Rebuilding a Dream
As two institutions learn firsthand, revamping telecommunications
infrastructure isn’t as difficult as it may seem.
A LONG TIME AGO, revamping a school’s
telecommunications infrastructure was up there
with scaling Mount Everest as one of the toughest
challenges around. First up was the task of finding
a new PBX. Then came the chore of rewiring the
campus. Before long, project costs skyrocketed.
Even well-funded IT departments struggled to get
the job done.
Voice over internet protocol (VoIP) changed
everything. Suddenly, with the installation of a simple
server and some new phones, IT administrators
were able to run telecom over existing data lines,
saving money and manpower all the while. Two institutions—
the San Mateo County Community College
District (CA) and Robert Morris University
(PA)—recently made this switch and have survived
to talk about it.
Embracing Open Source
At Robert Morris University, IT officials turned to
open source software to handle telecommunications,
and recently replaced a 10-year-old Nortel PBX with an open source solution
that runs VoIP. The switch became critical
toward the end of 2005, when the PBX had
reached its capacity, and the school was planning
to erect some new dormitories on campus. Randy
Johnson, director of technical services at RMU,
says that rather than invest in expanding the PBX,
he wanted to find a new solution that could handle
telecommunications better and faster than before.
That new solution came in the form of Asterisk, a complete PBX in software. It has support for
three-way calling, caller ID services, and a host of other features.
Johnson says the best part of the solution is cost savings—
since RMU adopted the technology on a limited basis
in January of 2006, the school has seen roughly $25,000 in
hard- and soft-dollar savings (maintenance and labor).
“In terms of financing, a new PBX and at least 300 new
copper wires cost a lot more than one piece of open source
software that’s virtually free,” he says, noting that the school
bought its version of Asterisk from Digium, one of the project sponsors, and now runs the software
on a server from Hewlett-Packard. “For us,
rebuilding our telecommunications on an open source model
just made sense.”
While Asterisk gets the basic job done, it is facilitating a
number of innovations behind the scenes, too. In June
2006, for instance, when RMU consolidated 11 different exchanges into two, Asterisk helped callers by playing
recordings that informed them about the new numbers; the
system then transferred their calls. Owners of the old numbers
also received e-mails from the phone system notifying
them of calls to them that were misdialed.
And last fall, Johnson used the Asterisk system to equip
certain university officials with software-based VoIP phones
that allow users’ new extensions to follow them wherever they
go. So long as these users are connected to the internet, they
can plug in USB headsets and use their laptop computers
just like telephones. Complete with caller ID, the new “soft”
phones are “the work-from-home dream,” says Johnson, and
could ultimately become available to students, too.
“Never missing calls wherever you are is a luxury I think
every user would love to have,” says Johnson. “Name another
PBX system that can do that.”
Still, the new system has not been without its challenges.
Johnson says the toughest challenge so far has been helping
users familiarize themselves with the new phones. The school
has offered a number of training classes, and so far, he notes,
users are gradually learning to use the new system.
Open source isn’t always the right solution for everyone, and
officials at the San Mateo County Community College District
simply wanted something better than the PBX they had
been using for years. Their PBX system, much like the one at
RMU, was being used to capacity; expanding it would have
required a significant investment in new wiring. Instead, in the
spring of 2003, the school embarked on a four-phase migration
to commercial VoIP. Today, the three-school system is
running almost exclusively on traditional, proprietary VoIP
VoIP has saved the San Mateo County Community College
District over a half-million dollars on circuits, cabling,
system maintenance, and productivity enhancements.
Before Siemens came in, SMCCCD hired Teecom, a Bay Area solution provider, to perform a network
assessment across the institution’s various campuses.
According to Frank Vaskelis, director of IT for the district, this
company used a variety of tools to determine what level of
service quality (QoS) the new system would be able to deliver
over time. Because the system would be so spread out,
Teecom recommended taking a phased approach to sharpen
QoS gradually in each locale.
“We figured that we couldn’t deploy VoIP everywhere,
but our objective was to get it to as many of our 85 buildings
as possible,” says Vaskelis. “This was not something
that was going to happen overnight.”
Siemens completed the administrative phase of the project
by early 2005. One month later, the district deployed
VoIP at the first of its schools—Cañada College in Redwood
City. Skyline College in San Bruno came online
three weeks later. Finally, in December 2005, the system
deployed VoIP at the College of San Mateo, by far the
largest of the three district campuses. The total price tag
for the new telephony equipment for all three schools:
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The implementation didn’t go off without hiccups, however.
In particular, Vaskelis says he was caught off-guard by
the amount of power VoIP servers need—a problem he
solved by purchasing equipment that receives its power
over the Ethernet (PoE).
Overall, however, the implementation was far more successful
than even Vaskelis imagined. Before work began,
he says, he was expecting roughly 60 percent of all system
phones to operate on VoIP. By January 2006, however,
nearly 98 percent of the phones in the district network
were PBX-free. While Vaskelis estimates the system has
saved about $525,000 to date on circuits, cabling, system
maintenance, and productivity enhancements, the biggest
benefit has been a new unified messaging system. “One of
the college presidents told me she was at a conference
where there was no internet, but then she realized she
could listen to her e-mail messages over the phone,” he
says. “These are the kinds of things our users never
dreamed about with our PBX. Now they’re possible.”