UC pays off for Fluor, NHL hockey team

Engineering giant Fluor and Buffalo Sabres note savings, operational efficiencies

Fluor Corp. and the Buffalo Sabres weren't looking to implement a unified communications infrastructure, but pressing telecom needs led both in that direction after Fujitsu exited the U.S. PBX business.

They weren't specifically looking to implement a unified communications infrastructure, but pressing telecom needs took Fluor Corp. and the Buffalo Sabres there anyway.

Unified communications, collaboration can help save cash

Both had been customers of Fujitsu, which exited the U.S. PBX business in 2001. That forced Fluor's hand to not only work with another vendor but also find one that could allow the far-flung company to set up and tear down ad hoc systems for project teams on a moment's notice.

"We're in constant greenfield/mobilization deployments," says Gary Rogerson, voice architect for enterprise voice services at the $22 billion global engineering, procurement, construction and maintenance services company. "We constantly bring out new systems and bring them back and do it over again, every three months to two years."

Fluor has been working with Avaya since 2006 and to date has invested $10 million to $12 million in its UC infrastructure. They have about 15,000 mostly IP telephones over 30 systems, and have recently implemented Avaya Aura Session Manager to connect several locations via Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) trunks.  

Avaya Aura Session Manager is an IP-based, core routing engine that enables centralized installation and distribution of communications applications to branch, field, remote offices and teleworkers, eliminating the need to install applications at every location. This is key for Fluor as it establishes and then decommissions communications systems at construction sites on the fly.

"Our focus is so much on rapid mobilization and de-mobilization of project sites," Rogerson says. The sites generally support five to 500 users, from two months to two years, and oftentimes with very little notice. "We've had some FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] work that's come up with [Hurricane] Katrina, where I got called on the weekend and we had to have a PBX up and working with 1,200 handsets within four days."

Trying to do this for a project site of 150 people with a digital TDM PBX would cost $120,000 to $135,000 vs. $18,000 to $20,000 for an IP PBX, handsets and applications, Rogerson says. (See related story, "Unified communications saves Canadian school district $200k/year".)

Even though this kind of flexibility and cost savings at the job site was the main catalyst for going with an IP-based UC system, Fluor implemented it companywide as well, at its Irving, Texas, headquarters and 135 offices worldwide. One of the applications running on top of the infrastructure is ABST's Call Express unified messaging package, a Web-based application that connects the voice mail systems of Fluor's 45,000 employees.

With Call Express, users go to one URL and type in the same login used for phone access to get a Webmail interface that shows all of their fax and voice messages, Rogerson says. They also get notifications, with a URL, of those messages sent to their e-mail. (Fluor's legal department won't allow WAV file attachments in e-mails that actually play back the message on a user's computer, Rogerson says.)

Fluor is also looking at deploying IP video on top of its UC infrastructure as a replacement for an older videoconferencing system using older ISDN equipment and circuits. The impetus for this was the recent global recession and the desire to reduce both telecom and travel costs, Rogerson says. "You can really rack up the charges with ISDN," he says.

Fluor is currently wrapping up its initial deployment of Cisco Tandberg H.264-based videoconferencing systems.

The company is also deploying SIP trunks between its centralized Avaya Aura Session Manager system and a mobile PBX system from Sprint/Nextel. This will allow any Sprint handset used by a Fluor employee to function as an Avaya handset, Rogerson says, with short digit dialing between any phone on the company's IP network.

Any call on the network will not incur airtime charges, Rogerson says -- Sprint treats it like a mobile-to-mobile call and charges come in a static monthly bill.

The only drawback to the UC deployment is that Avaya service and support still seems rooted in the old world, Rogerson says.

"There's still an old telephony mentality on the service and support side as well as some of the architecture within Avaya," he says. "That's been an issue for us because we're a complete self-support site. We have four Avaya engineers, all top-level certified. But we constantly run into issues where we don't have access to do this or that even though we've got the highest-level customer access."

That glitch, however, is not stopping Fluor from expanding its implementation. Ongoing plans include deploying more SIP trunks to replace point-to-point IP links, which will augment DID routing for a private dialing plan, Rogerson says.

Fluor has already replaced 20 ISDN Primary Rate Interface circuits with SIP trunks for a 30% to 40% savings, he says.

The company is also relying on SIP to allow it to further integrate collaboration applications, such as IBM's Lotus Sametime and Domino, Microsoft SharePoint, OCS and Live office documents, and Google Wave into its UC infrastructure.

"The eventuality is that we'll have a corporate Facebook application that will [support] IM and desktop videoconferencing, integrated with click to dial, e-mail, and groups with teams or projects that you're working on," Rogerson says. "It's all one Web-based app that has all collaborative tools… with some sort of hook-in to video and voice. It's all rolled into one dashboard, project and team driven, so people can do a click to voice or video dial.

"So I look at UC as not just unified communications, but you add an extra C. It's unified communications and collaboration."

Tying call handling to customer history

The National Hockey League's Sabres don't need anything that elaborate but nonetheless need a customer-driven system that facilitates rapid response from the team's account services and ticket office operations.

"The business that we're in relies so heavily on our phone system that we knew we needed to be on the cutting edge," says Dan DiPofi, chief operating officer of the Buffalo Sabres. Plus, Fujitsu exited the market, leaving the Sabres with an aged, obsolete system on a copper infrastructure, bereft of replacement parts.

The Sabres are three years into their $400,000 implementation of a ShoreTel UC system, which includes 20 ShoreGear voice switches and 700 IP phones connected over fiber. Integrated with the system is the Sabre's customer relationship management (CRM) application, which displays information about the caller when the call comes in to HSBC Arena in Buffalo, N.Y. Displays show relevant information on new callers and those already in the database, so agents see the caller's level of participation and can respond appropriately.

The Sabres also integrated ShoreTel's Personal Call Manager application with Microsoft Outlook to put all of the team's employees on the same phone and voice mail system. This allows for integrated messaging, such as contact screen pop and calendar integration, so that employees can make calls from local online directories with the click of a mouse.

The system also allows for a virtual office setup, DiPofi says, in which phone messages follow employees around wherever they are -- in a fixed location or mobile -- and also show up as WAV files in e-mail messages.

Future capabilities of the system the Sabres are contemplating include the ability to queue callers to the account services department according to how much business they do with the organization.

"People would have priorities based on their status within the organization," DiPofi says. "A suite holder spending a couple hundred grand a year moves farther up in the queue than someone on hold inquiring about the circus."

Another is to enable instantaneous, face-to-face videoconferencing between scouts in remote locations, he says. And another is to enable suiteholders to order food and beverages from a color display on their phone or mobile handset.

"A lot of things we look at for the future are customer driven," DiPofi says. "How does it impact the customer/fan experience? If it's just a pretty bell or whistle, we tend to shy away from things like that.

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