A small businessman's guide to VoIP. By Bill Seddon

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For many owners of small businesses, when they hear the term Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), they think of Skype. If you're a trader or professional working by yourself, Skype may be an option but it is not yet a suitable telephony technology for a small business.

Even a small company with only a handful of staff needs some sort of exchange (PBX) with a switchboard, the ability to transfer calls and record/manage voicemail - services which Skype does not provide. You may disagree and have dismissed Skype and, doing so, dismissed VoIP along with it. If this scenario applies to you, then think again.

I run a UK-based business that is small...

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By bseddon
26th Jun 2006 10:58

query from dumbo
Not such a dumb question though. The "linux" aspect was introduced because we wanted to use Asterisk because it allows real flexibility in the use of VoIP and a way to mitigate any perceived risk of using VoIP in a business. Asterisk was written to run on Linux so Linux it has to be.

Of course there is plenty of software, such as Skype that allows you to make VoIP calls But I didn't find any Windows software that can touch Asterisk for the combination of functionality and price.

However you don't need to know Linux to take advantage of a tool like Asterisk. Brillbox (www.brillbox.com) provide Xorcom, a hardware device that costs ~£500, which comes pre-configured with Asterisk up and running. Just switch it on.

Linux is used in surprising places. If you have a router there's a good chance its running Linux.

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25th Jun 2006 20:58

query from dumbo
I know it sounds stupid, but…….
I am a novice so restricted to Windows, with all its evil defektz.
All this stuff seems to be Linux so not applicable in the ‘real’ world?
Or have I missed something?

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By NeilW
22nd Jun 2006 13:05

As VoIP becomes more common I'm sure that hackers, virus writers and so forth will take a healthy interest in it.

I'm sure they will. But they'd be missing the much more exciting and easier pastime of 'war-dialing' looking for support modems plugged into large company PBXs. Much more fun to be had there. Lots of them haven't even got master passwords set.

IP security is overstated as an issue by those who profit from fear of it. Simple precautions, which basically amount to keeping the gate locked when you're not using it, are all you need.


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By NeilW
22nd Jun 2006 13:18

Landline costs
Secondly VoIP reduces our inter-office call charges to zero and our call charges to clients in the US are less than 1p/min. If I've overlooked an alternative solution with the same costs I'd welcome being corrected.

Zero call costs are available site to site from landline providers now - Talktalk is one example as long as you rent their service, and the mobile companies offer handset to handset free calls as well.

You have to be careful when costing VOIP that you don't just hide the cost elsewhere - even if that cost is nothing more than increased staff time because the Internet has crawled to a halt, or failed calls due to congestion over Internet, or increased support costs due to a more complex architecture.

VOIP itself is a tough cost-benefit to sell, unless you go into wishy-washy stuff. I wish it was easier, but it isn't without kidding yourself.

The real winner is Asterisk, which is marvellous to use and the DBs as far as I'm concerned.


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22nd Jun 2006 20:08

Services integration
I talked about the ongoing benefits of recording VOIP calls some months back. At the time, some readers thought I was talking nonsense. Good to see Stewart picking up the baton on this one. There are clear advantages way beyond the simple cost argument - especially for professional accountants engaged in contentious cases with HMRC, conducting M&A discussions and the like.

A bunch of us are using Skype as a conferencing medium with some success. We're individuals spreads around the globe so Skype is the only sensible alternative with which all of us can cope.

Incorporating those recerded digital assets into the overall knowledge bank for firms is something I can see generating massive value over time.

There is one issue that does need addressing. Contention rates can be aweful. On some occasions it simply isn't worth using VOIP to the US for instance. In EU, QOS varies enormously. Here in Spain for instance, Telefonica seems insistent on squeezing every last ounce out of their system, usually to the detriment of customers. the same has been true in France though that's changing.

That won't change any time soon though I think the new breed of MESH providers offer significant advantages to the 'copper' merchants.

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By bseddon
22nd Jun 2006 00:23

Has anyone considered security?
Can you quantify your concerns about security?

It's easy to posit some hypothetical problem but as the manager of a small business I have to weigh up the possiblity and risk that someone may listen into a call, or somehow attack our VoIP based system, against the benefits the technology can provide, and in our case, has provided.

VOMIT targets Cisco phones and needs access to the IP packets in order to be able to reconstruct the call. Since the prospective listener does not know the route the call will take over the public internet, the call must be monitored from within the firewall on either end. But how is that risk any different to someone listening in to a conversion over a regular telephone line where someone inside the building can jump a couple of wires to listen?

And you are right, someone might focus their attention on VoIP systems and might cause a problem and that's a potential risk to be catered for in a company's risk management plan.

A part of our risk mitigation is Asterisk which is capable of handling and routing calls between both VoIP and land line channels. This allows us to manage the potential risk of Internet failures, however caused, by providing seamless fallback to regular phone lines.

In the meantime I have clear and tangible benefits that I'd be negligent not take advantage of. If it transpires that VoIP is just riddled with problems then there is regular telephony to fall back on. With Asterisk that's something we can do quickly should the need arise.

For sure, VoIP has not reached a mature and stable plateau and the current generation of the technolgy might not be the final solution. But nor, for my company, is landline telephony the solution.

The lanscape is very likely to change again when BT roll out their new IP network across the UK. But until then or until there is something that offers similar flexibilty we feel we have to use VoIP techology internally for all our call needs and externally wherever we can.

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21st Jun 2006 11:47

Fly on the wall documentary coming soon...
For those interested, one of my clients (25 users in their HQ plus a few remote users) is planning to migrate from a traditional PBX "phone system" to a Voice over IP (VoIP) solution based upon the open source Asterisk platform.

I will be writing a "fly on the wall" documentary to cover this (warts and all!) - for the benefit of AccountingWEB members later in the year...

Specific benefits for my client of choosing VoIP are (interestingly) absolutely nothing to do with call costs, but the kind of integration that is only possible with VoIP especially integration between the PBX and existing in-house IT systems, for example:

- calls automatically recorded
- calls automatically logged
- recorded calls automatically attached to the relevant client records on the customer database
- voicemails automatically attached to relevant client records
- seamless routing of inbound calls i.e. John is away, and when Company X calls John, Susan gets the call, and when Company Y calls John, Sam gets the call - all decided from information stored on the customer database.
- call performance (KPIs) automatically generated

...yes all things that can be done with a conventional PBX plus several tens of thousands of pounds of extra equipment, software and time, but with the right VoIP system, it's limited only by the inginuity of your IT people.


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By bseddon
21st Jun 2006 14:37

Look forward to reading your article
Stewart, I look forward to reading your article. We've been amazed by Asterisk, how much we can do for so little. We did look at other packages as an exchange but none had the scope offered by Asterisk.

We learned a lot about VoIP and being a technology company it was fun to learn but, of course, most companies don't want to have fun learning they want results. We were fortunate to come across the Trixbox package (as it is now called) fairly early in our work with Asterisk. It has made the setup and maintenance of the system very simple and it's a package I'd recommend though if your client is getting professional advice perhaps they will have something even better.

Bill Seddon
[email protected]

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By bseddon
21st Jun 2006 15:30

Niel Wilson reply part 1
Neil, thanks for your comments

[So you have separate wires for your data and voice and dedicated bandwidth for the voice service. Sounds like a normal telephone system to me.]

Well, of course we want it to be like a normal phone system. We do have separate wires but we don't have separate cables. Perhaps the distinction is fine but since the cables are not readily accessible it was the easiest and, I think, most effective solution for us.

[From what I can see the advantages are not from VOIP per se but from a cheap commodity site PBX and an offsite aggregator.]

Yes, I agree, we've been able to take advantage of a cheap PBX and offsite aggregator. But the reason I think we've benefited from VoIP is twofold. The cost of using the integrator in the VoIP scenario is nothing (really, nothing) until we make a call to a landline somewhere in the world. Secondly VoIP reduces our inter-office call charges to zero and our call charges to clients in the US are less than 1p/min. If I've overlooked an alternative solution with the same costs I'd welcome being corrected.

[That then detracts from the real business benefits of realising that a PBX is nothing more than a computer and that it can be replaced with commodity hardware - just like we replaced the mainframe with the PC server and slashed the price to peanuts.]

Yes it does. The beauty of a software service like Asterisk is that it is programmable. Like I wrote, though we learned to programme Asterisk we don't get into the business of Asterisk programming because we are able to leverage the work of those that do - and do it much better.

I mentioned in the article Asterisk because it works for us and I wanted to illustrate the importance of the PBX. While Asterisk seems remarkable I do recognise that there will be equally good, possibly better, software to use as an Exchange.


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By bseddon
21st Jun 2006 16:01

Can anyone relate VoIP to Small Businesses please
Perhaps others will have more informative points of view but I think part of the answer to your question comes with understanding the level of tolerence staff at the surgery have for technology.

While I agree that a VoIP for Dummies article serice would be useful, the benefit we have from 100+ years of using traditional telephony with which we've all grown up is that a basic service is very simple to use: you buy a phone and you plug it into the wall socket. But behind this apparently simple action is:

1) a reliable service;
2) a support network that we take for granted (for example if there's a problem you call BT and an engineer fixes it usually for free);
3) a pretty basic function set.

Even Skype, as comparatively simple as it is, is not as easy to setup or use as a regular telephone.

However, moving outside the basic telephony service often requires some knowledge or investment of time/money on the part of the consumer whether the enhancements are to be provided by VoIP or not.

Vonage is an organisation that has tried to make using VoIP simple. When you sign up for their service, you receive a box that you plug into to your internet connection and into which you insert a phone. It's supposed to be that simple.

However I imagine that a surgery will demand a level of service reliability that it not as important to other types of organisation and a level of reliability that is not yet available via VoIP.

Bill Seddon

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21st Jun 2006 15:48

We are small and use VOIP
Since 26 March we have used voip only.

The major benefits are flexibility, not only as to where the call can be received in the office or your mobile.

If you move office the service just follows you even to a different part of the world no cost.

The ease of being able for each extension to follow different instructions, which can be changed via aweb-browser.

Containment of costs. Flexibility of awailablity.eg an Estate Agent may need 10 lines on Monday and Tuesday but only 3 on Friday.

The broadband issues are not as bad as stated by some - but if you have a cheap isp quality deteriates when in a busy period.

We would never change back.

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By bseddon
21st Jun 2006 15:31

Neil Wilson replay pt 2

[I'd also like to know how the writer managed to get an Asterisk server, all the extra 802.1p LAN ports, a QoS enabled ADSL router, backup telephony circuits and a set of VOIP telephony handsets into £500.]

OK. The first point to make is that as a small company we want to get the biggest bang we can. As a result we've gone for the most economical option everytime. Not everyone's preferred choice but it is ours.

The second is to reiterate (or make clear) that we don't use QoS we just know its an option, and being a software company, how it works. As mentioned in the article and as you observed, we chose to go the other route and separate our traffic because it was the cheaper option. So far, we've not seen the need to use QoS though the option remains.

In line with our economical philosophy our Asterisk server is an old Advent PC (400MHz and 256MB RAM). The point being that we've found it doesn't take much. Perhaps that's because its dedicated to the task. It's not doing anything else.

Our largest expense has been in the boxes used to connect regular phones to the network - a pair of Sipura SIP adapters (two lines per box) and a set of Grandstand Handytone adapters plus spares (spares that we've not yet had to use).

Finally we had the land lines and all we needed to do was connect them to the Asterisk box. Because these are backup lines we chose to use T100P cards on each of four lines. At £15 each they didn't stretch the budget. This route may not be for everyone. But even an ISDN PRI card capable of handline 8-64 lines costs only in the region of £495.

I think £500 is incredible too. Again, we've wanted to be economical after all a telephony service is a commodity. Perhaps few, if any, small companies could get away with such a minimal investment but we have.


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By NeilW
21st Jun 2006 14:18

So you have separate wires for your data and voice and dedicated bandwidth for the voice service.

Sounds like a normal telephone system to me.

From what I can see the advantages are not from VOIP per se but from a cheap commodity site PBX and an offsite aggregator.

I'd also like to know how the writer managed to get an Asterisk server, all the extra 802.1p LAN ports, a QoS enabled ADSL router, backup telephony circuits and a set of VOIP telephony handsets into £500.

It's rarely necessary to QoS VOIP on the LAN. LANs are so quick these days that they are unlikely to hold up traffic sufficiently unless you are really walloping the network. The problem is moving from the LAN to the Internet, where the speed differences cause queuing. Managing that with a good router and a sensible network design is probably all you need to do.

What I find with VOIP is that clients are wary of the OIP bit of it. They know that their phone lines tend to work all the time and that the Internet and even their internal LANS are simply less reliable.

That then detracts from the real business benefits of realising that a PBX is nothing more than a computer and that it can be replaced with commodity hardware - just like we replaced the mainframe with the PC server and slashed the price to peanuts.

Often it can be just as easy to stick a few line cards in a PC, fire up Asterisk and wire it up just like a normal PBX. 80% of the benefit and a lot less change.


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21st Jun 2006 14:29

Can anyone relate VoIP to Small Businesses please
I know a little about VoIP but not enough to recommend it to my (small!) clients YET!

Take the example of a surgery where they have two existing lines. They have contention for those lines which causes some pain, they are also planning to connect a standalone PC to the Internet.

So, as part of the Broadband installation do they simply buy some sort of device(s) that will allow their FAX, credit card authorisation machine and a third telephone to share the line with the PC which will need very little bandwidth for the first year or two?

I assume that the device at the client end needs to connect to a service on the Web somewhere - does that come included in the price or at a monthly charge?

I realise that there is a 'bigger picture' and lots more 'opportunity' for VoIP for our clients but I think that a simple guide for very small businesses to 'get started' is needed to avoid this being seen as for the 'bleeding edge' technocrats and medium to large companies.

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26th Jun 2006 22:46

Re: query from dumbo
A very sensible question, Malcolm, re: Linux.

Just to add to to Bill's comments...

1) The fact that you're running Linux on your PBX server does not preclude software like Asterisk working well with other systems. The solution we're working on with my client involves reading and writing files on a Microsoft Windows 2003 server, talking to both Microsoft SQL 2005 and Oracle 9i Databases, plus accessing ASP.net 2.0 web services on a Microsoft IIS 6.0 web server. All pretty standard stuff in today's world.

2) Just as an aside, I understand someone's actually managed to port Asterisk onto a Windows platform. Now, quite why anyone would do that (because it's there, perhaps?) is beyond me!



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20th Sep 2010 06:57


What about telecom job? Is it good for our career?


Toll Free Numbers

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