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A professional-grade telephone system can help a small operation look big to its customers. It also makes a statement about how seriously you take your business; nothing looks more amateurish than a main phone number that’s never answered, or an antiquated voicemail system.

So it’s time to ditch that traditional private branch exchange (PBX) and move to a Voice over IP (VoIP) system. Today’s products offer a vastly superior range of call-handling capabilities, with costs far lower than a regular landline.

VoIP systems are also cheaper and easier to upgrade as your business grows; you start with a hosted service and move to an on-site software or hardware system later. There’s a huge range of services on offer. We’ve put four VoIP solutions through their paces to help you make the right buying decision.

Is your broadband up to it?

Before implementing a VoIP system, you need to know that your internet connection is fast enough for voice calls. Generally, one VoIP telephone call will use around 90-100Kbits/sec of bandwidth, both upstream and downstream.

To test if your connection is fast enough, use one of the online VoIP speed-quality tests available such as voipreview.org or myspeed.visualware.com.

If your internet connection is already being pushed to the limit then upgrading it is a must. A lack of bandwidth will quickly turn VoIP calls into garbled mush that certainly won’t do your business any favours.

If your office has lots of people using the internet at once, consider getting a second line that’s dedicated to VoIP traffic to ensure you won’t have contention issues. If phone calls are central to your business, consider ordering a backup link as well.

The other technical prerequisite is a suitable router. An on-site IP PBX needs port-forwarding rules configured in your router to allow external users to access it. The router must support quality of service (QoS) rules for prioritising VoIP traffic. If it has a SIP ALG (application layer gateway), turn it off to avoid potential instability issues.

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What’s in the trunk?

To make your VoIP system useful, you’ll need to sign up with a SIP (session initiation protocol) trunk provider that can link your internal IP PBX to the public telephone network.

It’s up to you how many SIP channels you require: each VoIP call uses one channel, so look at the number of staff using their phones during the busiest periods to determine how many you need.

Don’t forget that queued calls and callers on hold still consume a SIP channel – and you may have mobile users running VoIP software on their smartphones to add to the equation as well. If you’re unsure, a good rule of thumb for moderate phone usage is one SIP channel for every three users.

There’s a huge range of providers from which to choose, but check their pricing schemes; these can vary considerably. Ensure that you can easily upgrade, or even downgrade, the number of channels purchased.

Check, too, that you can have local phone numbers assigned to your SIP trunk, and find out whether you can have multiple numbers, which your IP PBX can then route through to different extensions.

On-site or hosted?

If you decide to install an on-site IP PBX system then don’t be tempted to take shortcuts. VoIP is a mature technology, but there are several pieces to the puzzle that all need to be configured properly before they’ll talk to each other.

Treat the switch as a fully documented, fully funded IT project, and host your PBX on server-grade hardware dedicated to this task alone. While this may not seem technically necessary, remember that you’re creating a single point of failure that will bring your entire VoIP system down if it goes belly up, or if there’s any conflict with other services running on the same host.Watch Full Movie Online Streaming Online and Download

Another important tip is to never configure an IP PBX to use a dynamically assigned IP address. These can change at any time, and if yours does then all your port-forwarding rules will fail, and your IP phones will no longer be able to access the PBX.

For smaller businesses with limited on-site IT expertise, it makes sense to consider a cloud-hosted VoIP solution instead. This will cost considerably more than running your own server, but with the right support contract and service-level agreement in place, you can save yourself plenty of upheaval and avoid the danger of something going wrong.

Hanging on the telephone

The sheer range of features offered by a VoIP PBX can be overwhelming. Before going live, set up a test system and play with it to make sure you understand how it works.

One typical call-handling feature you might want to make use of is a “digital receptionist” to read out a menu of options: “For sales, press 1; for accounts, press 2”, and so on. This exudes professionalism.

You can also set up call redirection, so that incoming calls can be automatically routed to staff on the road, or to those who may not want their mobile number made public. When it comes to choosing handsets, you’re spoilt for choice. Mobile users can use “softphone” apps on their own phones, but these aren’t always included in the IP PBX price.

A well-implemented VoIP system will give your business a professional image and save you hard cash with cheap local and international calls. Call-handling features that were previously beyond an SMB’s budget can be set up cheaply and easily.

This article originally appeared in PC Pro issue 261.