Telecommunications: Can Cisco Answer the Call?
- By Joseph C. Panettieri
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
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.
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,
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
|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
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
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
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
(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
and others—have aggressively pushed into the VoIP market this year. Those
telecom giants also face heated competition from startups such as Net2Phone
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
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
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?