although they may have to keep them a la carte to compete with the marketing of competitors.

There was some training, although it wasn't extensive.  As a partner we had dug in to the documentation and training videos ourselves and then provided training to our clients rather than just entrusting them to Vocalocity's resources.  It can be very beneficial to work with a partner that has performed Vocalocity installations and migrations before for first time clients.  Maybe this has changed, but it would have been nice to have more personal training, not just documentation and web videos.

We used many of their features and found some we were missing and really wanted.  Specifically, we were looking for the ability to select from multiple outbound caller ids for different phones on the system.  We told their partner and support departments how important that feature was (along with several others) and were pleasantly surprised when they deployed those same features within a few months.

Support was good.  The phone team all spoke English as a first language and were available when we needed them without excessive hold times.  The documentation was good as well.  The only caution I have here is that since Vocalocity doesn't work directly with your ISP and doesn't qualify line quality you may have mixed results with regards to reliability and call quality.  Some competitors get around this by requiring you to purchase your internet connection through them... which has both positive and negative facets.  Personally I preferred having full control over the ISP service.

I did hear a couple complaints from one client about billing issues.  This was about the same time that Vocalocity hired a whole bunch new people and revamped several business processes.  I have a feeling that they just got behind with the huge growth in their business.  That doesn't excuse dropping the ball though.  I understand this has gotten better as they developed their new team.

On the whole I was happy with the choice to use Vocalocity and I would recommend them to small and medium businesses looking to move their voicemail/PBX system to the cloud... but only IF they have high-quality, reliable internet service.

Have you used Vocalocity?  What was your experience like?
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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Are You an IT Cave Man? - Part 1: Computer Servers

Are You an IT Cave Man? - Part 1: Computer Servers

What's Ancient, Tired and Wired in IT

If you've been in a cave for the last five years you've missed some amazing advances in Information Technology.  Yes, you are now an IT Cave Man!  Most IT people know about Moore's Law (approximately every 18 months microchip density doubles - increasing computer speeds) but microchip advances are actually one of the least important stories right now.

Five years is an eternity in IT and here's what you need to get caught up.  Reader beware... this is a long, but not complete list.  It would be difficult to impossible to cover all of the various IT advances in just the last year, let alone five!  If you have a favorite tech you feel I left out and should not have please comment to let me know.

I'll tackle this task in three chunks:
  1. Computer Servers
  2. Desktops, Laptops & Mobile Devices
  3. Applications & Services
Here is what's ancient, tired and wired - Part 1: Computer Servers...

Computer Servers

Server Hardware

Servers have come a long way since 2006. Quad-core CPUs are now standard and you rarely see a server with less than 8GB RAM. Blade servers became popular and then virtual servers revolutionized the whole category when you no longer required one server for one operating system. Finally, through virtualized hosted servers - once the homes of websites and ftp servers - became popular destinations for running software applications (SaaS), started providing platforms for developing and deploying services (PaaS) and hosting entire server infrastructures for customers (IaaS).
Ancient Tired Wired
Rackmount Blade Virtual Server

Products to watch: Microsoft Hyper-V, VMware ESX

Server Operating Systems

Software and hardware advanced in lock-step with new features appearing to take advantage of the exploding CPU power, memory and storage on servers.  With Windows Server 2008, virtualization became a part of the O/S in the form of Hyper-V and tools got better and better, eventually allowing for "servers" to be virtually deployed at a whim, without configuring new hardware.  Cheap and easy virtualization from Hyper-V and VMware enabled the hosting of fully functional "servers" on the Internet, moving infrastructure offsite.  As internet speeds increased, reliability was enhanced and better tools were developed, "cloud" services began competing with on-site servers... are the days of buying Windows and owning your own servers numbered?

Ancient Tired Wired
Windows Server 2003 Windows Server 2008 Cloud

Products to watch: Amazon S3 / Microsoft Azure

Server Monitoring

Server monitoring used to be the work for system vendors like Dell, HP & IBM.  Their products are familiar to many and include OpenManage and Insight Manager.  More recently Microsoft's System Center Operations Manager (SCCM) has offered a standardized and easily accessible solution.  The latest trend however is to cloud-provided services.  Already widely used by managed IT service providers, hosted Remote Monitoring & Management (RMM) solutions provide most of the same benefits without requiring the hosting of dedicated monitoring hardware and hiring a new team of IT experts to run it.  Vendors like Level Platforms and N-able have mature products that provide onsite and hosted versions of their product suites.  They also offer integration with popular service automation platforms, e-mail and collaboration software.

Ancient Tired Wired
Alerts & Logging OpenManage, Insight Manager, Nagios,
Microsoft SCCM
Hosted RMM

Products to watch: LPI Managed Workplace, N-able N-central

Backup Systems

Storage has revolutionized the backup and disaster recovery industry.  Serial ATA hard drives combined with Serial Attached SCSI (SAS) enabled high-capacity, low-access storage that has either replaced tape backups altogether or is used in a nearline or near-online function.  This has enabled backups to occur to intermediate, relatively high-performance media and then to be later archived to tape for longer-term storage if necessary.  Often, tapes are totally removed from the system and the nearline storage becomes the primary archival medium.

Backup software has also progressed.  New technologies have enabled high-capacity storage media to store even larger amounts of data through impressive compression and now data deduplication.  Through deduplication, similar or identical data is stored only once with changes being recorded only.  In this way, two backup copies with only one bit of data changed only store the change rather than the full data set.

Combining hardware and software in appliances, companies like Datto and Zenith Infotech started selling integrated backup systems that were remotely managed and would synchronize data to the cloud for an off-site copy. While these systems have proved popular in small and medium businesses (SMB), larger enterprises need higher-capacity solutions and the cloud-synchronization of data is as of yet too slow for larger datasets.

Ancient Tired Wired
Tape, Optical Backup-to-DiskData Deduplication, Offsite Sync

Products to watch: Acronis, Datto, NetApp Syncsort, Storagecraft, Symantec

Watch in the next few days for Part 2: Desktops, Laptops, & Mobile Devices.

Monday, January 9, 2012

11 Ways Businesses Waste Their IT Investments

Here's a quick list of the top 11 ways I've found that SMBs misuse their Information Technology and waste their money:

11. Put your "server room" in the women's restroom. (Yes... I saw this at one small business)
10. Wait until your new hire shows up to call the IT guy and notify him you need a computer, network jack and cell phone.
9. When your printer dies go to Best Buy and pick a new one up without consulting your IT department first.
8. "Plan" for your servers to last 5 years or longer.
7. Always choose the value (cheap) option.
6. Treat your IT department like they're overhead that detracts from profit rather than an enabler for productivity and revenue generation.
5. Don't consider business continuity and disaster recovery - a little downtime never hurt anyone!
4. Build it and they will come.  Install a system for a need that doesn't exist yet and that nobody wants because it has "great features."
3. Don't provide ongoing technical training to your IT department.
2. Don't bother budgeting for equipment replacement and IT support.
1. Wait until your equipment breaks to fix it instead of monitoring, preventively maintaining, and replacing it on a regular basis.

So, if your small or medium business has fallen victim to one or more of these what should you do?  Think first, plan for growth & failures, treat IT as a valuable asset rather than a money sink, find a good trusted advisor (CIO/CTO/consultant) and USE them.  It's their job to think about this stuff.  If you need help finding a good consultant, just talk to other local business owners about who they use and interview three or four (or more!) before making your decision.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Hurry Up and Smell the Flowers!

Since I sold my business in July of last year I've learned many things, but the hardest lesson is one I thought I had already mastered: patience.

It's hard to be patient when you have no income.  Even though I voluntarily put myself in this position, I see the proceeds from the sale of my business dwindling as the months fly past and I still haven't found the "perfect" job.  I know many people would say I was crazy to sell a profitable, established business and return to a job market that is difficult at best, but the decision just felt right and I still stand by it.  I just can't wait to move on to what's next though.  I feel like I've been in limbo long enough.

When I sold the business, I bought myself some time to go take some training classes, certify in ITIL, and do some networking while looking for that just right opportunity.  The problem is that I cannot just wait forever for that opportunity to appear.  What to do then?  Make a plan, act on it, follow through and... be patient.

"Hurry up and wait" is a phrase that is often used in the technology world.  When you have a computer system fail and you need help, your business may be losing money every minute you sit on hold with technical support.  You need to hurry up and get it working, but you have to wait for assistance.  A non-tech example is Walmart.  I hate shopping at Walmart, and as soon as I walk in I'm in a hurry to leave, but I have to shop and then wait in line to check out.  I would just as soon bypass the technical support call and the shopping in Walmart and just move straight to the result... a fixed computer or a full fridge!

The last five months have taught me again the lesson of patience.  I made a transition plan before I sold my business.  Yes, I had hoped to have a job before now, but everything is still okay, we're not broke... yet.  There are lots of good opportunities and especially now after the slowness at the end of the year things seem to be picking up in a VERY good way, but it takes time to go through the process of submitting resumes, going to interviews and waiting for decisions.  I enjoy interviewing (weird I know) but am really tired of all the waiting and paperwork.  Can't I just have the job of my dreams already?  Hurry up and wait.

I've now been on a couple of very promising interviews.  One in particular I'm very excited about and I really liked what I heard from the team that interviewed me.  It's a big company though and they can't just say the day of the interview, "you're hired!"  So, I continue to hurry up and wait.  Work hard, be patient, it will come.

My wife is due in February and we're getting the house ready for the new baby by moving my boys in to a new room and preparing the nursery.  I think we both want for the baby to hurry up and get here but we must wait.  In the meanwhile, my boys got a really cool new room with neat paint colors and a new play area.  They also had Christmas and are going back to school.  We're so focused on the baby coming though (and my job search) that it's hard to remember there's something going on right now I should pay attention to.  I really need to spend time with them now... while we're all together at home because they're out of school, I'm at home and there's no baby yet to distract us.

We tend to think that life is about getting somewhere and we want to get there as quickly as possible.  I know that I drive that way... go the speed limit, man!  I get frustrated by people tooling along like there's no hurry in the world.  I understand that maybe they have a reason for going slow, but still, get it moving!  In addition to contemplating "hurry up and wait" though there is another phrase I should consider, "stop and smell the flowers."

Yes, it's nice to get there... to accomplish something, to complete your trip, get the job, get the kids off to school - or off to college and out of the house!  Life, though, is really about the journey.  It's about the times in between.  It's about who we travel with and what we do on our long slog to the finish line.  You develop relationships, you don't complete or accomplish them, and you get to keep them for your entire life.  I'm trying not to spend so much time getting to the finish line that I fail to enjoy the trip.  I will accomplish lots of goals in my lifetime but I am allotted only so much time and if I don't stop to smell the flowers sometimes, I will definitely regret it later.  Life is one trip you don't get to take a second time, unfortunately.

I think you have to stop or just slow down every once in a while and since I'm in the "wait" part of "hurry up and wait," maybe now is a good time for me to look around and enjoy my extra time with family and friends and just be ON the journey for a while.

I still fail to find any redeeming value whatsoever in my time holding for technical support or in Walmart though!
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