Mixed messages

Converged voice, video and data networks, over the past three years, have grown from bleeding-edge technology into a potentially money-saving business tool. A variety of organizations across the country are now running critical voice traffic across their data backbones, or subscribing to videoconferencing services from a number of national carriers.

Despite such growth, converging voice and video traffic onto a data network – usually through the magic of Internet Protocol (IP) – won’t appeal to everyone. While the upfront price for an IP Private Branch Exchange (IP PBX) and IP phones may look reasonable, network upgrades can cause costs to boom and throw off return on investment calculations.

There’s no question that network convergence in Canada is one the rise. By February, 2003, market leader Cisco Systems had sold about 150,000 IP handsets in Canada – almost double the number the company had sold by the end of its fiscal 2002 year in August, 2002 and more than eight times the number of handsets Cisco had sold by August, 2001.

The key advantage of IP telephony is that it increases worker mobility, says Brantz Myers, national manager of enterprise marketing for Cisco in Canada. With an IP phone, workers are no longer tied to one particular wall jack. Using their password and ID, they can log on to any IP phone and get their personalized calling options.

For example, Cisco is deploying IP phones at an unnamed Canadian airport. Normally, at a gate used by multiple airlines, each airline would need to have its own phone sets at the gate. But with IP phones, each airline can log on to its own voice system through one phone.

The cost of an voice over IP (VoIP) implementation will vary depending on the size. At the low end, a user could install a Cisco AVVID system with an integrated IP phone switch and voice mail for $20,000 plus the cost of handsets, Myers says. Handsets can range in price from $200 to $1,000.

While converged networks are growing in popularity, it’s still too early to say they’re now the norm, says Dan McLean, an analyst with research firm IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto.

“Most of the regular network gear being sold now may not be used immediately for voice/data,” he says. “But a lot of it has that capability, so that when it’s required, people can activate it.”

McLean notes that one reason converged networks haven’t taken off as quickly as some industry observers anticipated is that there’s still no truly compelling converged application. When vendors first began touting VoIP, they billed it as a way to avoid long-distance toll charges. McLean notes, however, that since that time, long-distance prices have fallen so dramatically that avoiding the tolls isn’t a huge advantage.

Companies can achieve some efficiencies by moving to a converged voice/data network, such as simpler moves, adds and changes, but no one is likely to make the move until their traditional PBX or key system has reached the end of its lifecycle, McLean says.

Betting on a converged future

The University of Guelph in Guelph, Ont. faced a PBX replacement back in January, 2000. After a months-long assessment period, the school decided to make the leap to VoIP.

“We determined there was a strong move to voice over IP and if we projected a replacement for our PBX forward five years, we needed to be in the integrated communications space,” says Kent Percival, manager of central systems for the university.

Since Guelph runs an all-Cisco network, the school decided to deploy Cisco’s Architecture for Voice, Video and Integrated Data (AVVID) gear. So far, Guelph has rolled out about 1,300 of an eventual 7,500 to 9,000 handsets. Once the deployment is complete, Percival estimates that Guelph will use eight servers, including redundant units, to support its IP telephony rollout.

One advantage the converged network gives Guelph is the ability to include information on the Web-based user displays on some of the larger Cisco phones used by the university’s professional staff and faculty. Percival plans to tie electronic directories, alerts and announcements to the displays.

Another advantage of the AVVID deployment is that it will allow Guelph to deploy videoconferencing more broadly. For example, Guelph has a teaching exchange with the nearby University of Waterloo where two Guelph classrooms are linked via videoconferencing to two Waterloo classrooms. In the past, the schools were linked through a microwave service, but since Guelph began moving to a converged network, the schools are now connected through a regional education network tied to their IP backbones.

Ultimately, Percival hopes to use the AVVID call management system to enable video calls. By tying a phone number in the AVVID system to a person’s NetMeeting desktop videoconferencing application, the school could allow people to engage in NetMeeting conferences and even include users on IP phones in the same conference.

The converged network has the potential to save Guelph money in several areas. An obvious savings is that there’s one network connection for the university to manage instead of separate voice and data connections, Percival says.

Also, since the new voice system uses an underlying data networking infrastructure, the school’s IT staff is handling the implementation and management internally, whereas the management of the old PBX was outsourced to a third party.

Finally, with the new call management system, the university can set up its own audio bridges, rather than paying a provider to set up the conferences.

The biggest challenge in moving to the converged network, Percival says, is having data networking people deal with telecom issues. The university’s IT staff has had to learn how to talk to people about their telephony needs and design applications to fit those needs. For example, Percival explains, each department has its own rules for forwarding calls and voice mail.

“There’s a learning curve we’ve been pushing over the last year-and-a-half, but I think we’re through it now,” he says.

So far, Percival is happy with the converged network implementation. Voice quality has been excellent, he says.

“There’s a difference in sound because the handsets are new,” he notes. “People haven’t pointed to any loss in quality, but they can tell its different.”

Until the university finishes installing its IP phones in the fall of 2004, it is running both the converged voice network and its old PBX. The two systems are linked through analogue trunks.

Incoming calls to the university’s main number still go into the old PBX. If the calls are intended for a user on the converged network, the calls are transferred over the analogue trunks.

Users on the converged network have their calls go through voice gateway cards housed in Guelph’s Cisco 6500 core switches. Those switches are connected to the PSTN through Bell Canada ISDN trunks.

Unifying on a smaller scale

While many of the early converged network implementations have involved large organizations, smaller outfits are also taking advantage of the technology.

The Red Deer Public Library in Red Deer, Alta. moved to a converged voice/data network last August after its key system reached its capacity.

The library, which now has 45 IP phones, six digital phones, eight analogue devices and 100 workstations, wanted a voice system that would unify the voice systems at its main branch in downtown Red Deer and another branch in the north of the city – something the old key system hadn’t been able to accomplish. If a customer called one branch and needed to be transferred to the other branch, they had to hang up and call the other branch directly.

Since the two branches were already connected by a high-speed fibre data connection, VoIP was an option the library looked at seriously, says Dean Frey, the library’s director.

Eventually the library decided to install Avaya’s IP Office voice over IP system. IP Office gives the library better call management, voice mail for all staff members and a single point of entry for the two branches.

“IP Office had some features that are more like what you’d get on a larger PBX system,” Frey says. “The functionality of the system is a whole lot nicer.”

With IP Office’s condition manager, for example, the voice system can route calls to one branch if the other branch is closed.

The library was also able to reduce the number of phone lines it uses. All of its lines now come in through a Primary Rate Interface connection that plugs into the library’s IP Office box.

Another benefit is that the library is able to handle any telephony configurations itself, notes Scott Stanley, an information technology librarian.

“It’s just a network option now.”

Potential pitfall

While both Guelph and the Red Deer Public Library are happy with their converged networks, both had to make major network upgrades. Guelph’s Percival says that while the cost of a converged system was comparable to, or slightly less than, a new PBX, it would have been more expensive if the network costs were factored into the equation.

“There was a major cost associated with upgrading the network,” he notes. “The people concerned with the budget saw a very large cost.”

To run VoIP, the university had to upgrade from 10Mbps Ethernet to 100Mbps Fast Ethernet. It also had to rewire its campus buildings and replaced its ATM core network with a gigabit Ethernet core.

The key to getting approval for the changes was convincing budget personnel that the network upgrade was going to be necessary regardless of the move to IP telephony, Percival says.

“Our position was that, yes, it was an expensive project,” he explains. “But what we get out of it is a data network that provides high reliability and the functionality to serve up advanced applications.”

The Red Deer Public Library took a similar position.

“The network wiring was old,” says Stanley. “It was going to have to be replaced at some point, regardless.”