Bank of America's 'higher standards' for VoIP

If any corporation is ready for VoIP, it's Bank of America. The bank has spent three years building an all-optical, multigigabit WAN backbone with Broadwing and Sprint, and upgrading its LAN switches to support QoS and in-line power. Now the company plans to deploy 180,000 Cisco IP telephones and replace 363 PBXs across 5,000 branches with centralized IP PBXs, with the help of Electronic Data Systems. Steve Venezia, managing director of the network computing group and network services at Bank of America, spoke recently with Network World Senior Editor Phil Hochmuth. Here is an edited transcript:

What will be the big payoff with VoIP?

We have done projections, but I don't want to get into the dollar amounts. The key is to give the business the opportunity to utilize technology on a fully converged network. With all-data endpoints [PCs and phones], there are vast capabilities that are possible for improving productivity with new applications. I've been going out to the businesses and talking about what the possibilities are for how this network will be used. It will really be their decision.

Secondly, cost is a factor. The operational cost savings are there with VoIP. The voice world has always been complex and harder to manage than the data world. Convergence gives us the ability to look at our whole technology entity. It will let us be more predictive of failures and other network events, which gives us the ability to keep system availability at a certain level.

Why Cisco?

We have a huge outsourcing agreement with EDS. EDS and our architecture group came up with some stringent and thorough metrics for the decision-making processes; we looked at it from the angles of security and products themselves to the financial viability and technical support offerings of the vendor. Everything got weighted out, and Cisco was the choice. We're being careful about how we're going through our proof-of-concept and pilots sites right now. By the end of this year or early next year, we'll look at the results. The answer will be binary - either yes or no, as to whether we're going ahead.

So there is a chance you'll scrap the whole VoIP plan?

I wouldn't say there is a strong chance that it won't go forward. We've had very few setbacks.

How are you conducting your pilots?

We're in the back-office, branch facilities and high-end office space. There are about 1,000 IP phones, and it will be about 1,500 when the pilots are completed. We're doing different scenarios of the various types of sites we'll deploy. We'll have a model for each of the areas we'll be rolling out, not that it's cookie cutter.

It's a really collaborative effort among Cisco, EDS and ourselves. My architecture team is driving the technology and how we're approaching it. The mitigation of any issues is driven by my team through EDS and Cisco.

How do you feel about the fact that Dow Chemical hired EDS in 2001 for an equally ambitious VoIP project, which didn't work out? They switched integrators and are now basically starting over.

Dow outsourced to EDS, but [EDS] didn't know [Dow's] customer base. I knew we had to do this in incremental steps, which we are doing. We have risk mitigation, in terms of each step we go through. We won't go ahead until this testing and proof of concept are checked off on all criteria.

Dow made a couple of significant failures; they went for the whole ball of wax. Plus, the technology was not as mature as it is today. Other folks who either had difficulty or failed with VoIP either tried to boil the ocean themselves or just gave all the project management to their outsourcer. These are usually not the wisest things to do.

Merrill Lynch has said that pure VoIP was too risky because of worms and other attacks that flooded their network and choked VoIP traffic. Does the fact that they pulled back from Cisco's VoIP technology worry you?

The key thing regarding that type of concern is QoS. Let's say there is a denial-of-service attack or virus; QoS lets us carve out a piece of bandwidth to keep our voice systems functioning, even if the pipes carrying e-mail or other application data are saturated. That's about as deep as I want to get into what we're doing with technology to secure voice.

But I do think security has come a long way with VoIP. When I talked about all our decision-making criteria in the beginning, security was a huge piece of it. Our information security group has really been joined at the hip with us all the way through this project.

Another issue is that we're not traversing the Internet with VoIP. Maybe in the future we'll look at that, through VPNs or other technologies, but right now VoIP is self-contained within the bank's network.

Was the data network upgraded before the decision to go with VoIP?

We had to get our network ready first, which we were doing regardless of VoIP. But we're going to take full advantage of the high capacity we have on our optical network and really start traversing our backbone.

We had a huge effort of transformation so that it's only one hop to our optical network from any facility. That has just about been completed, with a refresh of just about all of our switches and routers. It was important to have standardization across the board in terms of product types, [IOS] software versions, and to have in-line power in place for the phones. It is also in our EDS contract to have a refresh cycle up to date on an ongoing basis.

Was the optical backbone built with convergence in mind?

Having our data and voice networks converge wasn't really on the forefront when we started doing that. But because of the overall direction of where the bank was going, because we have so many locations across the country, optical made the most sense.

For the expansion we're doing [related to Bank of America's $47 billion buyout of Fleet last year], having the optical network is a great advantage. We can be more flexible and faster on deployments, especially in setting up new locations.

Will you run parallel voice networks for a while, or unplug PBXs as the Cisco gear comes online?

We will run some parallel networks for a while, especially in very large sites. Within the first year we'll start to eliminate some PBX ports. We have so many out there. The benefit in eliminating those systems is with moves, adds and changes. Those costs are great across the board when you talk about all the locations and all the different amounts of moves, adds and changes we have on a weekly basis. And then equipment and maintenance will be eliminated.

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