Carlos Ferro, SVP and general manager, international, Live Action
VoIP phones are a tool of paramount importance to modern business. They underpin the conference calls, the meetings and basic lines of communication that are such an important foundation of our working lives.
This has become even more important in the age of remote work, where reliable and available lines of communication make a flexible workforce possible. Yet as important as VoIP telephony often is to our daily work, it too has its own dependencies: reliable and performant networks.
As their un-acronymed full name – Voice over Internet Protocol – suggests, VoIP phones transfer calls over the network, so voice data is transmitted as packets. When a network is not performing well, call quality can suffer; lag or jitter can emerge and calls may suddenly drop or disconnect entirely from the call server. These issues emanate from that network performance dependency, which is often frustrated by the fact that many organisations cannot get the network visibility they need.
VoIP phones use network resources to ensure their quality and availability. When they can’t draw on the needed resources, VoIP phones can’t function properly. For example, network congestion – which can happen when networks deal with high traffic volumes – can seriously degrade VoIP call quality. Efficient bandwidth management is crucial to high-functioning VoIP, as it helps track bandwidth usage, ensure sufficient resources and thus preserve call quality.
Similarly, security is also a concern: VoIP calls transmit extremely important data. Any number of proprietary secrets, confidential knowledge and personally identifiable information pass over the network from one VoIP phone to another on a daily basis. It’s no surprise then, that cyberattackers are eager to get their hands on that information by gaining unauthorised access and eavesdropping on VoIP calls. Another security threat to VoIP is DDoS attacks, which can launch tidal waves of malicious traffic that cripple network functionality and the VoIP services that rely on it.
How to optimise network performance for VoIP
VoIP traffic is sensitive to a variety of network conditions such as latency and packet loss. Optimising it requires detailed visibility into these metrics, so that network operations teams can spot and troubleshoot problems quickly.
Yet many organisations struggle to see into the activity within their own network and optimise it for best performance. In a downward trend, EMA research shows that only 27% of enterprises believe that their network operations teams are successfully optimising performance, compared to 49% in 2016.
This difficulty is partially characterised by the changing shape of the network, which is now commonly distributed across cloud deployments and multiple office locations, while also accommodating remote workers. VoIP traffic will likely traverse multiple VPNs, firewalls and network segments, making it tough to track.
Collecting the right data
Visibility into network activity starts with collecting the right data. SNMP data, for example, allows you to monitor how network interfaces and devices are using network resources like memory and bandwidth. API data shows the transaction between API calls to detect application latency, slow response times and availability issues.
Flow data is a top-down view of network traffic which permits operations teams to see traffic behaviour over the long term. For greater detail, packet data is the information from the literal packets that flow into, out of and between different parts of the network.
These are all crucial parts of network visibility and optimisation, but no single field will provide the necessary visibility on its own. Only together can these categories create a comprehensive network view that enables optimisation. In addition, advanced network performance management (NPM) tools can enable deeper insights and enable NetOps professionals to further optimise that network – and VoIP – performance.
Not all network performance problems can be solved in real time. Many require a long-term understanding of network behaviour, so that it can be optimised appropriately for VoIP and many other applications.
Retaining data will provide audit trails for tracking historical issues such as bottlenecks. As such, a data retention policy will be important to long-term understanding of network behaviour and ultimate mastery of network performance.
Every part of the network has to be discovered in order to enable full visibility. That means every device, database, endpoint, switch, router and port must be located and monitored to fully understand what’s happening on the network. This is crucial to visualise the network for operations teams so that they can understand what resources are being used and where performance problems are emerging.
Escalation plans will help to prioritise network events so that particular events – like cyberattacks – get assigned to the right people, be they network engineers or security specialists. This will allow issues like unexpected traffic surges to be assigned to the right person quickly while smaller issues can be put into an investigation queue. This stops network operations teams from getting overwhelmed quickly by prioritising pressing issues.
Quality of Service (QoS) mechanisms play a key role here as well. If QoS parameters on latency or packet loss aren’t closely monitored and optimised, VoIP calls could suffer.
QoS mechanisms can arrange network resources and ensure the best performance out of VoIP telephones by prioritising voice packets over other kinds of traffic. This reduces potential performance problems.
The corporate network is getting bigger by the day and managing it manually is a nearly impossible task. Automating tasks like updates and backups will free up resources and allow network specialists to focus on the tasks that absolutely require their expertise and the strategic areas which can improve the network long term.
VoIP telephony is an enduring business mainstay – one that remains highly dependent on underlying network performance. As such, it’s crucial that organisations maintain visibility into their network to identify and troubleshoot problems before they start interfering with VoIP functionality. Backed by proper procedures and quality tools for NPM, QoS and automation, VoIP can keep delivering the reliable communications that organisations depend on daily.