Business Continuity Planning for Voice

 

Creating a comprehensive Business Continuity Plan is vital for any organization that wants to maintain their business-critical functions during a serious incident or disaster.

Read on for our guide to evaluating your corporate communications environment and putting robust contingency plans in place, or download a copy by completing the form.

Concerned about business continuity during COVID-19?

Pure IP is supporting customers with a range of measures during the COVID-19 outbreak, including capacity extensions and monitoring.

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Steps you should take to prepare

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Planning

Consider any requirements specific to your organization, and estimate the increase in traffic you could experience

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Testing

Users working remotely will need secure access to your networks and systems in order to continue being effective

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Monitoring

Setting automated alerts and proactively identifying trends will help you take preventative action before issues become critical

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Reactive fixes

Map the various possible issues users might experience, and create a failover plan to address as many of these as possible

What to consider when planning

Every organization is different, and a lot depends on your user profiles and operational activities. Consider the requirements you might have, based on the functional roles and services offered. For example, profiles such as standard office personnel are likely to have relatively straightforward requirements, whereas call center arrangements may be more complex. Consider the mix of inbound and outbound traffic, and how calls will be handled and routed or processed. Does that path meet your company’s security standards? 

Estimating the increase in traffic is not an exact science, and will depend on factors including organizational size, type of operations, and geographies. It is also important to consider the way in which your staff interact. Do they regularly need to interact with colleagues or others (customers, suppliers, etc.) who they might ordinarily converse with face-to-face? These interactions might need to be replaced with conferencing or phone calls.

How much of your communication will move to other platforms such as websites and instant messaging? Do you have convenient ways of turning these back into phone calls to keep your sales or other processes moving? WebRTC is a powerful technology which can be used to this end.

The starting point is assessing your current traffic, and, depending on the nature of the incident, multiplying it. Major incidents, including those that invoke a directive for all employees to work remotely, could increase your traffic by up to a factor of 1.5.

With the potential increase of remote/home workers, you are likely to experience an increase in the volume of traffic as remote workers replace face-to-face conversations with calls. Check what capacity (eg. channels and numbers) you have and assess whether it will be adequate based on estimations of the potential increase. Also don’t forget to check that your bandwidth will support any increase.

We would normally suggest that you estimate the potential increase on traffic based on your own set of circumstance and then add 20% to provide a buffer.  You must consider whether your inbound call volumes will increase if the incident also affects your customers and suppliers.

Monitor your channel utilization regularly as it may be difficult to predict usage in these changing times. Consider whether you have the necessary internet and VPN capacity to support remote workers, and whether your phone system has the capacity and licenses to support the additional phone calls.

As with your telephony, as more users work remotely you are likely to experience an increase in virtual meetings, either through audio or video conferencing, or a combination of the two. The business will want to encourage the ongoing communication and collaboration. Check what capacity (eg. channels and numbers) you have and assess whether it will be adequate based on estimations of the likely increase. Don’t forget to consider the required bandwidth within your calculations.

We would normally suggest that you estimate the likely increase on traffic based on your own set of circumstance and then add 20% to provide a buffer.

Check that your bandwidth limits can support an increase in channels and traffic. If you are increasing channels and capacity, you will need to ensure you have adequate bandwidth to support the higher levels of traffic or you may sacrifice call quality. If possible, prioritize your voice traffic over other types of traffic.

Open up your platform or tenant to the public internet to allow fail-over processes to initiate and support communications.

Each platform will have its own security considerations and management tools for doing this. Be sure to seek advice from your vendor, documentation, or consultants about how to secure your systems. Unfortunately there is often a spike in opportunistic fraud attempts during times of uncertainty, so consider security requirements at every planning stage, if possible.

Testing your organization's remote working set-up

It is best practice to test your environment and remote working arrangements as part of the planning process to get an understanding of how it will perform. A couple of tests to consider include:
  • Load testing your voice systems
    Stress test your network to ensure it is capable of handling the estimated increases in voice traffic to avoid call quality degradation or complete call failure. Select a convenient time out of busy hours and stress test the network by sending a large volume of call traffic over the network. You might want to do the testing in increments, while monitoring the network performance and impact. Be aware, call load testing can require specialist tools, particularly for complicated call flows and larger volumes where you don’t have access to enough lines to establish a baseline. 
  • User testing
    Ensure your users test their local bandwidth and have the necessary VPN settings enabled to allow them secure, reliable access to the systems and applications they need to communicate and collaborate. You can additionally gauge local contention rates during busy times and assess whether you can take any further actions or issue guidance. There are a variety of utilities that can provide insight into how well your remote links are performing. These can provide invaluable information when troubleshooting problems.

Need help load testing your voice network? Pure IP's engineering team is here to help our customers using the tools available in our network.

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What you should monitor 

Proactive monitoring and threshold setting enable your organization to take early evasive action based on insights and alerts, preventing more critical issues that require resource-expensive corrective measures in the future.

Once you have an estimate of your likely voice traffic and peaks, add an adequate buffer capacity and set thresholds so you receive alerts when you might be nearing maximum capacity. Monitor during busy times and action accordingly.

Most systems allow you to set automated alerts up against thresholds, which we would normally recommend are set at no more than 80% of maximum capacity.

Collect as much detail as you can, so that you can troubleshoot effectively. There are multiple causes for voice quality degradation, many of which aren’t necessarily obvious.

In virtualized environments, watch for resource contention. Jitter can be introduced by bursts of disk IO, CPU load, NUMA balancing, etc.

Assuming the appropriate testing has been done on the network initially, the network performance shouldn’t have an impact on regular levels of traffic. However, if traffic levels increase significantly it will add more strain on the underlying network which could impact call quality or even result in a loss of service.

Regularly monitor the network performance and trends to ensure it is working within the defined boundaries. Any slowing of the network can lead to packet loss and jitter. Also monitor the performance of any hardware devices (eg. SBC’s) that might form part of the service. Have contingency plans in place to reroute traffic in the case of an issue arising while you carry out corrective fixes on the network or hardware.

Monitor the general usage levels of specific services to identify trends and provide early indication of potential problem areas. Changes in behavior should be investigated to understand the cause before they lead to capacity levels being exceeded.

In the case of major incidents for example, this could be ad hoc company broadcasts of conference meetings that unexpectedly add demands on the network.

Preparing for situations that need reactive fixes

Telephony is a business-critical application, and is especially important during periods of remote work, so any loss of service can quickly jeopardize operations. Although you can't predict platform outages, network issues, and device problems, whether due to on-premise hardware or cloud-based communications tools, they are easier to recover from when there is a plan. 

Consider what measures you can put in place for the quick resumption of partial or full services if your main system fails. You will need to think in terms of instant quick-fixes, short-term measures, and then mid-term actions which might need to be invoked for bigger problems.

Consider options such as:

  • Re-routing lines or putting PSTN redirects in place for core services.
  • Shifting core numbers over onto a back-up service, possibly a hosted solution.
  • Moving users onto another platform, if already in use within the business (eg. Microsoft Teams)
  • Splitting the load

If you have to initiate a remote or home working policy for users, consider how you plan for device issues. More and more users these days work on a cloud-based solution using a headset. If there is an issue with the headset or even the client, have a contingency for how they can continue to communicate short-term. Consider WebRTC type solutions that would work adequately with built-in microphones on laptops.

Network issues can sometimes take longer to fix depending on the nature of the issue. Consider failover solutions to take traffic away from problem areas, for example, re-routing traffic via alternative operating centres or points of presence in the service.

Capacity contingency planning

If you have built in a buffer of capacity and are monitoring your voice services against thresholds, you have already greatly reduced the risks of communications failure. However, major incidents can have a wider effect on businesses which could lead to higher demand for services outside of your control. Have plans in place in case you need to increase capacity quickly or add services. Having this 'Plan B' document summarizing potential responses to congestion or issues with equipment/network segments can be invaluable.

  • Create diagrams and define processes indicating what should happen in different scenarios.
    For example, if one network route is congested, you might consider splitting the load over two or another path. If one particular server is experiencing a high load, you could use another with spare capacity.
  • List your suppliers along with their capabilities, lead times, and emergency support offerings. Depending on requirements, it might be quick and easy to add more channels to an existing service, but equally, it might also involve increasing MPLS circuits, for example, which may have more of a lead time.

Defining these strategies in advance is much easier than trying to problem-solve while you are experiencing issues. 

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User considerations

Working remotely presents different challenges than traditional office environment work, and technology on its own can't overcome all of them. While some roles and businesses already have established remote working protocols and processes, that is not universal. Businesses and functions that are newer to remote working will soon find they are facing different management and cultural challenges than they are used to, and may need to adapt their working styles as well as support those responsible for managing teams on a daily basis. 

Accessibility is key for business continuity, but it is equally important not to compromise on security. Users will need access to the right tools to continue functioning remotely, but the ease of enabling this will vary depending on systems and applications. Cloud based solutions will probably already have the necessary settings enabled, but on-premises and legacy systems may need further review.

Consider doing some controlled tests using VPN or virtualization solutions to assess vulnerabilities, risks and workability. Seek guidance from vendors and manufacturers, where relevant, regarding security measures and advice.

Tools covers a range of things from communication systems, software and applications (eg. PBX, Microsoft Teams; Zoom etc.) to hardware and devices. You will need to ensure that users are set up correctly in systems, any software updates are downloaded, plug-ins are applied, permissions set and that any routing changes are applied to enable them to work remotely.

In terms of hardware you will need to ensure that users have an adequate laptop or similar device to support the required communication applications or software. In addition, check that they also have headsets or calling devices that are compatible with the provided software. Consider their role and environment to assess whether you need noise cancellation or other special features in order for them to carry out their roles.

Ensuring users are equipped with all the technology they need is one thing, making sure they know how to access and use the tools you have provided is another. This could include understanding how to connect via the VPN, how to make and receive calls (if it is different to their usual experience), understanding some of the additional features that could be useful (eg. desktop sharing, setting up meetings online), how to join conference calls, and how to transfer calls.

Make training material readily available and communicate its whereabouts to users frequently. Monitor usage and provide regular forums for users to ask questions or raise concerns. Consider having a help line, chat group or other touch point for questions and guidance. Also consider how you can empower your users to find and spread information to help themselves and others. 

Provide some guidance on the right tools to use and the right services and ensure users know the best channel of communication to use in given scenarios. You don’t want expensive communication options being used over more cost-effective solutions.

Communication becomes even more important, and often more challenging in times of crisis. Monitor usage and trends to assess what is happening. Use existing or new communication channels to share news and best practices. This could be anything from chat groups, enterprise social solutions, team groups, to forums.

Keep in touch with line managers and department heads to share analytics, understand challenges, and offer support where needed. Use these interactions to feedback on best practices and driving the right behavior. You don’t want users using expensive mobile or paid services if there are better options available.

Ensure policies are flexible enough to support the change in working practices, and that they don’t conflict. Work with line managers and business leaders to ensure working practices are aligned for remote working and supported by the communications technology. This could include:

  • Sharing best practices
  • Encouraging regular contact & additional team updates
  • Using communication and collaboration tools for ‘out loud’ working and sharing updates
  • Meeting etiquette (eg. running a constructive virtual meeting; using video)

How Pure IP can help

When disaster strikes or help is needed, Pure IP prides itself on doing everything we can to help customers find a quick, hassle-free solution that allows them to focus on their operations. We offer a range of preventative and reactive services to support our customers with their Business Continuity Plan.

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PSTN and SBC redirects

Re-routing key numbers quickly to get you up and running with basic telephony for important numbers and users.

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UC hosted solution

During a platform outage, Pure IP can temporarily migrate key users to our hosted platform to provide them with voice services quickly.

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WebRTC

Provide remote end-users with WebRTC to provide quick access to telephony services from remote locations via the internet.

Pure IP's preventative services

Free of charge advice related to your voice services and Business Continuity Planning

Provision of bandwidth reports for your existing Pure IP services allows you to assess whether you have adequate bandwidth to support your Business Continuity Plan.

A network stress test designed to assess your existing network's ability to cope with increased voice traffic.

Supporting Home Working configuration set-up of your voice services.

Pure IP's customer portal is available from any device with an internet connection, and provides analytical insights into the performance of your Pure IP voice services, including usage against defined thresholds. The portal also enables customers to place orders at any time of the day for new numbers, additional capacity, and services. 

Pure IP is committed to processing capacity increase requests and new service orders as quickly as possible. Invariably, increases to channels and numbers can be turned around inside of 48 working hours where adding to existing services under the control of Pure IP.

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