Getting On Board The VoIP Train

Major challenges don’t seem to faze Linda Hatton. Recently, the director of information systems at Bloorview MacMillan Children’s Centre in Toronto was faced with keeping two health care sites up and running, while implementing a third temporary site for support. All of this was to be done while the Children’s Centre made plans to begin construction on a single facility that will see the three sites amalgamated by late 2005.

As if this weren’t enough, Hatton decided the time had come to make the move to IP telephony, opting to implement a Cisco Systems-based voice over IP (VoIP) solution for the existing facilities in the fall of 2002, with a view to ultimately incorporating the technology into the new amalgamated facility. You’d think that such an undertaking would add a little bit of stress to your life, but when we talked with Hatton, the whole thing seemed like a walk in the park.

“What we set out to do was replace some really ageing equipment, both on the data and the voice side,” she said of her plans to convert more than 500 phones to IP telephony. “Most health care organizations probably find themselves in the same situation we’re in. On the networking side, things grew over the years, with bits and pieces added. It was working but it wasn’t pretty. We didn’t have any opportunity for growth and we were worried about long-term maintenance.”

Hatton knew that by implementing an IP telephony solution, she could save the Children’s Centre a significant amount of money during the many staffing moves that would have to be made as the rehabilitation and continuing care facility dealt with construction. In addition, she knew that utilizing the voice technology would reduce design costs for the new hospital.

The children’s centre already had two sites – the Bloorview site and the MacMillan site – located nine kilometers apart when the original VoIP plans were made. However, as details of the new facility – which will be built on the current parking lot of the MacMillan site – unfolded, it became evident that 18 community-based workers would have to be relocated to a third site temporarily.

“We have sublet some space about eight kilometers from the MacMillan site and moved the community-based workers there,” Hatton said. “We set them up with their computers and IP telephones and nobody knows they moved. Those people can still be reached just as if they’re still in this building.”

Hatton said moving the technology to the temporary facility was a simple matter of dropping a switch into the site, taking users’ phones and computers to the site, and plugging them in. As a result of the move, a total of 100 staff moves were eventually made. If the Children’s Centre had remained on the old phone system, those moves would have cost about $200 each. With IP technology there was no cost because the phones can just be picked up, moved and plugged in.

The reluctant VoIP market

Bloorview MacMillan Children’s Centre is just one of many Canadian organizations already reaping the benefits of VoIP. A great many more, however, are playing the waiting game – and in some cases it may be costing them money.

According to consulting firm Frost & Sullivan’s 2003 Canadian Enterprise Converged Network Adoption Study, organizations in this country are slow to adopt VoIP solutions because their existing telephony technology is meeting their needs, there is a lack of understanding regarding the cost-savings involved with making the switch, and there is a perception that VoIP is not reliable enough.

The study states that one of the main reasons Canadian enterprises move to an IP-centric solution is to replace existing TDM-based PBX systems that have reached the end of their lifecycle. “People consider VoIP when their phones come up for replacement,” said Jon Arnold, Frost & Sullivan’s VoIP equipment program leader. “But for this market to grow it has to get beyond PBX replacement.”

Added Arnold, “We talked to enterprises that were adopters and non-adopters, and there was this clueless attitude towards VoIP on the part of non-adopters. They didn’t know what it was, couldn’t relate to it, or just had negative connotations about it. I think there is a poor image out there that persists and a very limited understanding [of VoIP].”

According to Arnold, the limited understanding is the result of a passive group of carriers who see no need to offer improved methods of service, and vendors who lack the presence to educate enterprises about the benefits of IP telephony.

“The vendors in Canada are spread thin,” he said. “If you go west of Toronto you don’t have a lot of support regionally to roll these products out. So you’re not going to get a lot of attention from the vendors and you’re not going to get any attention from the carriers because they just don’t generally cater to this market. The competitive pressures just aren’t there right now that are needed to push this product out into the marketplace.”

While Warren Chaisatien, a senior telecom analyst with IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto, agrees that vendors need to better educate businesses in this country about the long-term benefits of VoIP, he believes the IP telephony market has a bright future.

“There’s been very strong adoption and interest in VoIP in Canadian enterprises,” Chaisatien said. “And among those that are not yet using the technology, intentions are very strong.”

An end-user survey by IDC Canada showed that 10 per cent of medium-sized corporations and 17 per cent of large enterprises in Canada were using VoIP during the first quarter of 2003. Of the medium and large companies not yet using the technology, 19 per cent and 23 per cent respectively were planning to adopt it within 12 months.

Chaisatien said that the large organizations turning to IP telephony are doing so on a localized or piecemeal basis.

“Large organizations will decide to replace 10 to 25 per cent of their telephones with IP phones in a given quarter and see how it goes,” he said. “These organizations have thousands and thousands of phones and it would be very prohibitive from a cost perspective, and would be a technical nightmare from an IT perspective, to rip them out overnight.”

He added that industry leaders with organizations that have tried VoIP have indicated that they are, or will soon be, expanding the use of the technology within their companies.

Easier to manage

In terms of infrastructure, Bloorview MacMillan Children’s Centre’s Linda Hatton said she was very happy with the idea of being able to combine her voice and data systems. The IS director had just one person on her 12-member IT team who knew about telephone technology and when that person went on vacation Hatton had to hope nothing went wrong. But thanks to VoIP she now has five people who have solid IP telephony skills because the voice technology is now similar to that of the data technology.

As for the new facility, which will house the Centre’s 820-member staff, Hatton said the IP telephony solution has already saved Bloorview MacMillan $150,000 because there is now no need to run telephone cable into a building that doesn’t require it.

“I went to a meeting and they had the building plans showing where the wires and drops would run,” she said. “I told them to take it all out, and right there we saved money.”

When Bloorview MacMillan launched their original two-site project, they made plans well in advance. Hatton partnered with Infostream Technologies Inc., a systems integration consulting firm, to build the hospital’s new infrastructure in a lab.

“Within that lab we set up all of the switches, everything was already labelled, and it was then just a matter of taking it from there, bringing it here, popping it in the right spot and putting the right cable back in,” Hatton explained. “So it went fairly quickly over a couple of weekends and it was up and operational in no time.”

As for the security side of the project, Hatton said the technical team that worked on the infrastructure set up all of the protection and VLANs.

“Once you’ve got your VLANs and security set up you’re pretty tight,” she said. “I didn’t have anyone coming to my door concerned about any specific areas on the IP side.”

Cross-boarder implementation

For Kevin Thomason, communication technology officer for marketing and communications firm Quarry Integrated Communications Inc., implementing VoIP means he spends a lot less time south of the boarder.

Quarry, which employs 160 people, has offices in locations including Waterloo, Ont. and Dallas, Texas. Two years ago, when it came time to update the Dallas office’s phone system, Thomason decided to implement an IP telephony solution from Nortel Networks Limited.

“We had an older system that was clearly at the end of its life,” Thomason said. “We had really good Cat 5 data cabling throughout the Dallas office but the telephone cabling was decades old. I thought that rather than re-wiring their office with new phone cables we should take advantage of the Cat 5 cabling already there, and save the cost of installing new wiring.”

Thomason, who works out of Quarry’s Waterloo headquarters, said the company also realized savings in maintenance and administration.

“We don’t have technical staff in the Dallas office,” he said. “It’s easier for us to administer remotely. Anywhere I can get a Web connection and Web browser, I can go in and do everything. For moves, adds and changes, I don’t need to dispatch help, our employees just move their phones. They love the freedom and feel empowered because they’re not dependent on an IT organization to do what they want to do – it just works.”

Thomason rolled out VoIP in Quarry’s head office just over a year ago, implementing a hybrid solution by installing an IP ITG line card that allowed the Waterloo phone system to join the network. The system took about two to three hours to get up and running.

“It’s a big shift from traditional telephony,” he said. “It’s all graphical. If you could install a PC, you could install this.”

Thomason has eight IP phones that have been tested in different offices on each of the headquarters’ four floors. This is because Quarry has different parts of the network on different floors. “Sometimes we get a lot of traffic on the network and we wanted to really push the system. And so far we’ve been very impressed,” he said.

As old phones in the Waterloo office need replacing they will be switched with IP handsets. Noted Thomason, “I can’t see why I’d buy a traditional handset when the cost of an IP phone is almost the same.”

Advice to those on the sidelines

For those who haven’t jumped into IP telephony, Thomason says the time to act is now.

“Don’t be afraid of it,” he said. “You’ll realize any investment. Maybe when you crunch some of the initial numbers it may look like it’ll cost you 10 per cent to 20 per cent more, but I think you’ll save that in the initial installation alone.”

While Thomason does encourage new adopters to be eager, he says it is important to understand your own IT systems and infrastructure before you decide to run with a VoIP solution.

“We put a lot of time into our data network and made sure we had a really solid, robust infrastructure. We understood our data network and how it worked. So when it came to installing VoIP, it was easy for us. It can be a strong solution if you’re willing to put the time and effort into it.”

Linda Hatton agrees. She stresses that those who are sitting on the fence waiting for the “next big thing to happen” are losing valuable time when they could be realizing some major advantages.

“You can jump in and reap some of the immediate benefits,” she said. “Reduce your overall costs and be ready for the future. That’s what we are doing. We’ve got a major research institute and they want to do things. We can’t tell them they can’t plug a phone into a certain place or they can’t do videoconferencing. We want to be able to say we can do it all.”

For Bloorview MacMillan Children’s Centre, doing it all will include installing videophones so children who are spending extended periods of time at the facility and away from family, friends and school can stay in contact.

“As soon as Cisco is ready with their videophones, we’d like to put those in the rooms with the kids and then we can connect them back to their community,” said Hatton. “Schools have IP communications so we can fire up that equipment on either end to keep kids up-to-date with their schools and in contact with their peers. It will also help to integrate them back into the environment they came from. We’re not quite there yet, but that’s the future we’re looking at. Kids and families can spend months here and we want to give them the right technology.”

As for her VoIP experience to date, she sums it up as an exciting venture that will lead to an exciting future.

“I’ve been very happy with the technology and the opportunities that it’s afforded us here. We haven’t even rolled everything out yet. There is more we can grab on to but we think it has been a great project so far with significant benefits.”

How long will it be before many more Canadian organizations will be able to say the same thing?

Blair McQuillan is an assistant editor for CIO Canada.