Customers find different VoIP benefits

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLA. -Network executives who shared voice/data convergence stories at last week's VoiceCon show described VoIP as a new kind of juggling act for IT departments, one where both technical and managerial issues must be handled delicately.

As companies such as American Express, Bank of America, Delta Airlines and New York Life bring voice onto their LANs and WANs, their network executives say the right processes and organizational changes made in the beginning of a project are as important as the choices of IP telephony gear, architecture and applications.

And as for reasons to converge, they are as varied as the businesses involved: cost savings from administration and pared-down telco bills, improved productivity, deployment flexibility and disaster-recovery capabilities are big drivers, they say.

The show drew more than 4,500 IT and telecom managers, which show organizers said is the biggest crowd the event has had.

As has long been the case, many VoIP adopters said the thorniest issues in convergence involve personnel instead of technology.

"Voice and data people don't speak the same language," said Jeff Denecke, vice president and chief architect at New York Life. "Voice engineers don't want to go to IP; it feels dangerous to them."

New York Life last year deployed Cisco IP phones and CallManager IP PBXs to support all its Manhattan employees. This year, the firm will roll out unified messaging to desktops and connect branch offices to the VoIP network. But before a single IP phone was put on a desk, Denecke said he had to get the insurance firm's voice and data teams on the same page. This involved many "locked-in-a-room" team-building meetings.

"When we got done holding hands and singing 'We Are The World,' everyone got it and the project went great," Denecke said.

There was no singing at Bank of America when it set out pilot sites for what will ultimately be a 180,000 Cisco IP phone network. But the bank did draw clear lines of responsibility for IT staff as the project's very first step.

This "allows you to draw a line in the sand," said Craig Hinkley, Bank of America's senior vice president of network architecture and strategic design. "And that's what people want."

This line was drawn between two areas of responsibility for the rollout: VoIP infrastructure services (involving switches, routers and QoS) and VoIP application services (relating to telephony features and support).

The IT staff "wants to know that they are responsible for something and to know their role," Hinkley said. Drawing that line "lets them know their role and know that there is job security through the project's process. The structure has helped put some tension at ease in that area."

VoIP veterans say another important area of prep work for a successful rollout is assessing the readiness of the LAN and WAN - infrastructure that might appear to be humming along fine but that might need tweaking and upgrading.

"You need to make sure the data network is ready for voice," said Allan Rubin, manager of network engineering for Delta, which converted to a VoIP-enabled call center architecture last year. "We had what I considered a high-end data network," he said, but when a network assessment was performed by Avaya (Delta's vendor for IP call center gear), "it was a little dicey. They found configuration errors that running normal traffic - TCP, HTTP traffic or even SNA - didn't bring to the forefront. But [simulating] voice traffic did" make the network problems stand out.

He said the pre-installation assessment was key in making the rollout relatively smooth. "It also meant that we wouldn't get into finger-pointing down the line because I had a document from Avaya that said my data network was good," he said.

Testing the network before and after VoIP gear is installed helped drug maker Glaxo SmithKline hammer out QoS issues on the project's front end, and Power over Ethernet (PoE) glitches once Siemens IP PBXs and phones were on desks at a 400-seat pilot site in North Carolina.

"We emulated VoIP traffic loads beforehand," said Charles Goodall, manager of technical architecture and strategy at Glaxo. This let the firm tweak its QoS settings on the Siemens gear and Cisco LAN switches. Reassessing the network post-deployment revealed that the PoE settings on the Siemens IP phones were drawing too much power from the switches and limiting the number of phones that could be attached to a subnet.

As for money issues, New York Life says the savings could be measured in feet and dollars.

"On average, it costs between $100 to $300 for a cable pull," depending on the length and cable type, Denecke said. In the insurance firm's new facilities, these costs were halved by running one cable for voice and data to desktops.

New York Life's midtown Manhattan neighbor Depository Trust & Clearing, says its VoIP savings were found in reduced telco costs. The company changed its Nortel Meridian PBXs to Nortel Succession 1000 IP PBXs, letting voice run on its optical OC-3 network. This cut site-to-site tie lines linking the PBXs and saved the company $25,000 per month.

VoIP "also provides management flexibility we never had before," said Michael Obiedzinski, vice president and network architect for Depository Trust & Clearing. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the company changed its network management strategy so that the network is managed and monitored from a different site every week on a rotating basis. "It was cumbersome to support this model before," when voice and data were separate, he said.

American Express used IP call center technology to deconstruct its centralized call center model and support agents that work from home, and offshore call center workers internationally.

The driver for these actions was an increased demand for the financial adviser call center services, said Heidi Wilensky, lead telecom manager for American Express. "But we weren't seeing the expanded revenues needed to expand the call center," she said.

American Express shifted its call center deployments from agent stations - with fixed PC, telephone and CIT integration equipment - to a thin-client model, using Citrix and Avaya's IP Agent call center software. This created a single hardware-independent dashboard application, where screen pops and softphone telephony interfaces were combined, which let agents log on from anywhere to work

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