A Quick Switch to VoIP at Brandeis University
- By Linda L. Briggs
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
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
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
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,
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."