Maple Leaf Sports makes a play for IP telephony

Nortel Networks didn’t win enough enterprise business to avoid financial ruin, but before auctioning the product line to Avaya the company managed to score one high-profile deal with one of Toronto’s biggest pro sports conglomerates.

Just before the beginning of this year’s hockey season, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) – which owns the Toronto Maple Leafs, basketball’s Toronto Raptors and the arena they play in, the Air Canada Centre – overhauled its IT network as part of a building renovation, which included a move to IP telephony.

Having been a long-time Nortel PBX customer, the sports team moved ahead with the bankrupt firm’s Meridian 81C, which is designed to offer communications for enterprises with 200 to 1,600 lines.

“It was a logical choice to continue to grow the platform,” said Sacha Puric, senior director of IT for MLSE. “I’m happy to see that Nortel is working out a deal with Avaya. We’re really hoping that the platform will continue to live for us, because we’ve been extremely pleased by the stability.”

About three years ago as it prepared for the rennovations MLSE made a conscious decision while preparing for an office renovation at the Air Canada Centre that it would not maintain support for legacy PBX equipment, Puric said. But part of that process also meant looking at how the organization was handling domain name system (DNS) and dynamic host configuration protocol (DHCP), which have to be reliable or the network goes down. MLSE originally used Windows for that purpose, but costs and risks of outages made the organization pursue a different path.

“To call it a problem is a very strong word,” Puric said. “As the converged network becomes an essential part of any organization, it makes a lot of sense to start to look at solutions that address some of the shortcomings or concerns or stability of the typical application or DHCP applications and services.”

MLSE, which also owns a pro soccer team and several cable TV sports channels, has now installed several appliances from Santa Clara, Calif.-based Infoblox in high availability pairs. Infoblox’s appliances handle naming, addressing and authentication for IP-based networks.

“I’ve always been a fan of the purpose-built hardware solution rather than multi-purpose software solution,” Puric said.

MLSE will also use grid computing technology from Infoblox to handle disaster recovery of the network by offering a view into DHCP across different VLANs. “If one fails the other seamlessly takes over and replicates to an off-site location. At no point in time am I relying on one piece of hardware.”

Jon Oltsik, principal analyst with the Enteprise Strategy Group, based in Milford, Mass., said organizations like the MLSE often come across dependencies at the network layer when they upgrade their communications equipment.

“Initially, the whole DNS infrastructure was sort of ignored when people were going to IP telephony,” he said. “Over time they’ve learned that they need that ability to manage all the IP addresses in one place, to assign IP addresses, to have the auditing capabilities, the scaling capabilities.”

Although Infoblox is trying to displace Microsoft as a provider of core network services, Oltsik said recent improvements in Windows Server 2008 mean only about five to 10 per cent of firms are probably looking for fixed function alternatives.

“It used to be that if you wanted to run Windows DNS/DCHP, you had to run a Windows Server. Some people didn’t want the overhead,” he said. “With Server Core you don’t have to run the whole OS.”

The MLSE network includes 1,500 nodes, and Puric said any firm that’s contemplating IP telephony or a switch to appliances for DNS/DHCP should plan accordingly. “You need to try and get a full understanding of where you want to end up. You can never get a full scope of the requirements down pat at the very beginning of the project,” he advised.

“Think about how many nodes, how many VLANs, how to service it, how to integrate it with your network access strategy.”

It’s also important to make sure you have an internal resource who’s comfortable with the appliances and associated applications. The Leafs put one of its IT staff through considerable training as part of the project, Puric said.

Puric said the IT refresh also involved a complete revamp of its network backbone, which included the installation of Cisco Systems’ Nexus switches.

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