VOIP managers recount challenges setting up service

VOIP managers recount challenges setting up service

As vice president of voice product development at Merrill Lynch & Co., Todd Goodyear has weathered six complicated years of converging voice and data communications on an IP network. Goodyear said at this week's Voice on the Net conference in Boston that he and other network managers at Merrill Lynch are working off a seven-year plan in order to set a strategic direction for the convergence effort. But he noted that the plan has had to be adjusted to accommodate new technologies, unexpected problems and changing demands from end users and business managers.

"It's been a tough process," Goodyear said, adding that the standing joke among members of his staff is that they're located on the first floor of an office building in New Jersey, so they won't fall too far if they jump.

Merrill Lynch has made some well-publicized changes in its technology plans as part of the project. For example, the company in 2003 decided to replace a voice-over-IP (VoIP) system from Cisco Systems that was being used at some of its operations in New York and New Jersey with a hybrid IP and circuit-switched system from Avaya Inc.

But last year, Merrill Lynch once again opted to use Cisco's VoIP technology to support 14,000 financial advisers at 600 branch offices nationwide -- a deal announced by Cisco earlier this year. The end result is a mix of pure VoIP and hybrid technologies, Goodyear said during a presentation at the conference. He added that the New York-based company is now dealing with three primary vendors: Avaya, Cisco and Nortel Networks.

In addition, the vendors have been updating their software and hardware more often than originally predicted -- about two releases per year instead of one every 18 months. Goodyear said that has required the team working on the project to react more quickly than anticipated.

Bruce Sennecke, a procurement specialist for voice and data technology at Allstate Insurance Co., said he has experienced some of the same problems while helping to set up VoIP systems for the insurer over the past two years.

The biggest problem has been getting an accurate inventory of how much equipment will be needed across such a large organization, he said, adding that a majority of Allstate's 60,000 workers now have VoIP services.

Like the project at Merrill Lynch, Allstate's VoIP initiative has required network managers to be flexible, Sennecke said. Both he and Goodyear also cautioned that IT staffs need to be prepared for end users who want to keep their old phone sets. "The user resistance [can be] unbelievable," Sennecke said.

David Steen, CEO of Teleplus Consulting said that despite the high level of interest in VoIP projects, IT managers need to carefully monitor costs and potential paybacks when starting a project.

"Sometimes the economics on VoIP don't work," Steen said.

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