VoiceCon: Companies go for hybrid IP systems

Lake Buena Vista, Fla.— The Clark County School District in Las Vegas has to deal with some big numbers: 268,000 students; 26,000 employees; 80,000 PCs and 300 LANs. But one big number the organization isn’t willing to countenance is the cost of throwing out its digital phones and replacing them with IP handsets.

When the school district decided to turn on IP telephony and put phones in every one of its classrooms, it aimed to keep costs down and the deployment time short, said Phillip Brody, the organization’s chief technology officer.

He pointed out that Clark County had already wired most of its schools for digital telephony. “Why rewire?” Brody said.

So instead of replacing all of the traditional telephone infrastructure with IP technology, the district went with a hybrid communication system, capable of supporting new IP phones as well as the digital handsets already deployed.

Brody told Clark County’s story at VoiceCon, a voice network technology conference held in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. from March 1 to 4. He took part in a panel of organizations that went the same route, choosing systems that provide packet switched connectivity, as well as circuit switched connectivity based on traditional Time Division Multiplexing (TDM) technology. The panelists said these hybrid systems worked as an alternative to “all-IP” voice infrastructure.

Brody said the school district didn’t want to pay for high priced IP handsets when less expensive digital handsets suited the organization’s purposes. As well, it didn’t want to worry about power-over-Ethernet technology, required to keep the IP phones up and running when the lights go out. In addition, an all-IP platform would have taken longer to roll out than the hybrid solution that Clark County chose: an Alcatel OmniPCX 4400 at each school.

PPL Corp., a Pennsylvania-based energy company, wanted the guaranteed uptime of TDM as well as the flexibility of IP. That’s one of the reasons why this firm also chose a hybrid IP platform, this time from Nortel Networks, said David Stever, PPL’s manager, communication technology services.

Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. in New York City went with an Avaya Inc. hybrid IP telephony system after discovering that the all-IP Cisco Systems Inc. communication platform already installed didn’t serve the financial firm’s needs.

Andy Brown, Merrill Lynch’s first vice-president, said some users required the sort of robust connection that traditional telephony provides. Other users needed the mobility and unified messaging functions that IP telephony supports.

As a result, the firm decided that it needed a telephone system capable of providing both IP connectivity and traditional connectivity. “You have to have the capability on a single infrastructure to support those requirements,” Brown said. “That’s why we ended up with a hybrid system.”

Brown also said if Merrill Lynch learned anything from the expensive change-of-mind, it’s this: recognize that TDM-based telephony is robust, but “brittle,” not as flexible as IP. And while packet switched infrastructure is more flexible than TDM, ultimately “IP will never be as reliable as TDM, from a delivery-of-dial tone perspective.”

Stever from PPL said he also learned a lesson during the company’s IP telephony implementation: It’s as much a people-process endeavor as it is a technological one. For instance, PPL had to consolidate four separate IT groups in order to properly support IP. As well, the implementation highlighted two very different cultures in the firm, two camps that had to work together: the data communications experts and the voice communications experts.

“The data group was very aggressive on technology,” Stever said. The voice group, by contrast, was somewhat more conservative, less interested in new technologies and more interested in making changes only as necessary. Stever said it was a challenge to bring these factions together. “The two just hit head on.”

Brody said the School District project taught him to stick to his guns. “Get a vision early and keep it,” he said, explaining that single-mindedness helped the IP telephony implementation succeed. “The more you change, the more your superiors think you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

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