Tandet IT exec: How we create an unstoppable network

Don’t bother looking for the phone on Corey Cox’s desk. It doesn’t exist.

That doesn’t mean it’s difficult to reach Cox, the vice-president of information systems for Oakville, Ont.-based distribution company Tandet Group. “I have one phone number that follows me around everywhere,” he told an audience of fellow senior IT executives at a CIO Canada Frankly Speaking breakfast called “Create an Unstoppable Network” on Wednesday. “I could be using a tablet, a desktop, a smartphone – (the system) is completely ambivalent about where I am.”

Cox has taken a similar approach to the design and management of Tandet’s network, which helps support the company’s fleet of trucks and other operations. There are no hard phones in the organization at all, apart from a few that visiting customers may need to use. Instead, Tandet is using session initiation protocol (SIP) trunking that runs through a collocation facility in Toronto and uses a wide-area network (WAN) to deliver content across its branch offices. The system is also tightly integrated into Microsoft Office and Outlook, so that users can enjoy unified communications.  

Cox said he has recently benefited from the system personally. When problems cropped up with a network link to the branch, he was having trouble explaining what needed to be done to a young new employee who worked out of Toronto. He realized he could bring up the system’s whiteboard feature and managed to draw, with nothing more than a mouse, what the routers looked like and a network diagram that his employee was able to understand.

 “I finally did something I never thought would happen: collaboration,” he said.

 As Tandet begins to experience greater use of video and other multimedia across its network, Cox’s philosophy has been to build in the redundancy necessary to be ready for anything. That means spending real money, he warned the audience. “If you can get fibre, get fibre,” he said. “If you can opt for copper, do it. I’ve stopped trying to guess what kind of content is going to be on the network and to just make sure the network will work.”

This is a critical area, said Wendy Lucas, vice-president of sales at Dimension Data Canada and a sponsor of the Frankly Speaking breakfast who also spoke on stage with Cox. The ongoing consumerization of IT, where users bring in their own devices and connect them to the network, is causing CIOs to re-evaluate the way they plan their IT investments.

“The bandwidth simply has to be there,” she said. “The customer and the staff expects it.”

They also expect flexibility around device choice. Cox said Tandet has trucks with a device that handles tracking, messaging, integration with its enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, and uses satellite technology to communicate. It works really well, but it costs more than $3,300. “That’s remarkably expensive for an endpoint device,” he said.

To reduce those costs and allow greater productivity, Tandet has recently renegotiated with its service provider, Rogers, to allocate more money on its plan towards data and less on voice, given the forthcoming launch of Rogers’ long-term evolution (LTE) network later this year. And those costly endpoints will be replaced.

“The plan is for employees to use a tablet – and we’ll let them choose the one they want,” he said, adding that virtualization technology from Citrix and Cisco will help create a consistent user experience regardless of the device.

Getting the budget necessary for this kind of transformation isn’t always easy, Cox admitted. It wasn’t really until senior management realized they would be able to make a phone call through Outlook using only their voices that he got some of the buy-in he needed.

“The people who are holding the purse strings are people, and they have a tendency to like something that is a little slick and cool and that makes their lives at least one click easier,” he said. Many of them probably have plasma TVs at home and tablets already in use by their children and spouses. “They get it more than you think and if you approach them on that level, you can get through to them.”

It also helps to point out the potential costs of not doing something, he added, and ensuring that those in charge will be known by the decisions they make. “Remind them of a time they took a risk and it paid off,” he suggested. “You need to flush out their victories.”

While some CIOs might be cautious about any strategy that leaves the network less than perfect, Lucas warned against over-engineering an implementation. “For a lot of our customers, what they need to spend more time on is thinking about what will happen on Day 2,” she said, adding that many organizations also need to devote more time and investment around training, particularly for older employees.

Even if no network is ever “unstoppable,” Cox said having a solid foundation in place can change the way you look at your company. “I’m beginning to wonder if it’s freight that we deliver, or knowledge.”

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