Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) works well. That’s the initial reaction of IT officials at the US Department of Education after moving to a converged network architecture based on IP.
“The converged network architecture gives us flexibility, better response times for users, control over our telephony systems, back-end and toll-bypass savings,” said the department’s deputy chief information officer, Rick Miller. In another three years the department hoped to have close to 100 per cent of its employees on VoIP, he said.
Like most large organisations, the Department of Education spends the lion’s share of its telecommunications budget on voice services. Voice represents about 70 per cent of its telecom budget, including 800-services, internal dialing and long-distance. The remaining 30 per cent of its telecom budget covers data services, virtually all of which is IP traffic.
By running voice traffic over an IP backbone, the department saves money on internal long distance calls as well as on network administration for adding new employees, deleting old employees or moving employees from one location to another.
Its student loan unit is “getting tremendous savings because all the calls to our regions are local calls now and before they were all long-distance calls,” Miller said. “It’s also tremendously more efficient for us to have the network administration group that takes care of the PCs handle all network accounts ... People don’t realise how much time is tied up in the back-end in doing the moves, adds and changes.”
A year ago, when 1000 of the agency’s employees moved to a new building, agency IT officials decided to install a single, converged voice and data network rather than a traditional telephony infrastructure and a separate data network.
“One of our business units had the chance to move into a brand new building and consolidate scattered resources,” Miller said. “We had the opportunity to build their network infrastructure from scratch without having to replace anything.”
He said the agency asked contractor IBM to analyse the difference in cost between installing a traditional PBX telephony system and VoIP. What the agency found was that the $US2 million in hardware, software and installation for the VoIP system was essentially the same amount it would cost to install a regular telephony system.
The finding matched the agency’s overall strategy of moving to a converged, IP network. The agency had moved 99 per cent of its data traffic to IP. Migrating voice traffic to IP was an obvious next step, agency officials said.
“We had a firm belief that data and voice convergence was a thing of the future and that we needed to go there,” Miller said. “We thought: Why install a traditional telephony infrastructure when we didn’t need to?”
With help from IBM and Cisco Systems, the agency designed a 100M bit/sec Ethernet LAN for the new building that feeds into its existing ATM-based WAN from Sprint. The fast Ethernet LAN carries IP data traffic from the agency’s PCs as well as IP voice traffic from telephones supplied by Cisco.
The agency’s primary concern in designing the converged network was reliability. Agency officials worried that employees used to regular telephones would be unhappy if dial tone was any less available with the new IP phones.
“My key direction to the design team was that every possible failure scenario had to be addressed with multiple redundancies and reliabilities built into the system,” Miller said. “We ultimately selected the highest reliability for a reasonable cost.”
In the year since the VoIP system was installed, the agency has experienced few problems. Officials say installation went smoothly as did employee training for the new phones and unified messaging environment. The agency hasn’t experienced a single outage in the year it has been running VoIP.
“We were surprised. We expected a lot more problems,” Miller admits.
Since the original installation, the only unforeseen problem that the agency has run into is when it decided to upgrade its messaging system to a newer version of Microsoft Exchange. Users started having minor nuisances such as telephone message lights coming on unnecessarily.
“What we discovered is that the voice system is truly integrated with the data and messaging system,” Miller said. “You can’t undertake changing one without fully evaluating and testing the downstream implications. You are playing with your dial tone when you upgrade your messaging infrastructure.”
In April, the agency will finish installing a video teleconferencing system that also will run over its IP backbone. Next the agency plans to test IP TV as well as new IP-based collaboration tools.
Miller offered the following advice to other IT executives considering VoIP: Firstly, decide whether your voice or data staff is going to be in charge of the system. “You have to train one or the other of these groups, and they have distinct technical vocabularies and skill sets,” Miller said. “The two don’t naturally blend. We made the decision that it was more natural to teach the telephony skill to the network administrators because it was an integrated environment.”
And secondly, design reliability into your VoIP system. “When you have data guys getting into the dial tone world, you have to think about reliability in terms of six nines,” Miller said. “You have to think about emergency power. You have to have backups.”
Cisco Systems and IBM have agreed on a deal that will see them jointly sell Cisco’s Fibre Channel storage-area networking products to customers, a move analysts say is the start of a new era for the channel.
IBM will add Cisco’s MDS 9000 Family of fabric and director-level switches to its line of SAN products, including the Enterprise Storage Server (code-named Shark), its Total Storage FAStT midrange arrays, as well as Total Storage tape subsystems. The company’s Tivoli management software will be used to discover and monitor storage resources on the SAN. IBM and its business partners will offer the completed packages to customer with heavy data storage requirements.
Senior analyst with the Enterprise Storage Group in the US, Steve Duplessie, said: “IBM is a very big fish that sells a lot of director-level switches, and adding newcomer Cisco to the mix gives them a very complete offering. It probably has the other Fibre Channel vendors nervous.”
Cisco first started manufacturing Fibre Channel switches last fall with the acquisition of Andiamo Systems, a startup venture fostered by Cisco and spun in when their development efforts were largely complete.
Analysts said that the deal with IBM should spur subsequent agreements with large systems vendors such as Hewlett-Packard, Sun and EMC. This would be important to Cisco’s success in the market.
“If they can get EMC and HP [to sign up] they will have nailed the lion’s share of the Fibre Channel distribution, and then it’s up to them to create demand at the end-user level,” Duplessie said. “It still is not a slam dunk success for Cisco, but they just got one giant leap closer to it.”
Under the terms of the agreement, IBM will resell the Cisco MDS 9509 Multilayer Director, Cisco MDS 9216 Multilayer Fabric Switch and associated modules by the end of this quarter, after completing interoperability tests.
The multiprotocol Cisco MDS 9000 switches offer a variety of features such as virtual SAN security (similar to virtual LANs), diagnosis and traffic management, as well as a command line interface that is built from the company’s popular IOS, which manages Cisco’s other routers and switches.