Wrangling communications woes

IP telephony becomes mainstream technology

With 53 schools and several other buildings, the Saskatoon Public School System was awash in multiple phone systems of varying ages and standards. The morass of technology was a headache to manage, costly to maintain and difficult to update.

So when the school system's IT department was put in charge of communications about three years ago, it looked at the problem in a new way, said Daryl Koroluk, general manager of information systems for Saskatoon schools in Saskatchewan, Canada. The department examined renovation and construction cable plans for data, he said, and discovered that, in the past, electrical bids would cover various needs such as paging, security cameras and the cable plan.

"But that process didn't necessarily get us a standardized, manageable system. In the end, it got us a tendered product," he said.

So the answer was obvious: install a core, systemwide IP infrastructure, then layer communications, such as voice over Internet protocol, on top of it.

More than money

Experts agree that as government agencies continue to adopt VoIP, they should make the move for the management benefits and application possibilities, not strictly for cost savings.

The performance of IP-based communications lifecycles now exceeds that of typical technologies, said consultant Allan Sulkin at the Interop New York show in September.

With benefits such as more system design flexibility and increased levels of redundancy and resiliency, IP telephony is on its way to becoming the mainstream technology for voice. IP line station shipments exceeded traditional line stations for the first time in 2005, and IP is forecasted to become dominant in just a few years.

Converging voice, data and video to one network just makes sense, said Tony Rybczynski, director at Nortel Networks Corp. in Toronto.

"You can solve virtually any problem you like using totally separate networks, but it's not very agile, and it's very expensive," Rybczynski said at Interop.

Just like the move from analog voice to digital quickly made a lot of sense for most organizations, the same is happening with VoIP, said George Humphrey, director of global services for Avaya Inc. in Basking Ridge, N.J.

"There is no longer a customer segment where voice over IP doesn't make sense," Humphrey said. "It is just a matter of time now before all the segments transition into it."

There are advantages to VoIP for small and large government organizations that operate as an interconnected community, Humphrey said.

When private branch exchange started to gain maturity in the late 1980s through mid-1990s, there was a lot of networking going on the telephony side. Private branch exchanges were mostly digital and acted like a mini switching system for an office or campus.

The technology led to an attempt to unify a lot of little islands of operation. In many cases, private branch exchanges allowed organizations to have some autonomy, but at the same time let groups network together for unified dial plans or for transferring calls back and forth among agencies or locations.

"That is really what an IP network is developed for; connecting groups is one of the key strengths of an IP network," Humphrey said.

Now that VoIP has matured from a quality-of-service perspective, it is a very viable, stable solution. That is leading to government agencies to virtualization, where they can centralize their infrastructures yet still distribute the "intelligence of applications" across the network.

The concept is that an organization's size no longer dictates what technology is implemented or what functionality is available. Agencies and suboffices are just part of a greater intelligence.

Best buys

Even though managing some aspects of a VoIP system is easier than typical systems, agencies still might want to consider purchasing a managed system.

"There are a few advantages to outsourcing, because now that you extend across multiple locations, you need somebody who has the networking experience and the communications experience to manage all that," Humphrey said.

There needs to be a staff, either in-house or outsourced, to ensure gateways and routers are maintained and are updated with the latest firmware. That can become a large burden, particularly for a government agency that needs to strictly control their costs.

"In fact, one state government agency in the south has moved to complete hosting and managing all its IP and communications infrastructure, and one of the biggest reasons is because it is really locking down on its budgeting process," Humphrey said.

"Frankly the government should really be focused on its key areas of core competency, rather than trying to keep in-house a staff of people that constantly have to be trained and updated to manage complex systems," he said.

The technologies around VoIP are still evolving rapidly, so it can be an operational and financial challenge to maintain a staff that to keep up to date with those technologies.

In Saskatoon, the infrastructure and systems are mostly maintained in house. Simple tasks, such as moving an employee's phone, are much cheaper and easier to do.

"It also enabled us to almost triple our line count and provide service where we never had it before, right to the classroom for every teacher," Koroluk said. "We can provide them with voicemail and a wide variety of other services, such as conference calling."

Initially installing the system and in the infrastructure necessary to run it wasn't cheap, but Koroluk said the investment will pay off.

"At the very least, it will break even," Koroluk said. "And it will provide nearly three times the service we had before, and standardization for us that was a real critical factor."

Staff Writer Doug Beizer can be reached at dbeizer@postnewsweektech.com.

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