Shell plans global VoIP rollout on Microsoft server platform

Oil giant Royal Dutch Shell is planning a global VoIP rollout with tens of thousands of IP phones that will ultimately run off of a mostly Microsoft-based server platform.

Shell plans this year to begin testing Office Communications Server 2007, Windows Vista, along with Office 2007 and Exchange Server 2007, and rolling the platforms into production by early 2008. Shell now has Nortel’s Communication Server 1000 IP PBX running in its data centres, which host around 1,000 IP phones worldwide.

When the Microsoft infrastructure is in place, Shell will start to switch over large numbers of employees to Office Communicator softphone clients, hosted by the Microsoft OCS platforms, as well as Nortel IP hard phones, managed by CS1000 IP PBXs.

“Ultimately, we don’t see the need for separate IP telephony” and Microsoft messaging platforms.That is our vision, but it depends on whether Microsoft delivers,” said Johan Krebbers, group IT architect at Royal Dutch Shell, during a presentation at VoiceCon this month.

What Microsoft must deliver on is its forthcoming Office Communications Server — a Session Initiation Protocol (SIP)-based, real-time communication server, which can act as an IP PBX, among other roles. Shell’s multi-year plan involves a gradual migration off of hundreds of disparate PBX systems in more than 110 countries to a centralized VoIP, messaging and collaboration infrastructure based on Microsoft servers, and Nortel IP PBX and gateway technology. The oil giant’s core VoIP network will shift eventually to Microsoft OCS, with Nortel IP telephony technology serving as a bridge between legacy telephony and VoIP. “We [will] not have a separate Nortel IP PBX infrastructure,” if the OCS servers prove to be stable enough, and offer the right amount of features, Krebbers said.

The Microsoft servers will be hosted in three data centres — in the United States, the Netherlands and Malaysia — and will handle all VoIP call control for more than 40,000 IP hard phones (from Nortel) and softphones, based on Microsoft Office Communicator.

OCS 2007, due to ship this year, is the successor to Microsoft’s current Live Communication Server — a real-time communications product for instant messaging, audio and video conferencing, as well as IP PBX-like call control. (Most IP PBX vendors — including Avaya, Cisco, Mitel, Nortel and others — have products that interoperate with Microsoft LCS).

With the forthcoming voice mail features that will be included in Microsoft Exchange Server 2007, Krebbers said OCS 2007 and Exchange will serve as the core VoIP and messaging platforms for the company. Nortel will still have a role in Shell’s network for specialty applications such as call centres. Nortel VoIP gateway equipment also will be used in data centres, to connect to the public switched telephone network, as well as in branch offices, for backup phone connectivity.

Centralization goals
A big reason behind Shell’s VoIP plans is the desire to consolidate all call control, collaboration and messaging servers into three data centres to simplify the company’s worldwide voice infrastructure.

“We have many different PBXs out there,” Krebbers said. “There is not centralized management for these systems. Sometimes we cannot purchase certain types of equipment in certain countries or regions.” Delivering equipment to some of the remote parts of the world where Shell operates also is a burden.

A centralized VoIP system will take the telephony purchasing decisions out of the hands of local Shell offices and subsidiaries.

“Five years ago, an office could have said we’re not using Nortel or Alcatel or Siemens,” Krebbers said. “That option is gone; it needs to be that way because a global company cannot afford to have a global infrastructure that is not the same.”

Microsoft video conferencing, IM, voice mail and IP telephony will enable Shell’s high-value employees — such as scientists, petroleum exploration experts and executives — to collaborate more easily and efficiently.

“Our whole desire is to bring work to people not people to work,” Krebbers said. “We can’t afford anymore to bring experts around the world to the work.”

Rollout plans
The mixed Microsoft/Nortel network will use Shell’s Microsoft Active Directory infrastructure as the base for its global dial plan. IP softphone and hard phone users will appear as extensions on one large system, Krebbers said.

“Depending on the success of that, the next phase is that all phones will be managed out of an OCS environment,” he said. With the dial plan based on Active Directory, SIP-based Nortel phones would be redirected to OCS servers and the Nortel IP PBXs would be removed.

Regarding the reliability of a Microsoft-based VoIP network, Krebbers said this was not a factor in Shell’s decision making.

“Of course [reliability of Microsoft server platforms] will be critical,” he said. “But it’s already critical for us today.” He added that many people at Shell already perceive Microsoft-based IM and e-mail as critical, can’t-fail applications. “For many people, these technologies are as important as voice, if not more important,” he said.

The back story
In late 2005, Shell put out requests for proposal to several VoIP vendors, outlining its requirements and vision. In early 2006, Shell set up a week-long evaluation of five IP telephony suppliers before choosing the Nortel/Microsoft platform. Shell IT and telecom executives, as well as network operations staff and the vendors, spent four days in a hotel in Houston. Test versions of each proposed system were set up in separate hotel suites, and evaluated by Shell technologists and executives.

“The Friday of that week, Shell made the decision on our two vendors,” Krebbers said.

Two key requirements for Shell’s VoIP system were strong support for Microsoft Active Directory, and interoperability with Live Communication Server (Microsoft’s platform at the time o the evaluation).

“Most [Internet telephony] providers don’t understand the desktop very well,” Krebbers said. “Most providers come at it saying ‘we’re the centre [of the network].’”

Krebbers also wanted to avoid creating a massive, duplicate user directory for employees on the new phone system. “In our example, there’s already an [Active Directory infrastructure] installed with lots of information to make use of.”

Nortel was chosen, due to the strong partnership it has with Microsoft on IP telephony.

“We had to get some kind of IPT solution for now,” he said. “We will continue with the [Nortel IP PBXs] several years until Microsoft gets its act together.”

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