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Is this a do-it-yourself project?

Oct 14, 20027 mins

Net execs weigh pros, cons of outsourcing a converged network.

Concordia College faced the same decision every other new VoIP user confronts: Whether to do it yourself, outsource it or do a little of each.

When Concordia College was upgrading its LAN from shared 10M bit/sec Ethernet to switched Gigabit Ethernet, Verizon approached the school with this proposition: How about running more than just data over the revamped network?

“I told them if I didn’t have to pay any more for voice over IP, I’d be willing to [try] it,” says Brian Heinemann, dean of IT at the Ann Arbor, Mich., school, which was using Verizon to manage its aging NEC PBX. “I didn’t think they could do it, but they kept coming back with bids.”

Verizon got the contract, and earlier this month the school switched 100 of its 400 phones to a Cisco equipment-based IP Centrex service, with plans to convert the other phones over time based on student demand.

Once sold on VoIP, Heinemann quickly realized that outsourcing was his only option. His data staff is small and he lacks any sort of convergence expert. What’s more, he couldn’t duplicate in-house the round-the-clock network monitoring Verizon offered.

Concordia faced the same decision every other new VoIP user confronts: Whether to do it yourself, outsource it or do a little of each. The usual arguments about cost, staffing and network ownership come into play with VoIP as they do with any other network technology that might be outsourced, but there also are issues unique to VoIP that can affect the decision. Such factors include the lack of staff trained on voice and data technologies, and the need to keep a particularly sharp eye on bandwidth usage given the sensitive nature of voice traffic.

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Among those opting for an in-house approach is the El Monte Union High School District near Los Angeles. The district installed a Mitel IP PBX to handle 500-plus phones in 10 facilities connected by a Gigabit Ethernet metropolitan-area network (MAN). The phones use a single dialing plan and are managed from one site, with voice traffic confined to virtual LANs.

The school district decided against outsourcing after it had bad experiences with Pacific Bell Centrex service, says Garett McKay, director of technology for the city of El Monte.

“We were dealing with a lot of problems in getting our carrier to respond in a timely fashion,” McKay says of the Centrex service. The district already had dumped Pacific Bell’s Centrex service in favor of Toshiba telephone key systems in each school, but they weren’t ideal in that they required site visits to maintain.

McKay hasn’t ruled out using a managed VoIP service at some point, noting that he hasn’t had any complaints about PacBell’s handling of the Gigabit MAN.

“That might make sense,” McKay says, “since our routers [JDS Uniphase boxes, owned by Pacific Bell] are located at PacBell’s [central office] anyway. I could see some efficiencies if they just managed our phone switches from those locations as well.”

Another VoIP user, Rogers Group, cites a need for direct control over bandwidth as a top reason for not outsourcing. The Nashville, Tenn., crushed stone maker wants to ensure it can adjust bandwidth allotments for voice as it crosses the company’s frame relay network among sites in five states. The company’s WAN service is already shaky enough when it comes to handling data, says Mark Eckstein, a network administrator.

“We deal with many carriers that say they can offer service guarantees . . . but often they’re not willing to put teeth into their contracts,” he says. “Our phone service is vital, and I don’t think we want to put that in someone else’s hands.”

Rogers, which is making the shift to IP to save on toll calls among sites, hasn’t determined what gear it will use, although it is considering installing VoIP gateways to its Nortel PBXs or going to another vendor for an IP PBX. “We’re still debating whether to go with a pure-IP system,” Eckstein says.

Just a little help

Some companies want to do most of the work themselves, though not the initial effort. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) in England relied heavily on Cable & Wireless when it shifted from traditional voice to IP voice when it moved to new headquarters last year.

The RSPCA has installed Cisco VoIP gear at its central headquarters and a regional headquarters totaling more than 450 phones, and plans to extend the converged network to 47 other sites. In setting up the first two VoIP sites, the agency saved more than $100,000 by eliminating separate wiring for phones and another $400,000-plus because the IP PBX cost less than a traditional one, says Matt Winckless, technical communications manager. “We [just] needed help with the design and installation,” he says.

Winckless says the RSPCA’s IT staff of 30 can handle the ongoing management and likes the control that gives it for adding new features. When response to an RSPCA animal rights campaign flooded the agency’s call agents, his staff was able to quickly create an interactive voice response option to go to recorded campaign information rather than to a live agent. It was done faster in-house than it would have been by a service provider, he says.

“We can engineer our own solutions as users come to us with new requirements,” Winckless says.

Having a more hands-on approach also can smooth VoIP acceptance, Winckless says. Some users are reluctant to use new features and need to be eased into the new phone system. “The technology was the easy part. It’s getting the users used to the applications that’s hard.”

Encorp, which makes switches for generators, also is handling its VoIP system internally. A prime reason for doing so is that it just doesn’t appear to be all that tricky for IT staffers already familiar with network technologies, says Stan Seago, the Windsork, Colo., company’s IT director.

“If they know networking, they’re already up to speed. You just program the switch and assign IP addresses,” he says. “If they’re all on the same [virtual LAN], you don’t even do the IP addresses; [Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol] does it for you.”

Encorp initially ran VoIP over an 802.11b wireless LAN across four buildings, but upon relocating to a single building moved to a 150-user IP voice network anchored by an Alcatel 4400 IP PBX.

Because most VoIP installations are still relatively new and there are relatively few experienced colleagues with whom to consult, users acknowledge that making the decision to outsource or not is difficult and that it still might be a while until they know whether they did the right thing. “[As for the] potential benefits, we’re not really going to know until a year from now,” Concordia’s Heinemann says.

Next week, we look at SIP vs. H.323, two key convergence technologies.

In or out?

Factors to weigh about whether to outsource or build your own IP voice network:
 Pros Cons

• Gain or retain control of the network.

• Telecom and data staff get cross-training.

• Requires hiring experts

or training.

• Can cause data/telecom

rift in staff.

• Capital expenditure required.

• No hiring or training needed to gain expertise.

• Predictable costs.

• May blend with existing managed data services.

• Loss of control.

• Upgrades to new features on provider’s timetable.