Telecommunications: Can Cisco Answer the Call?

After six years of disconnects, the networking giant’s VoIP strategy finally makes the grade with universities.

When Larry Levine reaches for his phone, he touches the future. As director of Computing Services at Dartmouth College (NH), Levine had a hand in one of the latest voice-over-IP (VoIP) rollouts in higher education. Indeed, Dartmouth this summer deployed VoIP phones from Cisco Systems Inc. (www.cisco.com) to its faculty and staff members. Over the next 18 months, the Ivy League school will deploy VoIP services to all of its students, representing 7,500 IP phone extensions.

Dartmouth isn’t alone. After several false starts, hundreds of colleges and universities are dialing up VoIP in an effort to slash long-term telecom costs, ease management headaches, and consolidate digital traffic onto a single network infrastructure. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests most university VoIP rollouts involve Cisco Systems. “Cisco is clearly the most advanced and experienced VoIP vendor, no question,” asserts Levine.

Adds Perry Hanson, CIO of Brandeis University (MA), which has 6,500 IP phones from Cisco, “They have many years of VoIP experience. Everyone told us voice-over-IP wasn’t ready. But it is.”

Cisco’s customers evidently agree. The networking giant commands roughly 42 percent of VoIP phone shipments, according to Synergy (www.synergyusa.com), a Dallas-based consultancy and market research firm. Cisco sold more than 437,000 IP phones in the second quarter—easily outpacing competitors—and sales of such devices are roughly doubling annually.
But that wasn’t always the case. Flash back to January 1998. Titanic was No. 1 at the box office, John Elway won his first Super Bowl, and Cisco CEO John Chambers was set to unveil a five-phase strategy for integrating voice, video, and data on IP networks. At the time, Chambers predicted that Cisco’s convergence strategy would inspire massive customer migrations to VoIP networks by 2001. Like his peers at such rival firms as 3Com Corp.(www.3com.com), Chambers said VoIP would cannibalize long-distance toll charges and expensive plain old telephone service (POTS) in the late 1990s, thereby slashing overall telecom costs for universities and other vertical markets.

Many pundits believed Cisco would indeed dominate VoIP, emerging as the Ma Bell of IP telephones for corporations and universities alike. After all, Cisco commanded more than 50 percent of the network switch and router markets. And as for dominating the higher ed market, Cisco’s roots in academia ran deep. The company was founded in 1984 by a small group of Stanford University (CA) computer scientists, and Stanford President John Hennessy serves on Cisco’s board. Moreover, Cisco Chairman John Morgridge focuses most of his time on the education sector, promoting information technology as a means to empower students.

Busy Signals
Still, Cisco and its rivals flunked early VoIP tests. Time and again, Chambers directed that his own office phone be replaced with a VoIP system. But his mandates to Cisco’s IT team went unfulfilled for several years due to hardware glitches, software bugs, wiring snafus, and the massive scope of Cisco’s own telephone network, which served 40,000 employees during the height of the dot-com boom. (The company now has about 35,000 employees.)

VoIP also suffered disconnects outside of Cisco. Through the late 1990s, many corporate customers and universities balked at first-generation VoIP systems, because they lacked quality of service (QoS) features found in traditional phone systems. Many VoIP pilot tests were further delayed by the dotcom implosion, economic recession, and September 11 terror attacks. Skeptics said it was difficult to embrace VoIP—which typically costs $1,000 or more per user when deployed down to the desktop—without a proven track record for the technology.

“Not many people could justify an unproven phone system with so many economic and geopolitical unknowns clouding their financial vision,” recalls Jill Cherveny-Keough, director of academic computing at New York Institute of Technology, a college with campuses on Long Island and in Manhattan.

Even so, Chambers wasn’t ready to unplug Cisco’s VoIP push during the recession. While rivals such as Nortel Networks Inc. (www.nortelnetworks.com) and Lucent Technologies Inc. (www.lucent.com) stumbled with accounting scandals and a heavy dependence on the decimated telecom carrier market, Cisco calmly outspent its adversaries on research and development. Consider the scorecard: In its fiscal year 2002, Cisco pumped $3.3 billion into R&D, down a moderate 13 percent from 2001. In stark contrast, according to their companies’ annual reports, Nortel and Lucent spent $2.2 billion and $2.3 billion on R&D in 2002, down 31 percent and 34 percent, respectively, from 2001.

Before and during the economic slowdown, a few VoIP pilot programs from Cisco and other major vendors quietly took flight. The first wide-scale university deployment came in August 1999, when the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff deployed a $4 million converged network using Cisco’s CallManager gear. Dozens of similar Cisco and rival rollouts followed. By 2002, the University of Guelph (ON) was the first in Canada to implement a fully converged IP network.

Five Reasons to Worry
Before signing on the dotted line, make sure your proposed VoIP system d'esn’t suffer from these shortfalls:
1. Lack of 911 accessibility
2. No “switched-loop attendant” console
3. No “blind transfer” call-forwarding features
4. Limited analog ports for modems, credit-card
machines, etc.
5. Limited conferencing features
Source: Gartner Inc.
Answering the Call
To date, most universities have only given VoIP a look during some sort of critical turning point—such as the dedication of a new building or when a legacy PBX nears the end of its practical use.

“As a technology, VoIP is ready now,” says Dartmouth’s Levine. “But you should move when the time is right for your own institution. If you are looking at replacing an expensive PBX and your IP network is in good shape, now might be the time to begin planning for it.”

In Dartmouth’s case, the school purchased its previous phone system from AT&T (www.att.com) in 1988 and upgraded it to Ericsson (www.ericsson.com) in 1994. Fast forward 10 years, and the college was eager for a modern phone system that offered staff, faculty, and students on-screen directories, message-waiting indicators, and the ability to use wireless notebooks as phones. “For all of these reasons, VoIP made a lot of sense for us,” says Levine.

Getting Ready for VoIP
Before embarking on any VoIP deployment, take
the following four steps:
1. Determine the existing traffic levels on your data and voice networks. This will help to
determine your QoS (quality of service)
requirements and bandwidth needs for an IP
telephony (VoIP) network.
2. Detect and resolve existing network issues such as bottlenecks in certain LAN segments.
3. Develop an accurate picture of your current
network topology to uncover potential routing
and switching issues.
4. Establish a baseline of current network performance in order to measure future performance
and determine whether you’re meeting your goals.
Source: NEC Unified Solutions Inc.

And Hanson at Brandeis warns against the technology-for-technology’s sake factor: “Don’t put in VoIP because it’s cool. You should consider VoIP when your old PBX nears retirement.” Indeed, Brandeis had an 18-year-old telecommunications switch before migrating to Cisco’s VoIP phones in mid-2003. The previous system “was a hodgepodge solution that the university had cobbled together and the original vendor would no longer support,” recalls Hanson. “We suffered two crashes and that usually d'esn’t happen with PBXs, so we knew it was time to make a move.”

Plenty of Alternatives
All of this is not to suggest that other telecom vendors are not offering quality VoIP solutions of their own. Market researcher Synergy confirms that Cisco leads the VoIP market, but plenty of universities are deploying VoIP systems from Nortel, Avaya Inc. (www.avaya.com), 3Com, and other suppliers. Just ask IT administrators at Australia’s Ballarat University (Victoria), which remains firmly committed to Nortel as it transitions from PBXs to VoIP.

“We already had five Nortel Meridian PBXs,” says Jeff Dowsley, manager of ICT (Information and Communication Technology) Strategy and Planning at Ballarat. “We chose Nortel because they had an evolutionary path from traditional PBXs to IP-based services using their Internet Trunk Gateway. This gave us an easy path to VoIP without the need to establish Call Managers and the like, which would have blown the budget.”

Brandeis installed uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) in more than 100 wiring closets prior to VoIP rollout because VoIP phones need emergency power during brownouts and blackouts.

In fact, part of Nortel’s appeal is the company’s extensive PBX experience married to its growing VoIP expertise. Consider the background of Frank Shepherd, Nortel’s director of IP Telephony and Engaged Business Applications. The 22-year company veteran amassed PBX expertise for nearly two decades and spotted the VoIP opportunity in 1997. “My team mastered the dial-tone world and began assessing VoIP more than six years ago,” says Shepherd. “Now, we’ve got a full product line and a network of partners ready to assist with deployments.”

And carriers such as SBC Communications (www.sbc.com), for instance, are getting into the act: SBC now offers multimedia communication solutions based on VoIP equipment from Nortel. Faced with falling demand for traditional phone services, SBC and other telecom companies—AT&T, MCI (www.mci.com), Qwest Communications (www.qwest.com), Verizon (www22.verizon.com), and others—have aggressively pushed into the VoIP market this year. Those telecom giants also face heated competition from startups such as Net2Phone (www.net2phone.com) and Vonage (www.vonage.com), which typically target small businesses and residential customers with low-cost VoIP services. Vonage, a privately held startup, is among the residential VoIP leaders, with 250,000 customers. It’s unclear how much of a push the company intends to make into the university marketplace.

Know Your Options
A sampling of major VoIP product suppliers:
Avaya Inc., www.avaya.com
3Com Corp., www.3com.com
Cisco Systems Inc., www.cisco.com
Lucent Technologies Inc., www.lucent.com
Nortel Networks Inc., www.nortelnetworks.com
How to Plug In

Regardless of which supplier a university chooses, VoIP rollouts require plenty of prep work and network reconfiguration. Brandeis, for instance, installed UPS (uninterruptible power supplies) from emergency power supplies designer American Power Conversion (APC) Corp. (www.apc.com) in more than 100 wiring closets, prior to rolling out VoIP. The reason: Unlike traditional phones, VoIP phones need emergency power during brownouts and blackouts. The university also embraced power-over-Ethernet, a standard that sends low-voltage electricity from wiring closets to desktops, over network connections. This negates the need to plug every VoIP phone into a wall outlet.

Although Brandeis’ deployment proceeded without a hitch, CIO Hanson warns about possible trouble spots. In particular: It’s difficult to find skilled VoIP consultants and integrators who have multiple projects under their belts. Brandeis overcame that obstacle via a campus/vendor partnership with Verizon Communications’ consulting arm, a longtime Cisco partner with telecom and VoIP experience.

Other universities aren’t as fortunate. At Australia’s Ballarat, a local Nortel channel partner “didn’t have any field experience” installing and configuring Nortel’s VoIP solution, which “caused a few delays before we could go into full production,” recalls Ballarat’s Dowsley. Nortel’s Shepherd points out that more and more VoIP integrators are entering the market, but concedes that early voice-over-Internet deployments—up until 2002 or so—suffered from a lack of trained consultants on the street. Even so, Ballarat’s Nortel VoIP system took only a few days to install, and provided immediate benefits. “Universities tend to be fluid in their organizational structures,” notes Dowsley. “With VoIP, staff can now pick up their phones, walk to a new office, and plug them in. You don’t have to program these changes into a PBX. With phone lines treated as data lines, we can add services easily as demand rises and falls.”

Four Steps to Success

Not sure where to start with VoIP? According to a spokesperson for NEC Unified Solutions Inc. (www.necunifiedsolutions.com), a major integration firm with voice-over-Internet expertise, savvy university telecommunications administrators should take the following four steps before deploying a VoIP system:


1—Size up traffic. Determine existing traffic levels across the data and voice networks. This will help to develop QoS (quality of service) requirements and bandwidth needs for a converged VoIP network.
2—Fix outstanding problems. Detect and resolve existing network issues, such as bottlenecks in certain LAN segments.
3—Set network topology. Develop an accurate network topology picture to uncover potential routing and switching issues.
4—Baseline IP performance. Establish a baseline measurement of the IP network’s current performance in order to measure future performance.

Experts maintain that skipping the four steps above can lead to massive setbacks because VoIP performance is difficult to predict.

“On an enterprise level, network infrastructure plays a huge role in the efficacy of a VoIP rollout,” says Brian Maroldo, technical director at NYIT. “Audio and video, unlike typical network applications, are extremely sensitive to loss and delay. From core to edge, the network needs to be set up properly to implement voice-over-Internet.”

Recent history proves Maroldo’s point. Many early VoIP networks suffered from unplanned downtime, and didn’t achieve “five nines” (99.999%) availability, concedes Viswas Purani, director of Emerging Technologies and Applications at APC. (In layman’s terms, “five nines” availability is less than 5.26 minutes of unplanned downtime per year.) Yet many early VoIP systems delivered only “three nines” (99.9%) availability—or about nine hours of unplanned downtime per year. If that d'esn’t sound so bad to you, consider losing your phones for nine hours during peak enrollment periods, major fundraising campaigns or campus emergencies. Fortunately, recent upgrades to VoIP hardware and software have largely resolved such reliability concerns and it’s now possible to deploy VoIP systems that achieve “five nines” reliability, asserts Purani.

Still, clarity, delay, and echo problems can also undermine VoIP systems. Clarity refers to the clearness of a voice signal. Many voice quality testers use two algorithms: PSQM (Perceptual Speech Quality Measurement) and PAMS (Perceptual Analysis Measurement System) to determine and troubleshoot the clarity of a voice signal. By contrast, delay is the time it takes for a voice signal to travel from the caller to the recipient. Network routers and switches can increase delays and thereby reduce call quality. Finally, echo is the sound of a speaker’s voice returning to his/her ear via the same telephone. This is often caused by an “electrical mismatch” between the trunk line and phone line, according to NEC Unified Solutions, which examines and troubleshoots networks for clarity, delay, and echo issues.

Security has also emerged as a critical factor undermining VoIP deployments. Just like traditional computer networks, VoIP systems are susceptible to viruses, worms, Trojan horses, packet sniffing, IP spoofing, and other types of data attacks. In fact, according to one senior IT executive of a major Wall Street firm, that company lost both its computer networks and VoIP systems during a 24-hour virus outbreak in early 2004.

To avoid such setbacks, Cisco recommends that customers secure their VoIP systems much the same way they guard traditional IP networks. These steps include deploying “stateful” firewalls and intrusion detection systems, (which keep track of the state of network connections), locking down Simple Network Management Protocol, turning off unneeded network services, and disabling unused network ports.

Coming of Age

Despite all these potential complications, there’s no denying VoIP’s growing popularity—even with students. “The first thing students wanted [from the VoIP system] was a wakeup call service,” recalls Brandeis’s Hanson. “So we had one of our computer students write a program in XML.” One popular option is a recording of the university president imploring students to wake up. Brandeis students also praise the systems’ corporate directory feature, which allows them to quickly find and dial any student, faculty, or staff member listed in the directory.

At Ballarat University, staff can now pick up their phones, walk to a new office, and plug them in.

Looking ahead, some schools are now testing wireless (Wi-Fi) VoIP phones, but two CIOs from East Coast universities report that early models have a few bugs and tend to be expensive—$800 or more per user. Still, prices for VoIP phones should spiral downward as network standards ensure interoperability and competition in the marketplace. “In two to three years, you’ll see VoIP phones for sale in Wal-Mart and other stores,” predicts Hanson.

In fact, the future is already here. Staples (www.staples.com) recently agreed to carry VoIP-related networking equipment from Cisco and Vonage. Similarly, Best Buy (www.bestbuy.com) will offer AT&T’s residential VoIP phone service, dubbed AT&T CallVantage, in its 628 nationwide stores and online this fall. When the deal was announced in August, Best Buy indicated that it would continue to expand its lineup of VoIP networking products. The question is: With consumer expectation rising, can campus expectation be far behind?

comments powered by Disqus