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Taking It to the Nines - Reliability of UC Systems

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Regardless of the economic environment, organizations need to ensure that their mission-critical business communications are built on a secure and reliable platform. While many companies today are looking to unified communications to help them weather the economic storm, confidence in the reliability of IP-based communications is also important-both for peace of mind, and for the bottom line.

As a UC vendor it's tempting to stay focused on how the rich feature set and advanced functionality transform business processes, but at ShoreTel we spend just as much time focused on the reliability of our system. We know it doesn't matter how many features you have if you don't get dial tone, if you can’t retrieve voicemail, if it takes hours to fix every problem that crops up. Without 99.999 percent availability from your communications system, all the innovative business processes in the world won’t help reduce costs and improve productivity.

The key to five-nines availability is to approach reliability holistically and systemically. This means that the system must be designed from the ground up to be reliable, and each component of the system has reliability built in. Take a look at this breakdown of how ShoreTel approaches reliability: a distributed architecture, distributed applications, and N+1 redundancy, all extend the mean time between failures (MTBF), and simplify repairs. At every step, ShoreTel engineers opted against expediency and cost shaving, and instead chose the path that led to greater reliability.

Since competing products typically use an architecture that has either evolved from traditional PBX platforms or traditional data-switch platforms, these systems require additional equipment at each site, or multiple clustered servers to achieve acceptable levels of reliability. However, in both cases, this means additional complexity and expense. Either you have to manage a web of marginally reliable disk drives that are responsible for providing mission critical telephony functions, such as dial tone, or you're stuck with a labyrinth of management interfaces that have to be configured at each site. In some cases you might have both. One minor configuration error and isolating the fault can feel a lot like looking for the blown bulb in a huge strand of Christmas tree lights. ShoreTel keeps it simple and highly available. More on that in future posts.

For a more in-depth look at reliability, download Building Reliable IP Telephony Systems. Written by Ed Basart, our founder and chief technology officer, this whitepaper compares the approaches that various IP telephony vendors take to ensure high availability. More importantly, it tells you all the tough questions you need to ask every vendor on your list when evaluating UC systems.

We've also got some great stories about how our customers depend on ShoreTel reliability. Thanks to ShoreTel's remarkable recovery capabilities and a little help from their solution provider, law firm Balch & Bingham was able to reestablish communications services to its Gulfport, Mississippi office just one day after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the building. The City of Oakland, in California relies on the ability of its ShoreTel UC system to quickly reroute calls around network outages to ensure communications in a region often plagued by earthquakes and mudslides. And Palisades Charter High School depended on ShoreTel's distributed architecture and the ShoreWare® Emergency Notification Application for increased security and emergency responsiveness during the worst of the Southern California summer wildfires.

John W. Combs