FDA fosters collaboration with VoIP, unified messaging network

If you’re planning a move to a new office building and wondering what type of network infrastructure to build, consider the experience of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA is building a campus in Montgomery County, Md., which will house 8,000 employees in 18 new buildings. For its White Oak Campus, the FDA chose a converged IP network, with VOIP in all offices and conference rooms.

The FDA selected VOIP because it will cost less money to move employees from one location to another as they complete projects. The agency also hopes its new network will foster collaboration, with features such as unified messaging and desktop videoconferencing.

“We saw that VOIP was cost-effective if you’re building a new building,” says Glenn Rogers, deputy CIO. “With a legacy infrastructure, you have to pull the cables out of the building and redo the network.”

The FDA will spend US$25 million in eight years to build out the VOIP infrastructure. This cost includes all equipment from the VOIP phones back to the wire closets.

“The FDA project is one of the larger VOIP projects in the federal government,” says Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president of Federal Sources, a market research firm. “Many agencies have pilot projects. But I haven’t heard a lot in the government about people embracing VOIP yet for full agencies because of the security risks and the operational risks.”

The FDA began planning its White Oak Campus in 1998, with a goal of encouraging collaboration on a consolidated campus. Previously, the FDA had buildings scattered around the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

The FDA’s CIO office is responsible for the data, voice and video services for the new campus. Rogers says he and his staff had several goals.

“It had to be state of the art, but not cutting edge or bleeding edge. It had to be something that would carry us for 20 to 25 years,” Rogers says. “We wanted it to be adaptive, so we wouldn’t have to rip it out when new technologies like IPv6 come down the pike. We wanted it to support agency standards and conform to our architecture. But the big thing was to remove IT boundaries within the different organizations within the FDA.”

The FDA’s eight organizations, including the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research and the Center for Devices and Radiological Health, had their own IT staffs and were developing and supporting their own systems and applications. In recent years, the FDA has consolidated all IT under the CIO’s office. “Whatever we did at White Oak, we were not building eight data centers,” Rogers says. “We knew we would have one data center and that we would have to realign our business practices and tech staff to support technology across the campus. The main purpose of the campus is to foster collaboration so that the agency can work more efficiently.”

After research and a pilot project, the FDA decided that VOIP would be ready for a production rollout in 2005, when the first buildings at the White Oak Campus were due for completion.

The FDA issued an RFP for the campus network in 2002. Four companies bid, and the FDA chose Verizon, which partnered with Apptis and Batelle to offer a Cisco VOIP network.

“Verizon was able to bring to bear its expertise in the infrastructure, as far as LANs, WANs and connectivity coming in from the local exchange carries,” Rogers says. “They could provide a really good picture about the end-to-end solution.”

The FDA White Oak Campus is Verizon’s largest VOIP project in the federal government.

The FDA “is one of the few customers that has actually committed to the technology at this scale,” says Daniel Felder, vice president of federal civilian sales for Verizon Enterprise Solutions Group. “It’s relatively easy to do the integration in small pockets of 20 or 40 or 50 people. But it’s the FDA’s commitment to VOIP for everyone that stands out.”

The VOIP system includes Cisco call managers, switches, handsets, conference room phones and monitoring tools. The all-Cisco approach was attractive to the agency because it was already standardized on Cisco equipment across its 250-plus sites worldwide.

“We didn’t want to bridge two different technologies,” Rogers says. “Whatever vendor we chose, we wanted a true end-to-end solution, from handsets to IP softswitches to IP [public switched telephone network].” The FDA is not using VOIP services from its long-distance provider, MCI. The agency uses VOIP only for local calls on its White Oak Campus.

Rogers says that VOIP was not more expensive than building separate data and voice networks on the new campus. The ROI for the VOIP deployment was in cutting the costs of moving employees from one location to another.

“When we looked at the cost to do adds, changes and deletes from the system, the agency was spending $50 per person on that piece of it,” Rogers says. “With VOIP, a person can move across the campus for free and just take their PC with them. With a traditional phone system, we would have to place an order with the local carrier to have a phone number moved or established, which was a four- to six-week process. Just from that perspective, we saw savings.”

The FDA moved 2,000 employees from its Center for Drugs into four new buildings at White Oak last fall and says it has already saved money with its new VOIP system. The Center for Drugs has had three reorganizations in recent months, with hundreds of people moving to different offices. The new VOIP system has handled these changes with ease.

“Because we’re a regulatory agency in the health sector, we regularly have new initiatives that cause the agency to have to create a new organization with staff and move people around,” Rogers says. “With VOIP, we essentially become our own phone company, and that in itself provides a lot of flexibility. We can customize or add new call groups. We have a lot more functionality to do that, and we can do it in-house without having to work with a local carrier.”

The FDA sees many other advantages to its new network infrastructure at the White Oak Campus, including tighter security and new features.

“We have a lot more control over the ports,” Rogers says. “We have a lot more ability to lock down the network from a security point of view. We really wanted to ensure that we had a lot more management capabilities than we had with the legacy infrastructure.”

In terms of features, the White Oak Campus network lets employees have an IP softphone installed on their laptops, so that they can receive calls while on the road or working from home. The network also supports videoconferencing in special rooms and at the desktop.

“We have 40 conference rooms in the buildings, and they are constantly booked,” Rogers says. “So people can do videoconferencing on the desktop. We provide video on demand to the desktop so people can do training, too.”

Rogers says the biggest challenge in designing the White Oak Campus network was ensuring redundancy. He says the agency was concerned about losing voice communications in the case of an IP network outage. “We built in custom redirects, so that if VOIP has issues, we can redirect to cell phones or another phone number at the choice of the user,” Rogers says. “We placed analog phones in key, common areas so if we did lose VOIP we still had analog services for emergency purposes.”

To ensure redundancy, the FDA purchases voice services from two local exchange carriers, and it provides redundant and uninterrupted power supplies in its wiring closets. The FDA is pleased with the performance of its new VOIP system, which performed well recently when a backhoe took out a trunk on the new network.

“We could have had a major outage,” Rogers says. “But we built a self-healing network, so our users never noticed. We had that repaired in two weeks, but the users never knew we lost a major part of our fiber-optic ring on campus.”

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