IP telephony rings off the hook

When it comes to rolling out converged networks, early adopters of IP PBXs are trying a variety of attack plans ranging from the toe-in-the-water approach to full-bore immersion. However they do it, network professionals are finding that in addition to saving big bucks, simplified management and unified messaging applications were the biggest payoffs for running their phone networks over IP.

Early adopters of IP PBXs have tended to be small and midsize businesses with 10 to 300 employees. Smaller shops have embraced the technology mainly because the systems are generally less expensive than key systems or small-office PBXs.

For example, 3Com Corp.’s NBX IP phone system supports more than 250 users in three states for ChannelWave Software Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., developer of chain management applications. Stephen Douglas, ChannelWave’s IT director, says the NBX reduces management and support costs.

“When we initially installed the NBX, we saved around US$45,000 over PBX systems of the same size from guys like Lucent and Nortel,” Douglas says. “And the support contract is minuscule compared to what a PBX contract would be.”

In addition to dodging PBX installation and support costs, Douglas says, he avoids the hassle of cross-training workers on phone and data support, or relying on PBX contractors to make changes for him.

“We’re constantly moving phones and rotating users,” he says. “If I were dealing with regular PBXs, I would have to train someone to move phones, or I’d have to rely on a reseller to do that.” With the NBX, he adds, “if I need to add a new user, I type in a name, plug in the phone and I’m done.”

Sells Printing, a prepress graphics company in Milwaukee, uses Alcatel’s OmniPCX 4400 IP phone system to support 125 users. Jason Ciena, telecom manager for Sells, touts the manageability of an IP PBX.

“We didn’t have any administration tools to begin with on the old system,” which was a Fujitsu Starlog small-office PBX, Ciena says. “If we had to move someone’s extension, you had to go out and physically pull wire pairs off and punch them down again. With an IP phone, you just log out and log in at another location.”

IP telephony goes big-time down under

New Zealand’s Ministry of Social Policy recently took on an ambitious Cisco-geared IP telephony installation project. More than 160 PBXs in 200 offices nationwide were replaced with 10 Cisco call servers, and 8,000 IP phones were installed. The implementation is the largest IP telephony installation in the world, outside of Cisco’s own corporate network of 16,000 IP phones, the vendor claims.

Between April and October, the ministry planned, tested and went live with the Cisco AVVID (architecture for voice, video and integrated data) IP telephony system, including 10 Cisco Call Manager servers, public switched telephone network gateways, voice mail servers and a Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) directory to tie it together. On Oct. 29, the last of the agency’s 164 PBXs was put to the curb.

Neil Miranda, technology director for the ministry, says the goal was to use IP as a common protocol to standardize disparate legacy phone systems spread across several departments in the ministry.

Miranda says his goal was to ensure that the roll-out would not drag out. A rigid four-month schedule was set to ensure that all 200 offices would be on the same IP-based Cisco phone network as soon as possible.

“We had potholes, of course,” Miranda says. “We had Call Managers going down…We had issues with voice quality, such as echo…We basically had every component in the system break at one time or another.

“But what we also had were people working around the clock” who were able to turn most problems around in 24 hours or less, Miranda says. The system has been relatively problem-free since October, he adds.

“Because we had such an aggressive time frame for the project, we’re now looking to enhance our business operations much more quickly” by adding unified messaging and other converged network applications, Miranda says.

With the basics now in place, Miranda says the ministry plans to upgrade to a new version of Cisco’s Call Manager software that includes unified voice and e-mail messaging. The upgrade for the 10 distributed Call Manager servers will be done from Miranda’s central office, another advantage of the converged network, he adds.

“No one’s going to say, ‘This is a phone call, that is a voice mail’ as if they are something separate from what’s being sent across a data network,” Miranda says. “If it’s a phone call, it’s just data going over the network. If it’s a voice mail, it’s part of a unified messaging system, just like e-mail. It’s all going over the network and can be managed from one interface.”

Large firms take a gradual approach

Stateside, larger companies are taking a more gradual approach to IP-enabling their phone systems.

Munroe Regional Medical Center in Ocala, Fla., recently upgraded its network backbone to gigabit Ethernet using Alcatel OmniCore 5052 switches. With this backbone in place, says Nick Figliuolo, hospital technology director, Munroe plans to install Alcatel OmniPCX 4400 IP telephony call servers in the next eight to 10 months. However, Munroe is not ready to take the complete voice-over-IP plunge just yet.

“We’re not looking to get rid of [our main PBX] right now,” Figliuolo says. “There’s not a sound reason to get rid of it,” technology-wise or for cost-cutting reasons.

Figliuolo says he will use the OmniPCX 4400 to support 200 users in new offices and throughout the building and in a new wing of the hospital.

“We’re building a new wing and I have to put computer equipment in there anyway,” he says. “If I have to do that, why not just use a phone system that goes through the network?”

Figliuolo says he likes the OmniPCX because it is a hybrid device that can tie into a traditional PBX via a T-1 interface. Users in the main building can still do transfers and four-digit dialing to people on the new system.

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) tried an IP telephony system to connect a branch office to its network of 11 Nortel Meridian 1 PBXs, but experienced limited success.

“We were looking at IP telephony,” says Vance Snook, ODOT telecommunications coordinator. “We started off with our data vendor to install IP telephony for that site, but it just couldn’t get things put together.” Snook would not identify the vendor.

While the phone quality was acceptable, the phones themselves lacked features available on the old system, Snook says. There were also complications with setting up the IP addresses on the phones, as well call transfer functions, he adds.

“[The phones] seemed more like data devices that could do voice rather than a telephone,” Snook says.

Because the branch office needed to be set up quickly, Snook scrapped the IP telephony plan and installed a Nortel Remote Office 9150 to handle the 20 lines he needed. The 9150 ties into a Meridian PBX in a central office over a T-1 line and extends the PBX’s presence over IP.

Snook says ODOT is still looking at IP telephony down the road. While he admits that voice/data convergence may be inevitable, he remains cautious about jumping on the bandwagon.

“I’m moving more and more toward the data side,” Snook says. “I see that coming. I can’t say I’m crazy about it…I’m a voice person, so I have my biases. I wouldn’t jump totally on IP telephony [because] you’re at the mercy of the network. Not that our network is unstable, but you’re still at its mercy. I always point out that when the network goes down, you can still get a dial tone.”


Picking up the IP phone

By Betsy Yocom

Network World (US)

Mier Communications Inc.’s research shows that in the past year stand-alone IP phones (as opposed to those that are sold exclusively with a vendor’s IP PBX system) are beginning to make their mark on the voice-over-IP scene.

These are not an integral part of any particular vendor’s voice-over-IP complete system and will reportedly work with one or more third-party products, such as voice-over-IP gateways and IP PBXs. Two vendors that are making a name in this new market segment are Pingtel and Symbol Technologies. Research found considerable voice-over-IP interoperability work going on between these two IP phone vendors and other voice-over-IP vendors. A number of the IP PBX and gateway vendors tested do not offer any type of IP phone, and many are looking to outside sources to supply them. But the key is that the phones be fully interoperable with the IP PBX or gateway.

Pingtel’s xpresssa phone is a hardware-based product, while its instant xpressa is a soft-phone application. Both products support G.711 encoding and obtain in-line power from a Category 5 connection and RJ-45 jack or via a separate, local AC/DC plug-in transformer. Based on the Session Initiative Protocol standard, Pingtel officials say the company has made notable progress in achieving interoperability with vendors including Cisco, Ericsson, Nuera, Sonus Networks, Tellabs/Salix, ipVerse, Vsys and others. Symbol’s NetVision Phone is a voice-over-IP handset based on the H.323 standard. Its NetVision Data Phone, also based on H.323, is used on wireless LANs. These hardware-based phones are powered by rechargeable batteries. Symbol’s interoperability partners include Cisco, Ericsson, Mitel, Motorola, Nortel Networks and VegaStream.

Other vendors within the new stand-alone IP-phone category include Cirilium, e-tel Corporation, Innomedia, MCK Communications, Mediagate, Oki Networks, Siemens, TEK Digitel, Telogy, Trillium, VocalData and Net2Phone