Protecting voice communications

Businesses risk an instant shut down if they don't have the proper steps in place for safeguarding their voice communications systems from disaster.

Despite the widespread acceptance of voice over IP (VoIP) phone systems in place of traditional digital PBXs, hybrid

systems and key systems, many organizations overlook voice communications as a critical business asset. A loss of voice communications -- whether a loss of dial tone or Internet access, or a partial or total system failure -- can shut down virtually any organization that does not have a suitable backup arrangement in place.

Most voice communications systems include a variety of on-site components. They include phone sets, cabling and connectors, power supplies, central system units, ancillary systems such as voice mail, call accounting, interactive voice response (IVR) and music on hold, and auxiliary devices such as workstations and printers. 

From the network side, connectivity can range from traditional POTS access lines from the local telephone company to digital access lines (e.g., ISDN, T-1 and Internet access lines) provided by a variety of organizations. 

Loss of or interruptions to any or all of the above voice communications components can disrupt or disable an organization that does not have suitable disaster recovery plans. 

The following tips will help with protecting voice communications systems and associated infrastructures from unplanned incidents.  

  1. Keep backup copies of system databases, voice mail databases, instruction manuals, cabling diagrams and other documentation (e.g., system licenses); back them up and store them in a secure off-site location in case the main building is inaccessible.
  2. If system batteries are used, check them regularly to ensure they are fully charged and connected properly.
  3. If uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems are used, ensure they are properly configured, their batteries are fully charged and they are periodically tested.
  4. If voice equipment is located in an equipment room, such as a data center, ensure that the cabinets and/or racks where the devices are located are secured to prevent access by unauthorized persons.  Ensure that the racks are secured on the floor and to the ceiling to prevent accidental tipping. 
  5. If the equipment is located in a storage room, especially where it may share space with other non-voice equipment, ensure that the room can be locked (with a limited number of keys), has HVAC capability to protect the equipment from temperature variations, and has a suitable electrical power source.
  6. From an electric power perspective, ensure that the building where the equipment is located has proper grounding, power quality equipment (such as surge suppressors, line conditioners and lightning arrestors) and that the voice equipment is connected to the building ground. 
  7. Build a supply of spare parts, such as servers, circuit boards, routers, hubs, cables and connectors, and station sets. When building a supply of spare circuit boards, rotate backup boards with production circuit boards to ensure that the spares work as expected. Label each spare board with the date it was last rotated into and out of production. 
  8. From a networking perspective, work with your carriers to identify alternate ways to recover POTS/dial tone (e.g., if you have a relatively unsophisticated system) and digital access (e.g., ISDN or Internet access). 
  9. Investigate incoming call redirection (or similar services). Make sure your main listed phone number, for example, can be quickly redirected to an alternate location/phone system so that you won't lose incoming calls.
  10. Investigate voice communications system recovery options, as these services provide alternate voice service and associated station sets for you if your primary system is disabled; these systems typically leverage voice over IP (VoIP) technology and the Internet to provide what becomes a "virtual PBX" for your organization. 
  11. A variation on the above option is the hosted phone system, in which voice operations and functionality are hosted at the service provider's secure operations center; station equipment can be located wherever you need it. 
  12. Ensure that you have backup telephone operators who are trained to take over answering phones in case your primary operators are unavailable.
  13. Prepare and document disaster recovery (DR) plans that provide step-by-step procedures to restart and recover voice communications systems and networks. Regularly exercise these plans to ensure that they work, and that the technology recovery team knows how to activate and use them.
  14. Invite voice communications hardware and network vendors to participate in the DR process, from both planning and implementation perspectives. Invite them to be a part of planning your DR plan exercise. 

Protecting voice communications requires a focused commitment to identifying the critical system components, building an inventory of spare components, backing up all critical software and databases, cooperating with vendors and carriers, ensuring that all documentation is current, and building and exercising disaster recovery plans.

About the author: 
Paul Kirvan, CISA, FBCI, has more than 24 years of experience in business continuity management (BCM) as a consultant, author and educator. He has completed dozens of BCM consulting and audit engagements that address all aspects of a business continuity management system (BCMS) and which are aligned with global standards including BS 25999 and ISO 22301. Kirvan currently works as an independent business continuity consultant/auditor and is the secretary of the Business Continuity Institute USA chapter and a member of the BCI Global Membership Council. He can be reached at pkirvan@msn.com.

This was first published in October 2012

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