Technologies vary for giving telecommuters voice

VoIP vendors offer a mix of pure-IP and hybrid approaches for linking work-at-home employees with the home office

Telecom and IT administrators charged with supporting telecommuters have as many product and technology options as users have reasons (or excuses) to work from home.

Voice is the lifeblood technology of telecommuters - more so than e-mail, IM or any other means of electronic communications. An array of VoIP and hybrid IP/digital technology options exist for tying home-office workers to a corporate voice. But IT executives should consider how much in-office features available in the office should be extended to those at home, and at what cost. New! Watch this Network World Webcast - Optimize your WAN, save cash, and simplify your life: Case studies from the real world

VPN + VoIP

This is becoming a standard way for corporate IT administrators to support telephony for work-from-home employees. The approach requires two well-established technologies: remote-access VPN support, and a VoIP-enabled or pure-IP PBX in the central site. The common approach is for users to set up a VPN tunnel session between their home-office PC and the corporate network via standard access technologies, such as IPSec tunneling or SSL encryption.

From this point, connecting the users with telephony is pretty much the same as linking an on-premises cubicle or office, since VPN links emulate LAN connections for remote users.

The easiest and fastest way to set up a teleworker phone connection is to deploy an IP softphone on the user's laptop or PC. All major PBX and IP PBX vendors have softphone software that ties into a corporate phone system extension and supports the same feature set as a desktop phone in an office.

At American National Bank of Texas, 25% to 30% of the workforce could be equipped with work-at-home capabilities in the next few years, says Kurt Paige, network administrator for the bank. "Not necessarily for working from home full-time," says Paige. "Employees would have softphones installed on notebooks, so they have the choice to work either in the office or from home."

The bank uses softphones from Nortel that tie into a CS 1000 IP PBX. A Cisco VPN concentrator is used to provide remote-access VPN links for voice and data.

The softphone approach is preferred for supporting teleworkers because voice and data are combined on one platform - the notebook or home PC, Paige says.

For VPN links with decent bandwidth and QoS controls, teleworkers can even have IP hardware-based phones deployed in a home office. These devices - the same headsets deployed on desktops in the office - register with a central PBX or IP PBX over the VPN link and act as regular extensions on the system.

This is the case at Ball Homes, a custom home building company that supports several executives and managers with VoIP for teleworking. Several managers, including the company president, have Cisco IP phones in their home offices, which ring at both the office desk and the home-office desk when an employee's phone extension is dialed, according to Brandon Buffin, systems administrator for Ball Homes. The IP phones used by teleworkers plug into a cable/DSL router and LAN switch in the home offices, and connect to a Cisco VPN Concentrator 3000 in the company's headquarters, where a CallManager IP PBX is also located.

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