IT Trends | Feature

Finding Your Virtual Voice

When Kentucky's Spalding University has moved to a virtualized voice environment on campus, it cost "next to nothing" to deploy and has since helped cut back on maintenance and equipment costs. IT Executive Director Ezra Krumhansl spoke with Campus Technology about how it all came together within a couple weeks.

Ezra Krumhansl sees hardware as a potential point of failure within any technology system. So when this executive director of IT at Louisville, KY-based Spalding University learned that his phone equipment vendor was rolling out a beta voice virtualization project, he jumped at the opportunity to participate.

"We'd already been using the Mitel phone system for about a year, so when the company announced the beta virtualization program [with VMware as the virtualization software provider], we joined up," said Krumhansl. Of particular interest to this IT professional were issues like improved quality of service, cost reductions, the need for fewer system support resources, and better disaster recovery tools.

Krumhansl was also drawn in by the promise of less hardware and expanded services--a balance that's not easy to attain with traditional equipment setups. "We had a single phone server on campus, which meant that if the hardware failed no one would be able to make or receive phone calls," said Krumhansl, who originally approached the vendor about installing redundancy systems, only to find out how costly that move would be.

"We would have had to buy another piece of the same hardware for about $50,000," said Krumhansl. A voice virtualization system, on the other hand, could be installed and run for "next to nothing," said Krumhansl. "We didn't have to purchase any hardware because we were already running virtual servers, and just added the system to those existing servers," he says. The switchover took place in February, and provided Spalding University with the phone system redundancy that it has been seeking.

"If there's any kind of hardware failure, we have backup servers and virtual applications that can migrate between the systems," said Krumhansl. "We've been able to get away from maintaining, supporting and worrying about a single piece of phone system hardware."

Krumhansl spearheaded the initiative, handling all the meetings, decision-making, and funding arrangements for the project. "It's just me and a few network engineers here, so I pretty much handled the whole deal," said Krumhansl. The school received a free license for the virtual call server in exchange for participating in the beta program. "There was no other expense for us, other than the time we spent setting everything up," he said.

The fact that Spalding University was already using VMware's virtualization software for the previous five years made installation of the new system fairly seamless. From a pre-planning perspective, Krumhansl said he spent time figuring out which of the university's virtual hosts would run the new system. Creating the "virtual machine" required about 20 minutes, and entailed installing the software (which was on DVD) and configuring the system with user information.

"We had to map all of that out, and move every one of the campus extensions over to the virtual phone server," said Krumhansl. Those tasks are handled through a Web-based "front end" that the IT team uses to manage the system. Getting the server up and running took about two hours, with about two more hours spent moving all of the extensions over to the virtual system.

Krumhansl said the most tedious aspect of the project was the networking itself. "We had to make sure that the network would be able to move calls from one system to another in case of a disruption, and that was pretty time consuming," said Krumhansl. "It took us about a day to figure it all out, and to configure the switches, servers and the application itself."

Within two weeks of signing up for the beta testing project, Spalding University's phone system was virtualized, and being used by all campus phones for both incoming and outgoing calls. Users on PCs or laptops--and the handful of individuals who work from home on occasion--are also using the system with applications like Skype.

Krumhansl estimated that the move to a virtualized phone environment has saved the school about $50,000 for the cost of redundant equipment, and another $10,000 for the virtual application license, which it received at no charge. The university also saves money on downtime maintenance, which can now be conducted without "taking down the entire phone system," said Krumhansl. "We can get that done during the regular workday now, thus saving the school overtime pay and other expenses."

A big proponent of virtualization, Krumhansl said the university has reduced its number of servers from 20 to six over the last five years. That's resulted in significant cost savings, he said, in terms of maintenance and replacement expenses, and in the manpower needed to run the equipment. "Our server costs go down every year," said Krumhansl. "Overall, this is the most cost effective way to operate."

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