VOIP realities

When VOIP burst onto the scene, it seemed like the answer to every network executive's prayers. Not only would it eliminate the pain associated with moves, adds and changes, but it also would provide great new features such as unified messaging and lead to savings by using the current data network. Today, current VOIP users say the technology is ready for prime time and providing returns, but it isn't exactly network nirvana.

When VOIP burst onto the scene, it seemed like the answer to every network executive's prayers. Not only would it eliminate the pain associated with moves, adds and changes, but it also would provide great new features such as unified messaging and lead to savings by using the current data network. Today, current VOIP users say the technology is ready for prime time and providing returns, but it isn't exactly network nirvana. VOIP can deliver cost and support savings, but there are trade-offs in terms of quality, reliability and ease of management. Nonetheless, if it's implemented with an eye toward mitigating those trade-offs, VOIP can deliver great benefits.

For the most part, early users moved to VOIP to cut costs and clean up older telecom infrastructures.

"We had a nice little mess that we affectionately referred to as our telecommunications quagmire," says Bill Ashton, director of IT for the town of Herndon, Va. The town had seven locations that each had a key system or PBX, but the switches were from multiple vendors, so transferring calls and supporting voice mail was difficult and support was costly. Plus, the main location with the town offices had outgrown its PBX, forcing IT to rely on a variety of stopgap measures.

"In some cases, we had to issue cell phones to new employees," Ashton says.

Fortunately, the town recently had put together a cable television franchise agreement with Cox Communications Inc. that required Cox to lay fiber between all the town's sites at cost. With the new network infrastructure in place, the town realized it could move to VOIP and solve the bulk of its telecom headaches.

The new VOIP solution, anchored by Cisco 3550 and 2950 Catalyst switches, not only lets the town communicate seamlessly among its various locations, but Ashton also estimates the town has garnered 30% net savings through the use of unified messaging and phone line consolidation.

Now everyone has unified messaging, which lets them receive voice mail and e-mail in one place. "I was sitting at the beach a couple of weeks ago, and I got on the phone, called into my voice mail box and had my e-mail read to me," Ashton says. Plus, the town has consolidated its outbound calling over PRI lines, which lets it eliminate more than 300 individual phone lines.

Others echo Herndon's experience. The Bakersfield Californian newspaper moved to Cisco-based VOIP because it wanted to upgrade its network to support digital production applications. At the same time, it needed to replace aging PBXs that dated from the 1970s.

"We have two locations, one with a super PBX and one with a mini PBX," says Mark Simons, systems manager at the paper. "The cost of buying two new PBXs was almost equal to the cost for the entire network project and (VOIP) stuff." Plus, with the move to VOIP, Simons says the company no longer needed the one staff member dedicated to voice and supporting the PBXs.

"For our ROI, we gave the VOIP setup a 10-year lifetime," Simons says. "And by eliminating that one position, we paid for the entire system over the 10 years. So now, any new savings we get from new applications or whatever is all bonus money on top."

One bonus came when the paper had to temporarily relocate its newsroom staff while its offices were being refurbished. "We chose a location to move into, and we hooked up two T-1 lines from the main office to the new location," Simons says. "Then all they had to do was take their phone from here, take it out there and plug it in. They had the same phone number, features and everything as if they were sitting in this building.

"We figured the savings we're going to get from moving out there and back is probably US$30,000 to $40,000 alone," he says.

More than cost savings

While VOIP can be a great cost saver, the icing on the cake is the new features it enables. Herndon implemented an Amber Alert system using VOIP that effectively brings every town employee into the loop when a child is missing in the area. The application works with the Cisco switch to push out alerts to the VOIP phones.

"I have five to six times the amount of (town employees) on the streets on a given day than I do police officers," Ashton says. "And now I can arm them with information that might help a child in jeopardy, and I can do this at little to no cost."

Others are even more ambitious. Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), a technical university in Massachusetts, is beta-testing Nortel Networks Ltd.'s Succession 4.0 VOIP software running on a Multimedia Communications Server 5100. It's looking to VOIP to support student-teacher collaboration while students are completing course-related projects around the world in sites such as Namibia, Thailand and London.

"Now we send the students out to the various project centers with laptops and cell phones tuned up with SIM cards for the country they're going to," says Tom Lynch, vice president for IT and CIO at the school. "But we're looking for better connectivity at the project centers, and this is a way. If we could load VOIP softphones onto the laptops they could have much better connectivity back to campus."

The setup would also provide video-based collaboration for the students and their professors back in Worcester. "The professors are very interested in this because it would let them keep in contact when they send students out to the centers," says Sean O'Connor, director of network operations and security. "They could speak face to face, instead of being on e-mail and typing back and forth. It's more efficient."

The quality caveat

The one catch for WPI is the quality of voice over the Internet, especially in these remote locations. VOIP, unlike traditional data applications, requires consistent QoS. "We have a very high-quality network on campus," says Al Johannesen, director of internetworking and telecommunications at the school. "But where these people are going we're piggybacking on networks in the area, so it needs to be determined how well it will work."

The tests so far have been encouraging. O'Connor has used a softphone on his laptop from his home a few miles from campus via a VPN connection and the quality has been fine. And he has used a similar setup to speak with Nortel representatives in Quebec. "I thought there would be delay, but there's not," he says. "It works great."

Still, WPI has seen first-hand the effects of a sub-optimal VOIP network. The school needed to support an affiliated high school, the Massachusetts Academy of Mathematics and Science, when the school moved off-campus and decided to use the VOIP beta. While they waited for fiber to be run between the campus and the new site, the school used VOIP over a point-to-point microwave link and received complaints about the phone service. Basically, the microwave link wasn't reliable enough to support the VOIP traffic.

"This is New England, and weather is weather," O'Connor says. "And when you're using microwave and you have a whiteout in a snowstorm, you usually end up having some sort of issue. Data worked fine over it, but the phone had problems."

Still, VOIP made the whole move easier and less expensive than would have been possible with a traditional system. The school had to bring its Internet access to the new site anyway, and it simply installed a Nortel 9150 IP extension shelf to the campus network as part of the process, O'Connor says. "We didn't have to pay for 20 or 40 phone lines into the new building."

Another problem with VOIP is that few operations have engineered their data networks to provide the power necessary to keep VOIP phones running when the power goes out. WPI has set up its network to ensure between one and two hours of battery backup throughout. "But if there's an emergency and the power goes out, people tend to pick up the phone and ask for help," O'Connor says. "But how can you say they won't have a phone in two hours?"

Others are less worried. Michael Lira, director of MIS at Capitol Technologies Inc., a machine tool builder in South Bend, Ind., has used AT&T Corp.'s Managed IP Telephony Services for VOIP for three years. The setup has been hit by occasional minor power outages, but Lira says he's comfortable with the risk.

"We engineer parts to order, so we take on jobs that are generally longer term," he says. "A day down is not going to totally kill us."

In fact, the company lost power for three days after a recent tornado and phone service was affected. The company ran on battery backup for as long as it could and then simply waited for power to be restored. "That was the longest outage," Lira says. "Other than that, I can't recall it being more than a minute of downtime."

Most users say they keep some analog lines available or rely on cell phones for backup, all of which means that virtually no organization will move to a 100 percent VOIP network, observers say.

Analog never goes away

WPI has decided that after the beta is over, it will implement a hybrid system that keeps some traditional analog lines in place, just in case of such an emergency.

"We'll never roll out VOIP for emergency phones," O'Connor says. "With IP phones, there are things like power that can go wrong. Our labs will always remain on analog lines, and our emergency phones outside for the campus police will always be analog."

O'Connor also says some analog lines are mandated by law. "You have to bring a separate analog line in to link up with the fire department in each residence hall, and that's a law in Massachusetts," he says. "People at first might think they can get rid of their analog lines, but the IP phone won't suffice. You will still need analog lines at some level."

Others find they require analog for fax and other applications because digital-to-analog converters are not up to snuff.

"We had to give things like fire alarms, modems and faxes their own phone lines, so we ended up keeping 24 analog lines after we moved to VOIP," Simons says. "We bought a digital-to-analog converter with the Cisco system, which should have let us get analog lines out of the Cisco switch, but we found it doesn't work that great. I think over time Cisco will make its digital-to-analog conversion stuff work better, where it's not quite as troublesome to manage. But until then we're keeping our analog lines."

Security not a worry

Another broad industry concern with VOIP is security, although most users say it isn't a big concern. The consensus is that as long as you follow established network security practices, install strong firewalls and split the voice traffic into separate virtual LANs (VLAN), your VOIP systems will be safe.

"I don't see security as a problem," Simons says. "Our (Cisco) CallManagers are all password-protected, so nobody can just log in and start making changes to phones. We have a good firewall in place, and our network is split into a bunch of VLANs, with the voice on its own VLAN. I don't worry about it."

WPI also uses a separate VLAN to protect its VOIP traffic and says the setup worked well when a virus hit the school's network recently.

"We contained the virus pretty fast, but it didn't affect the phones at all because there's a certain amount of bandwidth partitioned off just for that phone system, and nothing else is going to go over it," O'Connor says. "It's not a separate physical wire plant, but it's separate at the logical level and it works."

Overall, VOIP users say they are happy with the technology and find it is a cost-effective, feature-rich alternative to traditional phone systems. And it's no longer a "bleeding edge" technology that people need to wait out.

"It's like when a new version of Windows comes out; everybody waits for the first service pack before they actually go in and install it," Simons says. "It's been like that for (VOIP), but people shouldn't wait anymore. It's stable now, and it's only going to get better."

Ashton of Herndon, Va., agrees. "My organization is not that large, and I don't have the luxury of getting out on the leading edge," he says. "I can't make $600,000 mistakes. But VOIP is beyond the leading edge, and it's starting to mainstream. We're on the front end of the mainstream, but that's where I like my organization to be."

Cummings is a freelance writer in North Andover, Mass. She can be reached at -- Network World (US)