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Consultancy Avanade Inc. works closely with leading network hardware vendors that sell voice-over-IP products. But when it came to choosing convergence gear for the firm ‘s own network, Avanade went with hybrid voice switches from start-up Shoreline Communications Inc.

Shoreline’s product stood out because it can function as an inexpensive PBX and voice mail system while allowing gradual migration to voice over IP. Avanade has installed the Shoreline gear in its Seattle, New York and San Francisco offices, and the remainder of the company ‘s 17-site global network and 1,200 employees are being migrated to it.

“Shoreline has modules that let you start [voice-over-IP] rollouts with as few as 12 people,” says CIO Sean Jazayeri in Avanade’s Seattle office. “It also works with any kind of handset – analog, digital or IP. By using cheap analogue phones, we can save US$200 per handset.”

Most analysts still recommend that companies hold off on voice-over-IP deployments until the technology matures a bit more, but if you ‘re considering a bold move to convergence, you’ll need to decide whether to stick with established voice vendors such as Nortel Networks Corp., Lucent Technologies Inc. and L.M. Ericsson Telephone Co., data vendors such as Cisco Systems Inc. and 3Com Corp. or start-ups such as Shoreline and Vertical Networks Inc.

“Between the data and voice players, the playing field is pretty level,” says Kathryn Korostoff, an analyst with Sage Research Inc. “The advantage the data companies have is counterbalanced by the voice expertise of the PBX vendors.”

To help you determine which type of voice-over-IP product best meets your needs, Network World canvassed more than a dozen early voice-over-IP adopters about their experiences.

The most important factors in their decisions came down to scalability, price, ease of use and voice features.

Start with scalability

The first step is to consider the size and concentration of your user population.

“Sites with sub-50 and sub-500 and 500-plus users represent different categories with different solutions,” says Chris Kozup, senior research analyst for Meta Group Inc. “Will the vendor’s products let you do a stand-alone branch-office installation today that can ultimately be part of an enterprisewide converged network?” It also matters whether your company has one or a few large sites, or is scattered across lots of small offices with no on-site IT staff. And make sure both you and the vendor define scalability the same way.

NCP Solutions in Birmingham, Ala., needed to upgrade its central PBX – a 15-year-old Mitel museum piece – and decided convergence might reduce administrative costs. NCP, which provides billing services to the financial industry, considered Nortel, Cisco and 3Com before selecting Avaya Inc. as its vendor. However, when it came to selecting a specific product, NCP rejected Avaya’s pure IP PBX in favor of the vendor ‘s IP-enabled Definity G3SI because it could accommodate more modem lines.

“We would have had to link two IP PBXs together to get enough ports,” says Ed Watson, NCP’s director of infrastructure services.

To companies in a more distributed environment, scalability may have nothing to do with how many phone lines a single chassis will support. Vendors such as 3Com, Shoreline and Vertical Networks argue that their office-in-a-box solutions are unfairly pigeonholed as easy-to-use platforms aimed at small businesses.

As Avanade’s Jazayeri points out, these products let companies start small, with a limited upfront investment, and grow from there. They can also be rolled out across the network of a large company that has many small locations.

For example, Household International Inc. got into convergence as part of an effort to upgrade data bandwidth to 1,500 small branch offices. The financial services firm was looking for a voice-over-IP system that could route calls to individuals in a particular skills group, regardless of their location, and automatically bring up the caller’s account information. “We wanted to bring some call-center efficiencies down into our five- to 10-person branch operations,” says John Armstrong, managing director of network systems in Bridgewater, N.J.

After evaluating products in a lab, IT narrowed the field to Cisco and Vertical Networks and proceeded with pilot installations in five branch offices early this year. Vertical won. “The Cisco solution changed the workflow in the branches, while the Vertical system required virtually no training,” Armstrong says.

Household has replaced the six plain old telephone service lines in each branch office with an IP connection, and the dedicated service lets the company get better switch-to-switch calling rates. Armstrong says the Vertical rollout paid for itself without even taking the productivity gains into account.

Focus on the bottom line

Saving on capital investment and operational costs is one of the primary drivers of convergence, but the relative efficiencies different products can offer depend partly on your existing infrastructure.

Harrisburg International Airport in Middletown, Pa., had a 3Com data network when a major rebuilding project raised the convergence issue two years ago. Among other things, voice over IP would make all the pending moves during the three-year construction project much easier to manage. IT Manager Mark Berkheimer spent about a year looking at standard phone systems and was getting prices of around US$120,000. He estimated that Cisco’s voice-over-IP technology would be a little less expensive, but still more than US$100,000.

Instead, the airport spent about US$60,000 on a 3Com NBX network, and Berkheimer reckons there are a lot of ongoing savings as well. “The 3Com system was much easier to learn, and we could install it ourselves,” he says. “With Cisco, we needed a Cisco-certified network engineer for installation, plus a lot of training.” The 3Com NBX system went live last November, and now handles the 4,000 inbound and outbound calls the airport receives and makes each day.

However, other organizations make a similar evaluation and find that Cisco offers the best deal. The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff wasn’t even a Cisco shop when it headed down the convergence path a few years ago. The school’s network was based on old Digital Equipment hubs and Centrex service when a US$3 million infrastructure upgrade began.

Initially, the university planned to buy a Lucent PBX, until IT Director Maurice Ficklin heard a Cisco voice-over-IP presentation at a Dallas conference. He came home with five IP phones and a Celsius call manager.

“We played around with them, and they worked fine,” Ficklin says. “Then I started calculating [return on investment], and realized we could just take the US$500,000 per year we were spending on Centrex and use it to purchase the voice-over-IP equipment.”

The school also looked at platforms from Nortel, Lucent and 3Com, but Ficklin says none came close to the features and functions Cisco’s voice-over-IP products offered. Today, the university has 2,000 IP phones deployed. Voice, data, video and security services are provisioned over a single Cisco network, with fiber connecting the buildings.

In other situations, the traditional PBX vendors may come out as the low-cost alternative, particularly for the cost-conscious education market. Center Area School District in Monaca, Pa., was rolling out a new computer network as part of a five-year technology plan, and wanted to put a phone in every classroom. An existing key system couldn’t begin to accommodate 300 classrooms in three buildings spread across 5 miles and connected via the district’s fiber metropolitan-area network. Other requirements included integration with in-building paging systems; video support; plus a voice mail system that would support separate homework hot lines for parents and students to call.

After evaluating Avaya, Siemens and Cisco gear, the organization chose Alcatel SA. “We considered track record, customer references and staying ability,” says Christopher Rishack, the school district’s technology coordinator. “Alcatel could deliver everything over the same cable, and give us a one-point resource for troubleshooting, training, and expansion.”

While stability was important to Center Area School District, some firms are willing to increase risk in exchange for the flexibility of a start-up’s new technology. Experio Solutions follows that way of thinking. Launched last year, the consultancy decided it would be cost effective to lease as much infrastructure as possible. “We considered IP Centrex, but the phone companies don’t seem to be interested right now,” says Mike Shisko, IT director.

Experio then chose Shoreline because of its cost, administration features and ability to support a highly distributed business. The firm has seen two of its application service providers go bankrupt, and has contingency plans for dealing with such start-up hazards.

Weighing ease-of-use issues

Voice-over-IP start-ups tend to get especially high marks for ease of use, offering turnkey systems that require little expertise to install and operate.

Mortgage Information Services in Cleveland was deploying a help desk and looking for a way to enable a new level of collaboration among its nine offices when a Shoreline pilot was begun in June 2000. “Our Lucent PBX wasn’t that old, but we didn’t have anyone with the skill set to make it do what we wanted,” says Scott Crawford, the company’s network administrator.

Today, Mortgage Information Services has eight of its nine offices migrated to the Shoreline system, and calls can be transferred across sites to ensure that a person answers them. Moves, adds and changes take minutes, and Crawford manages the entire network remotely from his home in Tampa. People can reach him from any office just by dialing his extension.

“Shoreline will be working with us on setting up a [customer relationship management] system,” Crawford says. “Some of the larger companies might not be willing to pay such personal attention to you.”

Crown Services, a roofing company in San Jose, had even more need of simplicity when the issue of convergence came up two years ago. The firm has grown through acquisition and now has 15 sites throughout California. The roofing business isn’t IT-intensive, and the acquisitions didn’t bring much data-networking technology with them – just six different phone systems.

“We didn’t have an internal telecom staff, or the resources for training or for outsourcing telephony,” says Michael Dyer, the IT director. “But Vertical’s Instant Office gave us remote management and diagnostics, and delivered everything in a single box that let us get new sites up very easily.” Crown Services chose the start-up after considering Alcatel, Cisco, Lucent and Nortel.

Today, the roofing firm’s 15 sites have a Vertical Networks Instant Office system that provides PBX functionality, voice mail and a data switch in a single box. Within each office, traditional phones are plugged into the Instant Office switch, but voice over IP is used to make interoffice calls.

Other voice-over-IP pioneers find that in-house expertise tips the scale in favor of a particular vendor.

“When you get into [quality-of-service] issues where you have to shape your traffic, I for one want to use equipment I’m familiar with,” says Steve Meyers, IT director for the city of Bend, Ore. He had a Gigabit Ethernet backbone centered on a Cisco 4908 L3 switch and had some experience with traffic prioritization.

The city was embarking on a big building project last year and he wanted to move traffic from a Lucent PBX onto a single converged network to lower administration costs. The voice-over-IP access layer consists of Cisco Catalyst 3500 series switches that provide in-line power to IP phones, and the distribution layer is made up of Cisco 2600 and 3600 routers running a voice-over-IP-compatible version of IOS. “Cisco’s dual-switch integration let us preserve our Definity switches and still do four-digit dialing among sites,” Meyers says.

Similarly, the U.S. Marine Forces Reserve already had substantial Cisco expertise that could be leveraged when the decision was made to integrate voice over IP into the infrastructure supporting its 185 Reserve sites nationwide.

“By sticking with Cisco equipment, it is easier to configure the network and ensure quality of service,” says Capt. Chris DiNofrio, internetworking systems officer for the Marine Forces Reserve in New Orleans. The voice-over-IP network includes single-line, four-line and six-line IP phones, which get in-line power from Cisco’s 3524-XL-PWR switches. A cluster of Cisco 7835 Call Manager servers in the network core handle call processing, and each site has a 3640 router running a version of IOS that includes Survivable Remote-Site Telephony.

“As existing PBX or key systems fail, we replace them with [voice over IP], and we anticipate great reductions in future support costs,” DiNofrio says.

Still other early voice-over-IP implementers find that PBX continuity makes for the easiest transition.

When Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Woods Hole, Mass., started looking at convergence last year, its PBX was a pre-Meridian Nortel SL1XT dating to 1988. In contrast, its Cisco data network had been recently revamped. However, Woods Hole decided to stick with Nortel for voice over IP.

“We have the old SL1XT and the new IP switch tied together,” says Hartley Hoskins, director of network services. “And there is no such thing as a cutover, which is a huge ordeal in the traditional PBX world. We now move phones over to the IP system at our leisure.”

Some education of staff and users may be necessary, depending on your starting point, so keep training and support capabilities in mind when you evaluate vendors.

For example, Center Area School District ‘s Rishack says Alcatel offered a superior training program. Instead of using full-time trainers, the vendor rotates in engineers from the field. “We got toll-free 24-7 technical support as part of the training deal, and there hasn’t been any wait time,” he reports.

Checking off features and functions

Not surprisingly, the PBX vendors do the best job with regard to voice features. However, only a fraction of a PBX’s features are actually put to use in a given company. You need to identify this subset and use it as a checklist when evaluating voice-over-IP systems. If your users have to sacrifice voice features they’ve been employing, it won’t be well received. And pay particular attention to key applications and functions such as voice mail and direct extension dialing among sites. Here, too, the PBX vendors tend to have an edge.

With the great majority of business calls ending in voice mail these days, voice mail is a mission-critical application. NCP’s Watson was surprised to learn how many of the old voice mail system’s messaging features employees had discovered and put to use. He went with Avaya partly because its robust voice mail platform can accommodate just about anything.

If you are an IT-intensive company that tends to customize products, you might want to map your in-house programming expertise to the various voice-over-IP alternatives.

Last fall, Datek Online Brokerage Services LLC was moving to a new facility and decided to build a converged Cisco network. The stockbroker looked at what Alcatel, Avaya and Nortel had to offer, but decided its voice-over-IP technology was “slapped onto the old PBX architecture,” says Rolando Garcia, Datek Online’s network architect in Jersey City, N.J. “We would have to depend on the PBX vendors for any new features, because their systems are all closed. But we have programmers in house who can write code for Cisco ‘s systems, so we are in control of our own destiny.”

Similarly, Experio felt an affinity with the Shoreline system because it is “very Microsoft-centric,” Shisko says. “Microsoft technology is our core competency, and we can absorb support of Windows-based systems without adding resources.”

No matter which type of voice-over-IP vendor you choose, you’ll have to put off deployment if you plan to hold out for every feature you want. “Vendors are still in early stages, and all categories of products are lacking some desired options,” Meta Group ‘s Kozup says. “Evaluate vendors holistically and pick one that will ultimately meet your requirements.”

Avanade slowed up its voice-over-IP migration temporarily while waiting for Shoreline to deliver on some promises. These included upgrading the operating system from NT 4 to Windows 2000, clustering the database technology to enable transparent failover, and releasing an international version.

Similarly, “Cisco didn’t come out of the box meeting all our voice needs,” says Rock Regan, IT director for the State of Connecticut, which began migrating to a Cisco-based voice-over-IP network last year. “There was a long list of things that would be developed over time.”

Meanwhile, there is broad consensus that voice-over-IP implementations should not attempt to integrate best-of-breed components from multiple vendors. “We don’t have broad interoperability yet,” Kozup says.

Breidenbach is a freelance technology journalist and consultant. She can be reached at sbreidenbach@usa.net.