BMW Canada steers own VoIP

Of the myriad factors a company faces when deciding whether to run a voice-over-IP (VoIP) phone system, one prime concern is which “flavour” of VoIP to go for. There are, to be simple about it, three: “hosted,” whereby some kind of service provider owns and maintains the back-end equipment; “managed,” wherein a service provider maintains the equipment, but it’s owned by the enterprise; and “customer-premise-based” offerings. In those cases the customer owns and runs the platform.

Which one is right for your business? According to Jon Arnold of J Arnold & Associates, a communication advisory firm in Toronto, the answer has to do with a company’s IT resources and the amount of money it has in the bank.

Hosted, managed, owned and managed – which VoIP is right for your business?

A look at three case studies may help you decide.

Customer-premise-based systems require an up-front investment in not only the IP phone equipment, but also the underlying data infrastructure. Recall that VoIP is all about putting voice calls onto the data network. If the supporting system isn’t capable of maintaining strong connections, the voice system will fail. Customer-premise-based systems require in-house staff members who know about operating a converged, voice-data infrastructure. That’s why big businesses tend to favour this flavour; they have the resources available to run it, and cash on hand to buy, Arnold says. “That’s definitely large enterprise territory.”

Companies that tend towards managed systems prefer to own, but they might not have the IT expertise to run the system all by themselves. “They want ownership, but they recognize the issue of integrating voice and data on a common network, keeping it smooth, is something a telco might have more expertise with,” Arnold says.

Hosted systems attract small- and mid-sized businesses (SMBs) and public institutions, because those groups generally have neither the deep pockets required to purchase the equipment nor the IT resources to maintain it, Arnold says. “The low-hanging fruit for providers is the existing, classic Centrex customers — campus environments: hospitals; schools; governments; operations that don’t have a lot of IT infrastructure and just want an economical phone service.”

That said, there are nuances to this three-flavour notion. For instance, not all public institutions opt for the hosted model. Some, like the City of Hamilton, eschew the carrier route, having paid too much in the past for the Centrex non-IP hosted phone service .

“You were paying for it,” said Dr. Louis Shallal, Hamilton’s CIO, “paying through the nose.” The Ontario municipality now operates an IP PBX from Cisco Systems Inc.

And some VoIP gear makers are building systems that are easy enough for SMBs to run. Aastra Technologies Ltd. in Concord, Ont., has an IP platform for SMBs that relies on peer-to-peer technology.

Given these VoIP variables, it can be difficult to decide which flavour makes the most sense. In an effort to cut the fog, we present three case studies, one for each iteration. The companies featured might help you figure out how best to lick the choices down to one. — SD

BMW takes control

The cars that BMW Group Canada sells are supposed to give drivers as much control as possible. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the company wants as much control as possible over its communication infrastructure.

This Canuck arm of the Bavarian Motorworks empire owns and manages an expanding IP phone platform, which comprises equipment in the firm’s Toronto showcase building and its Whitby, Ont. headquarters. According to Katherine Woolsey, BMW Group Canada’s telecommunications specialist, the company aims to bring IP phone functions to the Montreal and Vancouver offices soon.

BMW Group Canada takes care of the IP infrastructure itself. Woolsey said hosted and managed systems don’t always live up to expectations.

“BMW is all about premium experiences. The service level agreements from various vendors don’t always meet the BMW criteria.”

The firm started its journey down the IP phone highway when it selected Avaya Inc. equipment for a new multi-storied showroom building in Toronto, which opened in 2003. Woolsey said the Toronto install went smoothly. Whitby was a different matter. Based on the positive experience in Toronto, BMW Group Canada expected it to be a straightforward thing, IP-enabling the existing traditional phone system at headquarters. But it wasn’t as easy as anticipated.

At first the firm tried to make things simple. “We split one VLAN instead of having multiple VLANs,” Woolsey said. But that produced an undesirable imbalance in quality of service. “Anything on the same subnet as the PBX worked fine. Anything on a different subnet didn’t work as well.

“Now we’re doing multiple VLANs, instead of one split VLAN. We learned where the pitfalls were with IP telephony, got back up and tried again.”

These days, BMW Group Canada staffers use various IP phone features encapsulated in the Avaya gear. For instance, many employees access the Extension to Cellular function. It essentially turns the user’s cell phone into an IP PBX extension, so she can access voice mail, etc. as if she were at her desk.

Woolsey said the company uses IP Agent, a “softphone” — it operates as software on a computer, as opposed to a traditional, desktop-sitting phone. According to Tracy Fleming from Avaya Canada, IP Agent is meant for distributed call centres, whereby operators work from home or from branch offices.

Woolsey said BMW Group Canada is using IP Agent to support the business in lights-out situations. “Whitby has had a few power outages.”

Asked for advice that other businesses could use to gear up with IP phone technology, Woolsey said, “I would advise people to do a thorough study of their network. It guarantees you won’t have latency, jitter and disappointment. Traditional telephony is very stable. If you don’t do your homework first, you’ll end up unhappy.” — SD

Mount Sinai takes managed route

“The best of both worlds” is how Steve Noyes describes the managed IP telephony environment at Mount Sinai Hospital (MSH), a Toronto-based health care facility.

As director of information and communication technology, Noyes reports that MSH has been gradually increasing the adoption of VoIP since the hospital bought a second building more than four years ago. “It makes no sense to take a hospital that is already wired for an analogue or digital phone system and convert it en masse into VoIP,” he says. “But in a new build-out, the cost to do so is no more expensive than traditional telephony. “

Even though MSH had a Cisco Systems Inc. network for its other buildings, Nortel Networks was the chosen vendor. It seemed to be the VoIP leader, Noyes says.

A Nortel CSE 1000 VoIP switch in the renovated building was linked back to a Nortel Option 81C phone system at the main hospital building. About a year later, renovations at the original hospital buildings inspired Noyes to simplify the communications by upgrading that 81C switch to enable VoIP.

The switch upgrade meant MSH had become a relatively extensive Nortel VoIP telephony shop. MSH contracted with Telus Corp. to have a Telus staff member on site to manage the system.

“We just didn’t have the expertise on site to be able to self-manage,” Noyes explains. “We had to look at either hiring our own expertise or [get it] from one of our partners. We were paying Telus for maintenance on our (Nortel) switch. They were able to negotiate a rate that lowered our maintenance cost for the switch almost to the same extent as the increase of the cost of a person on site to provide maintenance for us.”