U of Guelph goes all-IP, shuts down traditional PBX

The University of Guelph has gone live with its campus-wide IP network — including voice-over-IP (VoIP) — and has powered down its legacy PBX for good.

Both students and employees are now hooked up to a total of 7,200 IP phones and there are over 12,000 IP phone jacks scattered across campus, said Ken Percival, manager of IP development at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ont.

The University will now save money on its telecom costs as well as enjoying some of the additional features allowed by VoIP, Percival said. For example, Guelph plans to deploy an Integrated Voice Response (IVR) system for its main switchboard — something the University hasn’t had before, he added.

The convergence of the voice and data networks has led to savings in both operational and maintenance costs, Percival explained.

“We didn’t outsource the whole telecom project so we saved a significant amount of money by doing it ourselves,” he said. “This then led to experienced staff in our IP shop who can operate this network.”

Additionally, because the school selected the same vendor for its VoIP equipment as it already uses for its data network — Cisco Systems Inc. — the University had IT staff who were familiar with Cisco’s methodologies and gear.

But the University realized its biggest savings by canceling the maintenance contract with the firm that maintained its traditional PBX because it can maintain the network itself.

“We had the skilled resources on staff here to manage a Cisco network,” he said.

Back in 2000 the University knew its PBX had to be replaced and recognized VoIP as the logical technology to replace it, but the school’s PBX vendor and maintenance contractor assured the school that the PBX could survive for another three years, Percival said.

Additionally, Percival said the IP technology it eventually bought from Cisco wasn’t mature enough at that time to scale to the more than 10,000 IP phones. As a result, Guelph delayed its implementation.

But the main reason the project took three years to complete was that the University needed more time to prepare itself for the convergence of the voice and data networks.

“We understood the technology’s requiring an integrated approach of having an adequate network to support the IP telephony solution,” Percival said. “What we needed to do was rewire the campus and reinforce the data network. To do that cost effectively with all the other construction work and renovations going on, we needed a three-year timeframe.”

In 2001 the University tested out VoIP by conducting a pilot project at its newly built East Village residence. The system went live on Sept. 1, 2001 and only two-and-a-half months later, Percival said the project was declared a success.

But the new deployment hasn’t been all smooth sailing. From the contractor shutting down the power in the new residence to fibre lines being snapped by construction, the University of Guelph has had some problems, Percival said. However, he said the Cisco technology itself has not been an issue.

“Our hiccups came in the migration from the old system to the new system,” he explained. “When you get a new telephone system, the features and functions are different.”

For example, if a user sets his or her phone to go directly to voicemail there is no way to override it. This has posed a problem in manager-assistant relationships when a manager has set their phone to go to voicemail, but the assistant wants to use the intercom to notify them of a meeting or if someone drops by their off, Percival explained.

Also, if there is a phone with several lines on it, the user can only forward calls from one of the lines, Percival noted. But the University’s employees adapted to the new feature sets in only a few months so these were not difficult hurdles to overcome.

However, Cisco said these features have been added to the latest version of its VoIP management software, CallManager 4.0.

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