Frequent news headlines are increasing awareness about the need for disaster recovery and business continuity planning. However, the idea of investing today to protect against potential business interruptions in the future can still be a hard sell in the face of tight budgets and the demand for concrete, short-term results. As those responsible for business continuity know all too well, getting executive mindshare within an organization around the development and implementation of a business continuity infrastructure can be a challenge.

While a technology is never in itself a business continuity solution, one technology with interesting implications for business continuity is Internet protocol (IP) communications,   which includes VoIP ( Voice over Internet Protocol) or IP telephony—the protocol used to transmit telephone calls over the Internet. Like most technologies that support business continuity, IP communications also drives short-term benefits by enabling improvements  in an  organization's day-to-day business processes  and  operations. However, it is primarily the cost reduction benefits of IP communications, not the business continuity implications that are funding the current wave of IP telephony deployments. 2005 was the first year that the value of IP communications equipment shipped by manufacturers exceeded that of traditional legacy equipment (known as TDM, or time division multiplexing). The sale of IPC equipment is expected to outpace TDM equipment sales until TDM is completely retired by the end of the decade.

How IP Communications Pays for Itself Today

The initial capital outlay for the deployment an IP telephony system and associated applications can often be justified comparing the predicted reduction in ongoing operating costs to the cost of maintaining a traditional TDM phone system. Savings of 25 to 60 percent have been reported, depending on an organization’s size and geographical distribution, based on reduced software upgrade and hardware maintenance costs for aging telephony equipment and the consolidation of equipment that IP communications enables.

From a systems management perspective, companies are seeing savings of up to 85 percent a year on moves, ads and changes. And there is no longer the need for separate staffs for data and voice networks. Consider the example of a company currently running different PBX and voicemail technologies at each of its locations—which is fairly common in today’s environment of mergers and acquisitions. For a company with five locations, this means five different sets of maintenance contracts and software licenses. Implementing IP communications in this environment creates economies of scale and the ability to monitor and manage remote and headquarters locations simultaneously. The ability to dynamically reconfigure an IP communications network is a tremendous benefit from a business continuity perspective, and should play a key role in business continuity and disaster recovery planning.

How IP Communications Transforms Business Continuity Planning

Systems Perspective

An IP communications infrastructure is uniquely designed to be implemented as a geographically dispersed architecture, which inherently improves the redundancy of the network. The benefit for business continuity planners, therefore, is to reduce the likelihood of a business interruption by eliminating single points of failure and enabling remote recovery with a business continuity plan that promises seamless failover between locations.

The result is a communications infrastructure that prevents any interruption in service from occurring while system resources are being re-routed and restored. In addition, recovering a single, converged network typically takes less time than recovering separate voice and data networks, decreasing the impact of any potential interruption. It is also worth noting that, in contrast to traditional telephony, enterprise wide disaster recovery testing becomes easier with IP communications. This not only reduces the cost of testing, but increases the likelihood that regular testing will take place.

User Technology Impact on People and Processes

Of course, business continuity planning is not only about keeping the technology up and running. It also involves people and processes.  IP communications technology supports a number of applications and features that enhance day-to-day business productivity. In the event of a business interruption, these same features also reduce the time frame for return to productivity.

Unified messaging has been documented to increase employee productivity by 30 to 60 minutes per person per day by allowing end-users to access e-mail, voicemail, and fax messages from a single inbox; gain access to an e-mail inbox from a telephone; check voice messages from the Internet; and forward faxes to any computer. These features have business continuity implications as well, by enabling access to voice messages and faxes even if—in the event of a power failure or severe storm, for example—phone systems are down and the office is closed.

Integrated conferencing (also called rich media communications) increases productivity by enabling real-time collaborative work—via a combination of audio-, video-, and Web-conferencing, and instant messaging— across multiple locations (whether between two or more employees internal to the corporate LAN/WAN environment or with customers and business partners who are not on  the  company’s  internal  network).  By supporting efficient communication and collaboration among remote workers, integrated conferencing can help an organization overcome the logistical challenges of a facilities closing.

Also, in contrast to an externally-hosted, third-party conferencing solution, and an integrated conferencing system deployed within a company’s secured LAN/WAN infrastructure can be operated entirely within an organization’s firewall and according to its corporate security policy. This reduces the security, compliance and privacy risks associated with audio, data and IM traffic hosted over the public network. The reduction of such threats helps to reduce the risk of business interruption.

IP contact centers offer significant productivity enhancements to businesses with call centers. By dynamically balancing call loads between multiple,  geographically separate  call centers,  IP-based  contact/call centers can reduce customer  wait  times and eliminate dropped calls during  peak call periods, thus preserving and improving revenue streams and customer satisfaction. And  for  an  IP contact center, the same technology that supports more balanced call routing during normal business operations also supports automatic re-routing of calls if one or more contact centers is unable to handle calls—whether due to problems with its equipment, its facility, or even its personnel.

Extension  mobility allows users to log onto any networked telephone and be recognized by the system, so calls are automatically routed to the extension from which they are working, even if it is across the country from their Normal work location, and even if it is a cell phone. By making it much easier to reach them, this is of particular value for employees who travel regularly between locations or telecommute.  It also supports business continuity by enabling remote business communication in the event that facilities are closed or inaccessible.

Soft phones go  a step beyond, enabling employees— especially  revenue-producing contact center  employees— not only to plug their phones in anywhere with a dial tone, log in, and work from their “normal” business extension, but also  to  access all  the information the  office  phone system provided, including directory or customer information. With this information, they can conduct “business as usual” with customers and co-workers, even without an office.

Mitigating Risk in an IP Communications Environment

While implementing IP communications can reduce cost and risk to an organization, like any new technology or business process, it introduces the potential for new risks that need to be managed. Business continuity planners must account for additional security concerns stemming from the increased ability to forward and remotely access voicemails, e-mails and other corporate data.

Similarly, IP applications make it easier to collect and share customer and other confidential corporate data across the enterprise. Organizations must respond by reviewing their access controls as well as  communicating and enforcing security and privacy policies. It is also important to review compliance regulations, taking into account any telecommunications laws that may newly apply once certain data are linked to an IP communications network.

With regard to IP communications, as with any infrastructure element to be recovered, successful recovery is possible only if the recovery plan is tied to change management. As any changes are made to a communications infrastructure, the recovery plan must be updated to reflect all changes. For example, if you are using IP phones and you change the Internet addresses associated with the phones, these address changes must be accurately and immediately reflected in the recovery plan; unless and until they are, the system will be unrecoverable.

Finally, one of the most avoidable and yet universal causes of business interruption and decreased productivity, regardless of technology, is lack of preparedness. At the  systems  level,  the  redundancy  of  the  IP network is irrelevant if redundancy isn’t also built into the server and storage elements of the communications infrastructure. Beyond that, an implementation is only as successful as its systems  management  and  user training.  To ensure  a seamless transition, many companies will run their old and new phone systems side-by-side for at least a few weeks to allow for practice cutovers, and for users to attend trainings and become familiar with the full capabilities of the new phones on their desks.

The end result should be a transformed business continuity model that reduces cost and risk while improving productivity on a day-to-day basis.