Converged network cures all

When Roger Fahnestock started work in 2002 as IT director of Kane County, Ill., he found a mishmash of antiquated voice and data networks so sorely in need of an upgrade that almost any change would have been an improvement.

By embracing the idea of a converged voice-data network and planning beyond today’s needs, in just three years the county has not only eliminated inadequate systems, but also has saved money and set itself up for future growth.

A 100Mbps Ethernet metropolitan area network and VoIP have combined to make applications more reliable and improve services by making sure that callers seeking help will reach the people they need.

When Fahnestock arrived, the phone system was a smorgasbord. “We had different PBX types from AT&T Partners to Merlin Systems,” he said. “We had a David system; we had a Nortel Meridian; we had Centrex-managed lines from SBC.” Some calls within county offices were billed as local long-distance.

The county had about 1,600 phones with only 600 Centigram voice mailboxes running on a BSD Unix box. “They were running an enterprise voice mail off a little cloned desktop in the corner. It’s almost comical,” he said.

With a Cisco Call Manager VoIP system, everyone has voice mail, there are no charges to transfer to other county extensions, hunt groups can be rapidly realigned to address high call rates near elections and tax time, and uptime has improved, he says. And annual operating costs for the phone system have dropped to US$400,000.

On the data side, when Fahnestock first saw the network, it relied on an IBM System 390 mainframe that hadn’t been IP-enabled and a mix of 3Com and IBM token-ring gear serving 1,500 employees in 20 buildings spread out over four cities.

The WAN infrastructure consisted of T-1s that frequently failed and frame relay connections. Application development for the mainframe was stagnant.

“Coming here was like a flashback. I worked in a college in 1996 and we were migrating them off token ring to a switched network,” he said. “I come here, it’s 2002, and they’re still on token ring.”

Departments had started implementing their own client and server applications, and Fahnestock moved to standardize them. “We had one of everything here. We had an NT 3.51 box. I couldn’t believe it. We had Windows 2000, Red Hat Linux, IBM AS400s. You can imagine the complexity of supporting that environment.”

The county moved to two server platforms, 60 Windows 2000 servers and five AS400s, with the intent of upgrading to Windows Server 2003 next year. Fahnestock also is moving to consolidate all file services to a Network Appliance SAN. He standardized the 1,200 county desktops on Windows 2000 and XP running on Dell hardware.

These changes called for fundamental upgrades. The first major project was a US$1.5-million upgrade of network cabling from Category 3 to Category 6e because the long-term goal is to run Giga-bit Ethernet to the desktop.

On the WAN side, the county opted to use dark fibre from the cities of Elgin and Aurora to connect most of the county buildings on a single-mode optical loop, lit up by 15 Cisco Catalyst 3550 12G and two 3550 12T switches.

Through a deal with Comcast, the county pays US$2,700 per month for a 100Mbps connection to the state-run Illinois Century Network, which links the county to the Internet. It can now supply school districts with Internet services.

Picking a vendor for the network gear, Cisco had a huge leg up because the county could tap into a state buying program that offers a 42.5 per cent discount. Fahnestock’s experience with the vendor, staff knowledge of Cisco technology and the availability of good technical support combined to make Cisco the choice over Dell and HP.

Fahnestock was concerned that using separate vendors would lead to finger-pointing if problems arose with the phones.

In picking the switches, Fahnestock sought easy management, so he chose what he calls commodity switches, those that are relatively flexible and similar to each other. He chose Catalyst 3524s, 3550s and 3750s in a flat architecture. “I don’t have these big core switches sitting around handling hundreds of users, and I don’t need a high-end engineer to replace one,” he said.

As a result, the cost for supporting the 140 switches is low because most of the work can be done by his staff, he says. The county has dropped its monthly IT consulting bill from US$130,000 to US$10,000 by training and using the 26 IT staff members to tackle most network issues.

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