The good and bad sides of IP

Representatives of businesses that have implemented IP telephony say the technology spells cost savings and productivity enhancements, but it also brings problems.

John Manville, senior vice-president of network services at financial house Lehman Brothers, Thomas Dunkerley, IT communications manager at the Seattle Times, and Sean McRae, vice-president and CTO of real estate firm Prudential Northwest Properties, gathered for a Web cast in December to talk about their experiences with IP telephony deployments.

Thank Hingham, Mass.-based telecom consultancy Lippis Enterprises Inc. for organizing the Web cast, which was sponsored by network gear makers Avaya Inc. and 3Com Corp. Manville said Lehman Brothers has had a positive experience with Cisco Systems Inc.’s IP telephony platform. The technology proved its worth on Sept. 11, 2001, when the 1,000 or so employees working in New York’s World Trade Center had to evacuate and move across the Hudson River to Lehman’s disaster recovery site. There the employees were up and running quickly, thanks to the easy moves, adds and changes that IP telephony affords. “

The technology worked really well,” Manville said, pointing out that some Lehman workers could retreat to makeshift bureaus in hotel rooms with little disruption to the company’s operations. Still, there were problems. “When we got to around 1,500 to 2,000 (users) we started to run into issues. A couple of servers went to 100 per cent CPU time and therefore calls were handled in a somewhat slower manner than we’re used to.

“It turned out to be a couple of bugs in the software,” Manville said, adding that those problems have been fixed and the system has run smoothly for the last year and a half. “We have been somewhat disappointed that the number of applications we’re able to deploy has been slow in coming,” Manville said. He suggested there might be a role for custom application developers here.

Of the lessons learned, Manville said, “The underlying data network really has to be rock solid. We were in the unfortunate or fortunate position that we had to rebuild a lot of our data network so we were able to use IP telephony.” Manville advised companies that are considering IP telephony to do end-user training, stick close to the vendor and combine voice and data support groups.

“Having a separate voice and data support group wouldn’t work….There would be too much infighting,” and not enough cross-training to make a success of voice-data convergence. Dunkerley said the Seattle Times has benefited from IP telephony. The organization installed an Avaya system to replace an ageing TDM-based platform. Moves, adds and changes are easier, and the Times consolidated its voice and data support groups for efficiency. All in all Dunkerley figures the firm is saving US$69 per user, per move, add or change.

Dunkerley said he’s impressed by how robust the system is.

“I would almost go so far as to say it could run across coat hanger wire successfully. We have taken shared 10-megabit hubs…plugged in IP connections and inundated that hub with 85 per cent traffic, about maxing it out. And still we were able to keep our connections up at a very reasonable quality, without running QoS.”

Dunkerley’s advice: go with a solid vendor that’s willing to support the implementation for years to come; do a needs-analysis to ensure that the data network can support voice traffic; and go slow. The Times spent six months testing the Avaya system before turning off the legacy PBX. “We were early adopters in this. We didn’t want to bleed the company to death.”

McRae said Prudential implemented a 3Com IP telephony platform to great success. Since the system puts voice traffic on the data backbone, Prudential’s long-distance phone costs are down 50 per cent. Communications costs across the board are down 30 per cent. And now that Prudential no longer needs to outsource its voice mail system, outsourcing costs are down 90 per cent.

The main glitch for McRae had to do with the cabling infrastructure.

“I thought we’d done our site planning pretty carefully. In one of our larger sites we were surprised by an older cable plant, where we had patch panels all upgraded to Cat 5e, but as we learned, we had a fairly large pool of level 4 cable in the wall, which was out of site.

“That…actually caused me a couple of sleepless nights. I didn’t expect we’d be able to run IP across those lines with the reliability we were looking for. And it’s a very costly upgrade.” Fortunate for Prudential, the Cat 4 wires sufficed. “Ultimately we did end up running our voice traffic across that older cable and have never experience an issue as a result.”

The three Web cast participants said QoS was no problem. “We ran without QoS for the first six months, just to learn what QoS was,” Dunkerley said. “It didn’t have any impact on the voice traffic at all by not running it. We did eventually install QoS…but haven’t really had a need for it on the LAN.”

Asked if any of them considered using IP Centrex like Telus Corp.’s recently announced IP-One service, all said no. McRae said, “The cost equation was not there.” Manville said Lehman Brothers was early to the game, and wasn’t convinced at first that IP was the right choice; the last thing the company wanted to do was introduce another potential problem by relying on a telco to serve up service.

Dunkerley agreed. “We did not want to add another variable,” he said.

The next Lippis-organized Web cast, scheduled for Jan. 22, will focus on integrating Wi-Fi into a corporate enterprise network. For more information visit

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