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Crate & Barrel unwraps VoIP network

Dec 09, 20025 mins

Crate & Barrel rolls out VoIP for the holidays

NORTHBROOK, ILL. – The home goods retailer Crate & Barrel has given itself an early Christmas present: a new converged voice and data network.

Crate & Barrel recently installed $350,000 worth of Cisco voice-over-IP (VoIP) gear at its new headquarters – a project aimed at providing advanced telephony and messaging applications to end users, simplifying telecom administration and management, and positioning the company’s infrastructure for further voice/ data convergence projects.

The company’s move to a new building was a prime opportunity to see whether VoIP made more sense than trying to overhaul the company’s Rolm 9000 series PBX, which had been in place for more than 10 years.

“It had served its purpose,” says Mark Carrier, telecommunications manager of the Rolm box, “but it was time to move on.”

Carrier says he initially looked at several PBXs, including NEC’s NEAX line of circuit-switched phone systems, which the company has in an existing call center. Ultimately the decision to go with Cisco came down to improved end-user and administrative features, he says.

The fact that the Cisco phone system was all IP-based let Carrier and his staff set up the Cisco phone network parallel to its Rolm PBX network in the company’s old building. This allowed for the Cisco CallManager IP PBXs to be configured and tested, and for users to receive training on the phones and the unified messaging applications with Cisco’s Unity software.

“We just plugged it into our existing data infrastructure, and it worked fine,” Carrier says, adding that the preconfiguring, testing and training potentially saved weeks of work after the move was made.

On each desktop, a PC and Cisco IP phone are deployed. Each phone has a two-port switch, letting a PC connect to the LAN through the phone, and eliminating the need to run an additional network jack to individual desktops. The phones connect to Catalyst 4006 chassis-based switches in the wiring closets, which also provide 48 volts of DC power over Category 5e network cabling. Each 4006 switch also is hooked into its own UPS to power the phones and provide connectivity in the event of a power failure. In the company’s computer room, where redundant Cisco CallManagers and Catalyst 6500 switches reside, a large UPS also provides back-up power to the backbone (see graphic, above).

The issue of how to keep an IP phone network up in the event of a power outage was a concern, Carrier says. When he was shopping around for VoIP gear two years ago, Cisco was one of the only vendors offering inline power on its LAN switches and IP phones. (Avaya and Nortel have since released switch products that power their IP phones.)

He estimates that the Cisco IP phone equipment and software cost the company about $600 per seat (including phones). Some PBX-based systems he looked were equal or slightly lower in price, he says, but the features and management benefits of the IP-based Cisco product provides are a justified trade-off.

In terms of management, the CallManager’s Web-based configuration and management application provides easier access for making system changes or adding new users than the Rolm system and many newer PBXs that rely on command-line interfaces for moves, adds and changes. The IP phones, which get their addresses from a Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol server on the CallManager, are more mobile than circuit-switched phones, which required his staff to physically move phones and rewire connections whenever phone locations changed. The IP-based phones can be moved anywhere there is an available Ethernet jack and re-register with the CallManager, providing end users with their phone extensions and system preferences, he adds.

Crate & Barrel’s two-year rollout of the Cisco VoIP gear was relatively painless, Carrier says, and the equipment has been stable. But Cisco’s newness to the telephony market (compared with its PBX competitors) showed in some areas, such as missing features.

One annoyance was the absence of a paging system that could send out public address announcements over the phones’ speakers. Another shortcoming, Carrier adds, was brought up to him by the company’s receptionists: On the old system, a receptionist could use a “call joining” feature, which is not present on the new system.

“If you had a call on Line one and someone on Line five who needed to talk to the person on Line one, it was easy to patch them together. These are things we’ve told Cisco about,” Carrier says, adding that he’s been told such issues will be addressed in hardware and software updates.

Despite some minor issues, Carrier says Crate & Barrel likely will expand its Cisco voice infrastructure. One potential area is its call center, which is based on NEC phone switches.

The company is looking to open a call center on the East Coast in the next two years, Carrier says, and he is exploring the possibility of linking that facility with its Midwest call center via VoIP.

“It would be great to have both separate call centers on an IP system so they . . . appear to be under one roof,” he says.