Self-assessment critical to VoIP: expert

If Martin Rayner takes one piece of advice back to his company after attending IPComm 2004, a voice over IP (VoIP) conference, it might be this: “know thyself.”

The statement applies to Rayner. He works with IT at Erickson Retirement Communities, a developer headquartered in Baltimore, Md. that’s considering IP phones. In its exploration of the technology, Erickson asked an IT consultancy for an opinion: should the retirement-living provider purchase voice equipment from its data-com vendor, or should it buy from the incumbent voice tech vendor?

Rayner said the consultancy responded with either-or, which didn’t help much.

That’s part of the reason why he attended IPComm 2004, held here in Las Vegas from Nov. 14 to 17, to find out which VoIP vendor Erickson should choose. The answer, he learned, has as much to do with his own company as it does with an equipment maker’s devices.

According to John Drolet, vice-president, worldwide sales at Citel Technologies, a telecom equipment provider, a thorough enterprise self-assessment can address questions like the one Rayner struggles with.

Drolet presented an example at IPComm:

In 2003, American InterContinental University (AIU) was also trying to figure out what, if anything, it should do with VoIP. The school, headquartered in Los Angeles but with locations in Florida, Georgia and Texas as well, had a Nortel Meridian phone system that was coming to the end of its five-year lease. It was time for AIU to consider its options.

There were things the institution didn’t like about the Meridian. Its management interface was “cryptic” compared to the easy administration tools that come with newer phone systems, Drolet said. It didn’t synch with new applications built by companies other than its maker, Nortel Networks. And it was getting expensive to maintain.

That said, the Meridian system worked fine.

So should AIU stick with the existing PBX, or move onto a new system? To answer that question, the school had to answer a few others first.

To begin with, the university inventoried its phones, switches and routers. Its LAN operated on 3Com Corp. SuperStack 3 switches. AIU had 265 Nortel M2000-series business phones that, when new, cost US$375 each, Drolet said. It had 64 analogue phones, two PRI circuits and 12 analogue trunks for backup. It had application servers for voice mail, automated attendant functions and call-detail reporting.

Drolet said he’s surprised some enterprises call in equipment vendors to perform such a self-assessment. He pointed out that the do-it-yourself approach gives companies a better understanding of where they stand with communication, and where they’re headed.

“Knowing what you have is critical to moving forward,” he said.

Rayner from Erickson said there’s also a danger that a vendor would steer a customer into buying more of the seller’s own wares if it’s invited to do the assessment — a vital part of the tech-selection process.

“I’ve had to fight that,” he said of the urge to let vendors — or any other entity, for that matter — perform the inventory that he figures Erickson should do itself. Taking stock, however, is just one part of the process. At AIU, the IT department also had to figure out how end users employed their phones.

The school surveyed its faculty and staff. For the most part they made local calls to chat with students about enrollment, courses and financing. Some used speed dial. Everyone had a voice mail account.

“Understanding why you want these buttons (on the phones) is important,” Drolet said.

Only after dealing with what it had and how people used the telecom assets did AIU consider vendor options for IP. Drolet said that’s the right way to go.

“Once the wolves are in, they’re in,” he said; like a wild dog clamped to your leg, it can be difficult to shake vendors invited into the tech-selection process too soon. AIU scrutinized two possibilities from Nortel. One would bring Meridian Internet Telephony Gateways into the environment. This would IP-enable the existing PBX and leave most of the processing up to the legacy device.

After paying for the LAN upgrades required to make the data infrastructure sufficiently robust for voice traffic, and after software upgrades, labour and the gateways themselves, AIU would have to spend US$50,000 for this IP iteration.

Option two from Nortel meant tossing the Meridian and buying a Succession CSE 1000. LAN upgrades and new IP phones brought the price of this one to US$240,500.

AIU looked into Cisco Systems Inc.’s Architecture for Voice, Video and Integrated Data (AVVID). This offering spelled a major LAN upgrade and, as with the second Nortel option, new IP phones. The price tag here: US$296,100.

AIU also considered 3Com. While this vendor suggested one option that nearly mirrored the Cisco offering in scope and price, it also presented a choice whereby AIU would use Citel IP Handset Gateway cards to connect the existing phones to a 3Com IP PBX for a total of US$98,700. It would work with the installed LAN, too.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the school chose the last one. After all, Drolet’s telling this story, and he works for Citel. Still, so far as he’s concerned AIU went with 3Com because it met the university’s needs from a communication perspective, more than price or technology.

Drolet said the 3Com IP PBX, dubbed NBX, offers browser-based administration for easy maintenance, integrated call-detail reporting and on-board voice mail — basically everything AIU wanted.

Here’s a case of an organization using self assessment to find the right high-tech solution, Drolet said, adding that perhaps AIU would have received a better price from Nortel had the school mentioned its investigation of other systems. “You want to be clear with a vendor that you’re getting competitive bids, and often they’ll sharpen their pencils.”

Rayner seemed empowered by AIU’s situation. “You have to take it out of tech and put it into the business realm,” he said, pointing out that it’s important for a business to take a long, hard look at its inventory, user needs and communication goals before inviting vendors in for sales pitches.

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