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University takes go-slow approach to VOIP

University takes go-slow approach to VOIP

The University of San Francisco has decided against the latest IP-based gear when replacing its 15-year-old voice systems

Sometimes it's hip to be square, as Huey Lewis and the News once sang.

When it was time to replace its 15-year-old voice systems, the University of San Francisco decided against the latest IP-based gear, opting instead for a system that lets the private institution migrate gradually from traditional TDM to VOIP.

USF's decision to stick with tried-and-true technology rather than emerging VOIP reflects a change of direction on the part of its IT staff, which originally wanted a converged network.

"Our staff was understandably very excited about VOIP, but if we had just run with that and not done due diligence of what VOIP would have cost and done the business analysis, we could have moved more quickly but had a failed VOIP implementation,'' says USF CIO Tracy Schroeder.

"I'm very thankful that we didn't do that,'' Schroeder adds. "We'll have a stable solution that meets our needs and gives us the ability to do the cool stuff when it's time and when it's appropriate.''

USF is spending US$12.5 million to design and build its new telephone and data systems to support 3,500 on-campus users and an additional 1,500 remote users. USF will finish migrating to the new data systems on Dec. 15 and will cut over to the new telephone systems during the Christmas holidays.

After three years of study, USF bought two NEC NEAX 2400 IPX communications systems that support TDM and IP communications and a NEAXMail AD-120 messaging system. NEC Unified Solutions, the prime contractor on the job, also is installing a Cisco-based network infrastructure that includes routers and access switches.

For the foreseeable future, USF will run its voice communications over TDM, but it will experiment with VOIP in two new buildings being planned for the campus. The new buildings will get VOIP because USF can install an IP-ready infrastructure. The university's new NEC/Cisco infrastructure can support both technologies simultaneously.

"We thought we would end up with a converged solution, but we did not,'' Schroeder says. "We ended up with separate data and voice solutions, but with the ability to converge in areas where it makes sense and when it feels that the technology is fully mature.''

USF's decision to swim at least partially against the VOIP tide is significant given that its network upgrade project was one of the largest deals on the West Coast in recent years, NEC officials say.

"USF is a very prestigious university,'' says Rod Rafnson, director of operations for NEC Unified Solutions. "This is a design/build project, so we had the opportunity to provide a response that includes a full solution: data infrastructure, voice, PBX, cabling, reworked terminals and unified messaging.''

In the end, NEC won the USF deal because of its ability to provide an end-to-end package and its ability to support both TDM and IP. USF declined to identify the other bidders on the network upgrade project.

"One of the feasibilities that USF liked best about NEC is that they could buy an IP-ready telephone system that they could use today . . . and yet not necessarily roll out IP everywhere,'' Rafnson says. "They can phase IP in.''

USF's network upgrade was driven by the need to replace its aging telephone system.

"We have at this point a 15-year-old phone switch that is no longer made or supported,'' Schroeder says. "The only way we keep it running is through the in-house expertise of one of our employees who used to work at that company and gray-market replacement parts. . . . We knew we were in an untenable situation with our phone system, not to mention that it lacks many modern features such as mass distribution of voice mail.''

Meanwhile, USF's data systems were a hodgepodge of Enterasys Networks Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc. hubs and switches, with minimal fiber in the ground to each building. USF decided to upgrade its whole network infrastructure at the same time to improve performance and reliability.

Now USF will have 36 strands of fiber going into each building instead of four strands for added redundancy. By purchasing two NEC NEAX 2400 IPX systems, USF is getting redundancy in its telephone switching systems for the first time. Also new are network monitoring capabilities.

"This new network will give us a greatly expanded ability to monitor our network and tune performance,'' Schroeder says.

As part of the upgrade, USF also will increase its Internet connection from SBC Communications Inc. from 30M to 120M bit/sec.

USF doesn't expect to save money on its new network infrastructure. Instead, the university is gaining much-needed redundancy and a modern, feature-rich telephone system.

"This is a much higher-capacity network with more reliability and more stability,'' Schroeder says. "It's not going to be a cheaper network, but it goes a long way toward mitigating a significant risk that we had.''

At the launch of its procurement in 2001, USF's IT staff thought it was going to purchase gear to build an all-IP network. But the all-IP approach was too expensive, as the university's infrastructure would have to be upgraded -- everything from copper cabling to air conditioning.

"The cost of getting the infrastructure ready for convergence was quite high,'' Schroeder says. "We didn't see a business reason to do that.''

Still, USF is interested in IP. USF uses IP to connect its new lower- and upper-campus communications switches. It also intends to install all-IP gear in two new buildings being planned for the campus.

"I expect us to converge our networks in those buildings rather than running separate cable for the phones, and we'll be able to do that with the new phone switch from NEC,'' Schroeder says. "We're going to converge where it makes sense and not converge where it doesn't.''

USF does not want its network to be on the bleeding edge, Schroeder says.

"We want to be at the middle of the pack, with mature, widely deployed technologies,'' Schroeder says.

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