A Quick Switch to VoIP at Brandeis University

In August 2003, Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. made a remarkable conversion. In a single day, the school switched over its entire traditional PBX system-totaling 6,500 phones-to voice over IP (VoIP). Brandeis' 450 or so faculty and staff began using the new system immediately, and when students returned to campus for the fall semester two weeks later, the IT staff handed out 3,000 VoIP phones. "At the end of August, we essentially had 6,500 phones up," says Perry Hanson, Brandeis' CIO and associate provost for academic technology.

Brandeis' project stands out-while many universities are dabbling in VoIP or converting portions of the campus, especially new buildings, it remains highly unusual to make a mass conversion. Furthermore, Hanson says the process went remarkably smoothly. One challenge: He had trouble finding other schools to ask for suggestions beforehand. In fact, his advice to other schools contemplating a move to VoIP is an open invitation: "Call us."

An Attractive Bottom Line

Most schools dismiss Brandeis' direct route to VoIP because of cost. But Hanson says his return on investment calculations proved beforehand that a switch to VoIP was a good move for the school. An old and expensive PBX switch was starting to fail and copper wires between buildings were in need of an update. Also, the campus is relatively compact (just 250 acres, with 4,500 students and about 450 faculty and staff), and already had a robust data network in place. All of those elements combined to make the school a perfect testing ground for a sudden voice over IP conversion. A year later, the school has had plenty of time to test its new system-and everyone remains happy. On the other hand, that sort of sudden jump to VoIP remains almost unheard of in academia.

There's another way that Hanson's project was unusual: The school purchased a VoIP phone for each student. Most schools find the phones too costly to purchase on a per-student basis, which proves to be a stumbling block for campus-wide VoIP implementations. Because of the expense per phone, schools also balk at asking students to supply their own phones. That's the system Brandeis used before the switch. But Cisco offered the school a tremendous deal on the phones-so good that Hanson declines to say what he paid per phone other than that it was "a significant discount" from Cisco's $100-plus list price. (The phones connect to a traditional RJ45 telephone port in the wall.)

In two to four years, when VoIP phones reach the sort of commodity pricing levels of conventional phones now, the school will start asking students to buy and bring their own VoIP phones, just as they previously did with conventional phones.

The Planning Process

Brandeis' project was initiated when the school's 18-year-old PBX switch began to experience failures. "We had squeezed everything we could out of it," Hanson says, and so he began a search for traditional replacement equipment. But as the search evolved, the school realized that VoIP had become a viable possibility. "We decided to look at VoIP, partly because our campus network was in good shape," Hanson says. Brandeis already had fiber between all buildings, for example, and with just under 100 computer "closets" [router stations] throughout the campus, a relatively compact network to maintain.

Also, Hanson says, VoIP became a possibility as he and his staff realized that "the industry has matured and we actually know what we're doing… Now we know how to make networks stable. Now you can talk about a phone running on a network."

Once the school decided to investigate VoIP, Hanson's staff visited each company offering a solution. During the evaluation phase, Cisco brought in a smaller version of the VoIP network, complete with server and phones, and set it up so that Brandeis could run the system in-house on an isolated network for testing. That helped solidify Cisco as the provider, along with the fact that during focus groups, people tended to prefer the Cisco phones.

Price Drives the Project

Cost was a major driver from the start. The expense of replacing corroding copper wire between buildings, Hanson estimates, was half a million dollars. Replacing the failing switch would be another half million dollars, so "right from the start, we had a million-dollar problem, [and] probably more once we opened it up." In December 2002, the school decided to re-bid the project as VoIP. After a year of reviewing bids, they made a decision to go with Cisco equipment in March 2003.

Most of the project's cost was upgrading components of the school's network to support a new application-the voice system and its software. Hanson stresses that it's important to look at a VoIP system as just that-a new application on the network, albeit an extremely important one. Brandeis, which already had a robust network, needed only to add the new servers necessary to support the voice system, along with a call manager.

A third of a million dollars was spent to add a UPS to each router station, something "we probably should have had already," Hanson admits. Realizing that people are accustomed to phones continuing to work when power is out, the school nonetheless decided they could live with just 30 minutes of backup time per UPS, reasoning that "99.99 percent of the time, a power outage is a blip," and further, most students also have cell phones for backup use during a power outage.

In summary, Hanson estimates the project costs at just over $4 million, as follows: Approximately $2.25 million on network equipment, $1.25 million on phone equipment, $300,000 for the UPS devices, and another $300,000 or so for an implementation partner, a national telecommunications company that handled the details of the implementation. (Brandeis has continued with the same telecom provider as before the switch.)

Quality of service

On the question of security, Hanson feels comfortable with the phone system sharing the network. "First of all, we're just fanatical about making sure our systems are patched properly," he says. In fact, the phone system hasn't been down since the switch to VoIP.

Implementing a 911 system can be challenge with VoIP because the phones are portable. Hanson says Brandeis has solved that by implementing an "e911" system that identifies both the phone being called from, and the port-thus enabling campus police to pinpoint location.

An Excellent ROI

Part of Hanson's reasoning in moving to the new technology had to do with the return on investment. Although the initial cost was high-the total project cost was $4 million -- Hanson reasoned that "we'd get a brand new network with 100 megabytes instead of 10 to every port on campus."

Probably the biggest savings, Hanson says, were in not replacing the PBX switch or the copper wiring. But there are other benefits as well. Having voice functions as part of the data network makes it easier to maintain in many ways, since it's treated as another application on the network-a responsibility of the network administrators.

There's also been a shift in skills, with the school needing fewer staff with pure telephone expertise after the rollout.

Hanson says there are also big savings in the elimination of what used to be known as "moves and changes" in the old PBX lingo-the need to send a phone technician each time someone needed to move a phone, make a change, or set up a new one. With the VoIP phones, people simply carry their phones to a new jack-a common practice now in dorms, where students often carry a phone down to the lobby to continue conversations while waiting for a pizza delivery, for example.

Some analog phones remain-chiefly for fax machines and in campus hallways, where the school wasn't able to secure VoIP phones to the wall adequately. And in both of those cases, the voice or data itself is transmitted over the data network-only the devices themselves are analog. "I said, I want every phone that can be a VoIP phone to be one," Hanson says.

And the Favorite VoIP Feature is…

With the VoIP network offering a myriad of features, from easy conference calls to caller ID to inexpensive rates on long distance, Hanson says that the favorite feature among students is… a wake-up call function. Using a program written by a Brandeis student and incorporated into the system, students can use a Web interface to select wake-up calls ranging from songs to impersonations-or an exhortation from the university president. "We're just scratching the service," Hanson concludes. "We don't know where it's going to go."

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