Don’t break your budget shifting to IP telephony

IT departments in public sector organizations are usually under pressure to constrain spending, which means sometimes they don’t keep on top of their infrastructure.

That’s what an Ontario college and a New Brunswick city found out when they looked into the state of their telecommunications systems. One found its private branch exchange (PBX) hadn’t been upgraded in so long it endangered a switch to an IP-based system, while the other discovered not only did it have an old system, it was paying for over 150 unused phone lines.

It could have been expensive to update their systems to unified communications, but both were able to find cost-effective solutions. In one case tens of thousands of dollars was saved in operating costs.

Here are their stories:
Getting around the aging PBX

Georgian College, based in Barrie, Ont., serves about 10,000 full-time and 25,000 part-time students in 10 campuses across seven communities. Its PBX was built around Nortel Networks’ Meridian 11c, 61c and 81c Communications Systems, but due to expansion of the college not all of the buildings were connected to the network. Phone and network support was handled by BCE Inc.’s Bell Canada, which meant the college didn’t have any in-house communications expertise.

According to Arlene McDonald, the college’s manager of IT operations, it wasn’t until the institution hired a telecom analyst in 2008 did it realize how behind the system had fallen.

To upgrade the Nortel software and some hardware to the latest versions would have cost $600,000, she said, without adding any extra capabilities. The college wanted to jump to Nortel’s IP telephony technology, but it still had to first upgrade the PBX. It was an expense that hadn’t been counted on.

“Given that we’re a community collage our budget is very low,” said McDonald in December, just before leaving Georgian for another post. “Any spend of that size we didn’t have the authority to do.” Because the telecom technology wouldn’t be advanced, the CIO felt he couldn’t go the board and ask for the money.

“Coming up with $1 million to do a rip and replace wasn’t an option,” McDonald added.

The solution came from Cisco Systems Inc., which supplies some of the college’s data network equipment: Run a hybrid system, shifting the phone system to Cisco’s Unity unified communications solution running over the data network and letting the college gradually replace the Nortel phones with Cisco IP-based handsets.

While the cost would be more than $600,000, it could be spread across several years. But in the end, Georgian would have an IP-based phone system with much needed new capabilities including four-digit extensions for all campuses, voicemail that could feed into a single e-mail box (handy for the college’s many part-time faculty) and video conferencing.

That argument proved persuasive and early in 2009 the board of governors advanced an initial $500,000 to start the project, overseen by Bell, which included buying servers to handle Cisco’s Call Session Control platform. Bell’s Nuance voice recognition service for handling incoming calls was also adopted.

By March, 2010 the backbone infrastructure was finished and most of the regional campuses had been transferred to the new platform. That left the main campus in Barrie, which will likely be shifted by April of this year.

There were a few hiccups, McDonald admitted. Initially not enough bandwidth was provided between the Cisco and Nortel networks, which caused what she called “tromboning” – the systems didn’t know how to handle some calls, so they were passed back and forth.

“I think the key for anyone who’s going to be looking at this type of migration … is to make sure the team you’re going to have onsite is very experienced in this kind of conversion,” said McDonald, “that you have very strong project management skills and you spend a lot of time working through the architecture.”

Zeus Kerravala, a senior vice-president of research at the Yankee Group, says it’s not uncommon for organizations to let their PBXs fall behind in upgrades. However, he points that – as Georgian College discovered – some systems can’t move to up a modern VoIP platform unless the latest versions of software and hardware are there.

“You can’t just not upgrade something forever and expect it to be current,” he warns.

Getting around the hosted PBX

At the city of St. John, N.B., the municipality had been relying on a hosted Centrex-based phone system administered for decades by Bell Aliant when in 2009 it decided it was time to move into the 21st century.

“We were spending a lot of money on telecommunications in general,” recalls Ian MacKinnon, the city’s director of information technology. “My challenge was to add value to the business without no net new money.”

It was quite a challenge. Each of the city’s business units managed its own phone system across the municipality’s 40 buildings so there was no overall strategic telecom plan. No inventory had been done of the phone system. When one was done, McKinnon learned the city was being billed for 702 unique phone lines, although the staff totaled 900 – and a large number worked outside, not in offices, and didn’t need a landline.

“We discovered 160 lines that go nowhere,” McKinnon says.

That problem was easy enough to solve. Harder would be finding a way to shift to an IP-based phone system. The day McKinnon told his Aliant contact the city wanted to modernize, the rep told him about the phone company’s partnership with telecom equipment maker Avaya Inc. In particular, he talked about new software Avaya acquired from Nortel when it put assets for sale called ACE (Agile Communications Environment).

A legacy of the partnership between Nortel and Microsoft Corp., ACE is middleware that allows almost any voice system to integrate with Microsoft’s Office Communications Server, as well as Lotus Sametime. Separately-priced modules add features such as hot-desking. Among the advantages, ACE lets organizations implant telephony triggers into business applications.

Half of the St. John municipal staff had Office Communicator on their desktops, but to upgrade to IP telephony the city would have had to buy enterprise licences. With ACE that isn’t necessary. The city could keep its base phone system and get IP features like click to call and presence.

Seven months ago the conversion started with 50 users in a pilot project getting softphones along with IP deskphones, and it was successful enough to spread to all office staffers. Before, use of Communicator was scattered. Now it’s taken off.

Among the advantages, McKinnon says, is that engineering workers who often move from site to site can log into the network in any municipal building and still have their user profile.

In addition, Aliant no longer charges when there are staff changes because the IT department administers the system, a saving of $30,000 a year. “It used to cost upwards of $100 whenever we had to move a phone,” McKinnon said. “Now we leave the phone and move the people.”

The city also saved $50,000 by buying IP deskphones and dropping the phones it rented from Aliant.

And eliminating those 160 lines to no one? A saving of over $57,000 a year.

Henry Dewing, a Forrester Research analyst who covers communications infrastructure issues, says a number of organizations are taking advantage of ACE to customize their telecom environments. “It’s like a Web mash-up,” he said.

McKinnon says the change at the municipality has been “awesome,” and it isn’t quite over. Staff have to learn how to take advantage of all the new capabilities Office Communicator and ACE have handed them, he said. Adding click to call on city Websites would be appreciated by citizens, for example.