Early adopter shares VoIP lessons learned

A year into its migration to voice over IP, the U.S. Department of Education is enjoying better-than-expected performance and positive feedback from users. However, this pioneering federal agency is also running into some unforeseen glitches in the convergence of its voice and data messaging systems.

Overall, the agency’s IT officials are pleased with their decision to move to a converged network architecture based on IP.

“The converged network architecture gives us flexibility, better response times for users, control over our telephony systems, back-end and toll-bypass savings,” says Rick Miller, Deputy CIO at the Department of Education. In another three years, “we hope to have close to 100 percent of our employees on VoIP.”

Like most large organizations, the Department of Education spends the lion’s share of its telecommunications budget on voice services. Voice represents about 70 percent of its telecom budget, including 800-services, internal dialling and long-distance. The remaining 30 percent of its telecom budget covers data services, virtually all of which is IP traffic.

By running voice traffic over an IP backbone, the Department of Education is saving money on internal long distance calls as well as on network administration for adding new employees, deleting old employees or moving employees from one location to another.

The department’s student loan unit is “getting tremendous savings because all the calls to our regions are local calls now and before they were all long-distance calls,” Miller says. “It’s also tremendously more efficient for us to have the network administration group that takes care of the PCs handle all network accounts. … People don’t realize how much time is tied up in the back-end in doing the moves, adds and changes.”

A year ago, when 1,000 of the agency’s employees moved to a new building here, agency IT officials decided to install a single, converged voice and data network rather than a traditional telephony infrastructure and a separate data network.

“One of our business units had the opportunity to move into a brand new building and consolidate scattered resources,” Miller explains. “We had the opportunity to build their network infrastructure from scratch without having to replace anything.”

Miller says the agency asked contractor IBM Corp. to analyze the difference in cost between installing a traditional PBX telephony system and VoIP. What the agency found is that the US$2 million in hardware, software and installation for the VoIP system was essentially the same amount it would cost to install a regular telephony system.

The finding matched the agency’s overall strategy of moving to a converged, IP network. Already, the agency had moved 99 percent of its data traffic to IP. Migrating voice traffic to IP was an obvious next step, agency officials say.

“We had a firm belief that data and voice convergence was a thing of the future and that we needed to go there,” Miller says. “We thought: Why install a traditional telephony infrastructure when we didn’t need to?”

With help from IBM and Cisco Systems Inc., the agency designed a 100M bit/sec Ethernet LAN for the new building that feeds into its existing ATM-based WAN from Sprint. The fast Ethernet LAN carries IP data traffic from the agency’s PCs as well as IP voice traffic from telephones supplied by Cisco.

The agency’s primary concern in designing the converged network was reliability. Agency officials worried that employees used to regular telephones would be unhappy if dial tone was any less available with the new IP phones.

“My key direction to the design team was that every possible failure scenario had to be addressed with multiple redundancies and reliabilities built into the system,” Miller says. “We ultimately selected the highest reliability for a reasonable cost.”

In the year since the VoIP system was installed, the agency has experienced few problems. Officials say installation went smoothly as did employee training for the new phones and unified messaging environment. The agency hasn’t experienced a single outage in the year its been running VoIP.

“We were surprised. We expected a lot more problems,” Miller admits.

Since the original installation, the only unforeseen problem that the agency has run into is when it decided to upgrade its messaging system to a newer version of Microsoft Exchange. Users started having minor nuisances such as telephone message lights coming on unnecessarily.

“What we discovered is that the voice system is truly integrated with the data and messaging system,” Miller says. “You can’t undertake changing one without fully evaluating and testing the downstream implications. You are playing with your dial tone when you upgrade your messaging infrastructure.”

In April, the agency will finish installing a video teleconferencing system that also will run over its IP backbone. Next the agency plans to test IP TV as well as new IP-based collaboration tools.

From his experience, Miller offers the following advice to other IT executives considering VoIP:

– Decide whether your voice or data staff is going to be in charge of the system. “You have to train one or the other of these groups, and they have distinct technical vocabularies and skill sets,” Miller says. “The two don’t naturally blend. We made the decision that it was more natural to teach the telephony skill to the network administrators because it was an integrated environment.”

– Design reliability into your VoIP system. “When you have data guys getting into the dial tone world, you have to think about reliability in terms of six nines,” Miller says. “You have to think about emergency power. You have to have backups.”