Alcatel chosen for $300 million voice/data network upgrade to replace Cisco

A carrier-grade, converged net from Alcatel to replace Cisco, and a mix of Avaya, Nortel and Siemens voice systems.

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center for the next four years is installing a carrier-class optical and edge MPLS network from Alcatel, with converged, high-speed IP voice and data services extending all the way down to the organization's 66,000 end users.

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The deal is France-based Alcatel's largest enterprise transaction in North America, and will involve the retirement of thousands of Cisco switches and routers, hundreds of PBX systems, and thousands of digital phones from Avaya, Nortel, Siemens and other vendors. In doing this, the medical center will consolidate more than 150 standalone PBX phone systems into two redundant data centers, while boosting its core bandwidth by a factor of 10.

"It's pretty big," says Bill Hanna, vice president of IT infrastructure at UPMC. "The long and short of it is that the Cisco infrastructure will be replaced with an Alcatel infrastructure."

Replacing UPMC's current 1Gbps Cisco backbone will be a 10Gbps DWDM optical core, with Alcatel MPLS routers providing for UPMC's expanding bandwidth needs. Hundreds of disparate PBX and call center systems will be consolidated into two redundant data centers, where multiple hybrid VoIP/TDM call servers — Alcatel's OmniPCX — will provide dial tone to end users across 19 hospitals and 400 smaller sites.

"There will be a lot of optical and very high-end IP routing and switching at the core of this network," Hanna says, "[which] will have a huge effect on the delivery of network services."

One for all

The decision to go all-Alcatel was based on several factors, says Hanna. First, "we felt it would be in our best interest to standardize on a single vendor that could provide [our entire] network infrastructure," including carrier-grade core networking, enterprise edge switching, wireless LAN and VoIP.

This prerequisite, combined with the hybrid VoIP/digital/analog architecture of Alcatel's OmniPCX IP PBX platform, put the vendor over the top.

"The biggest factor [for choosing Alcatel] was on the voice side," Hanna says. "We wanted more of a traditional PBX type of environment, where we could support analog, digital and VoIP, and not just have a single choice of just doing VoIP."

UPMC will begin the network upgrade in the core, and work outward to its dozens of campuses and hundreds of remote sites. Overall, about 3,000 Alcatel switches and routers will be deployed over four years, with professional services from Alcatel.

"It's a difficult thing to do," Hanna says of the large-scale replacement project. "Part of this is also manpower on Alcatel's side to help us with the transition; we're not going to do this all ourselves," he says.

Core issues

"Today our network works well, but we know what's on the horizon," Hanna says. "If we wait, it will be a different picture in a few years."

One thing driving up bandwidth usage at UPMC is digital radiology — the use of multi-gigabyte digital X-ray images, as well as MRI imaging. In the near future, high-definition video streaming and telepresence conferencing — where streams as large as 5Mbps would flow among sites — is also being anticipated.

"Everything happens over the network these days," Hanna says. "It's not unusual for us to get 50% utilization when bandwidth spikes" on the current backbone.

In early 2007, UPMC will begin building the new core based on four Alcatel 1696 optical routers, connecting in a dense wave division multiplex (DWDM) network at 10Gbps. These core optical routers will link together Alcatel 7550 edge routers deployed in UPMC data centers, and at four major campus sites — Presbyterian University Hospital, MUH University Hospital, Shadyside Hospital, and the Hillman Cancer Institute — which branch out to dozens of other locations.

To control the various traffic streams in the core, Alcatel optical and edge routers will use MPLS to set aside dedicated bandwidth pipes and to prioritize real-time data, Hanna says.

Branching off the MPLS/optical core will be a campus Ethernet layer at each major site. Alcatel OmniSwitch 9800 chassis will connect to the MPLS-based edge routers via 10G Ethernet. These core switches will fan out to OmniStack 10/100/1000Mbps switches in wiring closets, which will provide power over Ethernet for IP phones, as well as 802.11a and b wireless access points, provided by Alcatel WLAN partner Aruba.

"Using multiple facilities to host our VoIP servers, combined with the 10G core that's meshed and redundant, it's as good as you can get" in terms of reliability, Hanna says.

Routers at the hospitals' network edge connect the MPLS core in a criss-crossing mesh, allowing these sites to have multiple paths. UPMC's two redundant data centers house the core optical DWDM switches that make up the MPLS core. Hanging off of the Alcatel 1696s are an MPLS mesh of Alcatel routers.

Alcatel Gigabit Ethernet switches in the data center connect all of the organization's servers, based on IBM's blade server hardware, which will host the Linux-based Alcatel OmniPCX call servers in the separate data centers. The data centers will distribute call handling evenly among the sites, but each VoIP server farm will be capable of handling all of UPMC's phone lines, in case of a massive equipment failure or disaster, Hanna says. Servers running Alcatel's Genesys call center platform will also be hosted centrally, with agents distributed throughout the network.

One, central voice

A current management headache and cost issue for UPMC's network staff is its disparate PBX infrastructure, Hanna says.

"We have a lot of infrastructure out there. It's just not integrated, which is what we're looking to do," Hanna says. "Manageability is a key driver" for consolidating the medical center's stand-alone phone systems, which include more than 35 call center platforms and 30 voicemail servers.

With Alcatel infrastructure, data center staff will have centralized control for all voice-related servers. Staff will be able to provision most services from a central location, and most troubleshooting — except for issues with physical phones or cabling — can be done over the IP network.

Of the 66,000 phone lines at UPMC, about 45% are digital and 45% analog, with only 10% VoIP. Hanna estimates that IP, digital and analog phones will be at "about a 33% mix across the board" in the new network.

"We'll use VoIP where we can, depending on the criticality of the site," he says.

"In a hospital, having power-fail phones is key," he says. This why digital and analog phones will still connect the hospitals; such phones can be powered centrally from a single Alcatel Media Gateway, which will sit on a power supply. "We wanted to have the independence of not having to ride all the traffic over the IP network."

Each site will have redundant Alcatel Media Gateways — devices that connect both IP and digital voice to OmniPCX servers in the data center. The gateways will also provide emergency ISDN-based back-up dial tone, as well as power digital headsets in hospitals in case of a power outage. (IP phones in administrative offices and other non-critical areas will be backed up by PoE switches attached to battery power supplies).

QoS for voice traffic will be applied network-wide at various levels using MPLS in the core, Differentiated Services Code Points (DSCP) at Layer 3 access layer, and 802.1p packet tagging at the Layer 2 LAN edge.

"Policies will be applied at the access layer," Hanna says. "The enterprise switches will queue based on these values. As the packets enter the MPLS core, the DSCP values will be preserved, and services will be provided over traffic engineered tunnels."

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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