Cisco shows off truckload of convergence

The benefits of moving to a multi-purpose network may finally be clear, but it seems that getting there still has a few network managers unsure of where to start.

Such was the case for one Vancouver-based credit union that knew what it wanted, but wasn’t sure how to get it. Envision Financial was faced with a situation that has become familiar to many IT shops: preserve its investment in its existing PBX telephone system or look to new technology to reach the company’s business goals.

According to Hank Poelvoorde, Envision decided to do both. While PBX systems seem to be on the way out and convergence on the way in, Envision – which purchased its PBX system in 1995 – found that the system still had a few good years left, but still wanted the opportunity to reap the benefits of IP telephony.

“Our path first of all was to recognize that the PBX is a dinosaur and it is not going to fit into a voice over IP backbone,” said Poelvoorde, vice-president of technology and information systems with Envision in Vancouver. “For the things that we needed in our business, like computer telephony,…to put all that in and put it on an old dinosaur would…be a waste of money.”

Envision sought the help of Cisco Systems Inc. to establish a migration path to IP telephony as it slowly phases the PBX out. Using Cisco’s Architecture for Voice Video and Integrated Data (AVVID) technology, Envision is in the process of developing its converged network and building up its functionality on a small scale.

“When we look at what we are gearing up for next year like Web casting, where we can do a lot of our training and that stuff through the converged phone and data system, we see that the PBX is not going to be there,” he added. “Right now AVVID already makes up three-quarters of our system, and the PBX is down to one-quarter. We are just going to migrate it out on a phased-out approach as our branches change.”

And, while Envision has only been using AVVID for a year at a slow pace, Poelvoorde said the company has already seen the benefits the technology has to offer.

“One of the things that are better functionality-wise is teleconferencing,” he explained. “Now that we are a bigger organization we can tie in branches and outsiders to conference calls, and that has been a big savings. For our branch managers’ meetings, where they used to travel, we now do conference calls. The next step next year is video with it over the same network. We now have the ability to do full video and audio conferencing internally. The costs of our travel are going to come down significantly.”

Travel savings are just the tip of the iceberg as far as the business benefits of convergence go, according to Cisco. Last month on board a big rig during its AVVID Express Road show in Toronto, Cisco representatives presented new applications for converged networks at length. Demonstrating voice-to-text messaging over IP, e-mail-to-voice messaging, IP soft phones et al., Cisco claims to have it covered. The company has also developed Business Innovation Centres in Canada and the U.S. that offer information and discovery sessions to businesses looking to converge their voice, video and data nets.

“We have a lot of inbound requests to help people understand how they can benefit, because they think they can, they just don’t really know how to,” said Brantz Myers, manager of enterprise marketing for Cisco Canada in Toronto. “Our usual approach is to roll it out at the customer’s pace. If you telephone system doesn’t work, your business doesn’t work.

Myers said Cisco works with an eight-step approach to IP. The company typically conducts a network review and upgrade to ensure it will support telephony. He noted that, generally, businesses with a switched network are in good shape. Next, a call manager or IP soft switch is integrated into the network to manage dial plans for telephony. This, according to Myers, is the key step in integrating with existing PBX and voice mail systems.

“We do this with a set of gateways,” he explained. “Each gateway is special-purposed for gatewaying to a specific technology from a provider of telephony. For example, we have gateways for voice mail systems. It really isn’t trivial because things like making the message light turn on, on an IP phone from a traditional voice messaging system, is not an easy task.”

Ensuring high availability with redundant call managers is next on the list, followed by security.

“Some people may want to look at encrypted telephony and we have a couple of ways of doing that,” Myers continued. “You can encrypt all the telephony inside the network or you can just encrypt the gateway traffic. You don’t have to encrypt it at all. In the banking world, they think it is important and we can deploy phones with smart cards and encryption built right in.”

Finally, developing e-911 and application integration rounds out the process. With e-911, Cisco has borrowed technology from the mobile world, which allows for people to pick up and move their phone while carrying the same extension. E-911 localizes the IP phone down to its switch port.

“Then you get into more interesting applications like customer relationship management, where…you can do skills-based routing of calls so that…a customer enters the product they are interested in getting service on and it will route the call to the people trained in servicing those products.”

For Envision’s Poelvoorde, the decision to go to IP has so far been a good one.

“You have to take the sunken costs into account when trying to update an old system to meet your needs versus how new technology can meet those needs,” he said. “When you start looking at those costs you start to see where you are throwing good money after bad [technology].…We have put [money] into something that will give us a longer-term benefit.”