Sudbury Health cures network woes with IP

By the summer of 2000, Craig Tyers wasn’t sure he could take it anymore. The telephone system at the Sudbury and District Health Unit (SDHU) where Tyers works was taxing his nerves, with its tendency to chop calls without warning and to generally act as if its time had come.

Tyers, the SDHU’s manager of corporate technology, realized that instead of helping the organization answer people’s questions about healthcare, it was getting in the way.

“We had a system that was at capacity,” he recalled. It wasn’t a good situation for a health unit with 50 employees newly added to the staff roster. “We had massive growth we were taking on. We looked at [the phone system] and said, ‘We’ve been keeping this thing breathing for an awful long time. It’s time to set it to rest.'”

And to rest the system went. The SDHU replaced the aging PBX network with something less cumbersome and more versatile: an IP telephony setup.

With its single-wire connectivity for both voice and data traffic, IP telephony is currying the favour of many an enterprise. Whereas PBX systems often rely on companion networks to push data, IP telephony offers both voice and data connectivity on the same infrastructure. If its proponents are to be believed, IP spells lower costs and simpler management of complex systems that organizations like the SDHU rely on to get information to the public.

Tim Schnare, Cisco Systems Canada Co.’s major account manager, said the SDHU came to them seeking an integrated network.

The SDHU eventually chose Cisco’s Architecture for Voice, Video and Integrated Data (AVVID) offering, comprising call managers (the processing engines), voice mail systems and voice gateways for access to the public phone network and to Sudbury’s fibre-optic substructure – a metropolitan area network (MAN) meant to give the Northern Ontario city digital connections.

Tyers said he likes the system Cisco built because it’s easy to handle. “We’re all network people. We understand this technology. All this is, is Windows NT boxes, Windows 2000 boxes running the software…, switches and routers.”

Tyers also approves of the way the AVVID architecture addresses other communication problems the SDHU has had. For one thing, the organization is expanding these days. It’s adding more space to its downtown Sudbury headquarters, and the renovations mean employees must up and move at the drop of a hardhat. According to Tyers, Cisco’s network is more malleable than the old PBX network was, making such employee movement much easier to accomplish. Whereas it used to take plenty of wire pulling to settle an employee at her new desk, now “a person could simply take their phone, go work at another desk, and their program goes with them,” Tyers said.

The new system also helped with the SDHU’s external connectivity trouble. “We have never been able to get Bell (Canada) to clean up the telephone lines at this location,” Tyers said. “From February to the summertime, we were going down almost weekly.”

Tyers said he never received a satisfactory explanation from Bell for the mishaps, but the phone company told Network World Canada that its underground T1 connection to the SDHU was flooded in the spring, and it was subsequently replaced. Bell said it has received no complaints since then.

Regardless, the SDHU found its own solution. The organization moved its call managers to another location some six kilometres away to facilitate renovations in its main server room. Now calls and data come through clearly. The SDHU uses Sudbury’s MAN instead of Bell’s twisted copper pair to route info from the call managers to headquarters.

An unexpected benefit also arose from the SDHU making the switch to IP. While the external location was supposed to be a temporary model, Tyers said he was so satisfied with it that when construction is complete at headquarters, he’ll keep part of the system where it is now. Thus the SDHU has something of a disaster relief plan if things go awry at the main office.

Although the Unit had a smooth transition from PBX to IP, Tyers said it takes a particular sort of network manager to tackle the move.

“If you didn’t have a little bit of background on the telephone end, you’re going to have trouble with Bell, because you’ve got to know what kind of switch they have.”

Tyers added that IP telephony leaves little room for sloppiness. “The pitfalls other people have run into (include) not having your network well-tuned on the back end, (which) can cause you some problems with IP telephony.”

He added that, despite the numerous terminals, varied requests for data and voice information, plus five load-balanced terminal servers shunting continuous data packets, the SDHU has experienced few problems operating its IP network.

That’s not to say, however, that IP telephony is the be all and end all of new networks, according to Dan McLean, IDC Canada’s director of enterprise network services research.

“The critics of IP telephony say it doesn’t scale, it’s not as feature-rich as traditional voice systems, it’s not as well-managed, it breaks down, it’s not reliable and that the systems currently out there are small … Once you look beyond deploying a system of more than 100 or 200 telephones, perhaps IP isn’t the way to go.”

But Cisco’s Schnare said the critics are simply scared of this new way of doing things. Unlike its competitors, “Cisco doesn’t have a legacy to protect in terms of PBX or old telephone switching.”

Still, even the likes of Nortel Networks Ltd. and other equipment makers that built much of their business around PBXs are pushing IP as an integrated backbone for voice and data needs.

Schnare said IP scales just as well as any other phone system. “If you look at the way these things are structured, each call manager can handle 2,500 users. Cluster five of them together for 10,000. It doesn’t add up math-wise, but they have redundancies built in. You can just start clustering the clusters.”

For the most part, network managers recognize the benefits IP holds over PBX, said McLean. “The technology is pretty ubiquitous. Everybody who builds an enterprise network understands the technology; they’re familiar with it.”

The challenge, he said, lies in setting data priorities. Since the IP network handles all kinds of information, it’s got to learn the difference between time-sensitive and more tolerant info. Voice communication is particularly sensitive to delays, which cause quality degradation. Data is more robust.

Despite the criticisms and potential problems, Tyers said IP telephony works well for the SDHU. The organization isn’t massive, with about 100 terminals, so size is no problem. And Tyers figures the SDHU saved a bundle in man-hours by installing the voice and data networks as one. The new system cost approximately $200,000, according to Tyers.

In time, the SDHU might introduce IP telephony at its branch offices. The group likes the idea of using the network for video communication, which is becoming an integral part of healthcare in remote areas. Notes Tyers, “one of our branch offices is six hours away.”

Even if the SDHU doesn’t undertake that task in the near future, it sees plenty of other work ahead, what with the increasing pressure it experiences to provide the right medical information at the right time.

Tyers seemed convinced that the SDHU’s new phone system would make requests from the public that much easier to handle. It comes down to communication. “You want to have that phone answered more quickly. You want to get that call to the person at their desk more efficiently,” he said.