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IP Convergence

Beat the Rush

Worried that peer schools will get the jump on your communications edge? Take your time and get unified communications right.

Beat the RushDESPITE THE HYPE, IP CONVERGENCE doesn't happen overnight. Just ask Robert Juckiewicz, VP of IT at Hofstra University (NY). As this story went to press, Hofstra was "actively assembling the building blocks" for unified communications across its campus. "We've issued a request for proposals for IP telephony solutions and we are currently testing the top contenders' solutions," says Juckiewicz. The ultimate goal: to merge three disparate data, voice, and video networks into one common, converged IP network.

Hofstra isn't alone in its quest-- worldwide spending on unified communications products and services will top $48.7 billion by 2012, up dramatically from $22.6 billion in 2007, according to market research firm In-Stat.

Old Products, New Market?

Still, navigating the IP convergence market isn't easy. Some network equipment makers are taking traditional voice over IP (VoIP) product lines and rebranding them as unified communications offerings. But beware: While closely related, VoIP and UC are not the same. Generally speaking, VoIP equipment allows universities to converge voice communications onto IP networks. This can greatly reduce administration costs and ongoing telecom service expenses. But UC goes much further; it blends VoIP with a range of rich applications that follow users wherever they go. A typical UC system includes the following elements, according to In-Stat analysts: presence; instant messaging; IP telephony; audio conferencing; web conferencing or data collaboration; unified messaging (common message store for voicemail, email, and faxes); mobility; and videoconferencing.

All of the above components need to be accessible through a single client interface or within an embedded application interface, the consultants note. Some prime examples of unified applications include rich customer relationship management (rich CRM), presence, telepresence, mobile video applications, and video surveillance (see "Rich Unified Apps, Defined").

Bob Cagnazzi

"Clearly, installing call-processing systems that run off open source applications is not advisable."
-- Bob Cagnazzi, BlueWater Communications Group

Yet, no two unified networks are alike, notes Bob Cagnazzi, CEO of BlueWater Communications Group, a technology consulting firm in New York that serves universities in the northeastern US. "University technologists are gung-ho to jump into the world of unified communications," says Cagnazzi. "But they don't always pay as much attention to the business-process integration as they do to the total cost of ownership benefits. UC has a great, welldocumented TCO story, but university CIOs now need to understand how to leverage the platform and the applications to bring real business- or academic-level benefits to their communities."

Getting Started

Before a university can embrace UC, it needs to have a solid VoIP network foundation in place.

Consider the situation at Indiana University, where a range of gigabit Ethernet and WiFi networks-- leveraging gigabit Ethernet and 10 gigabit Ethernet switches from a range of companies-- provides reliable pipelines for unified communications. The university uses a communications server (one of the 2100 product family) from Nortel Networks in order to give 18,000 staff and faculty members a single system for telephony, e-mail, collaboration, presence, instant messaging, and desktop applications, notes IU CIO Brad Wheeler.

Rich Unified Apps, Defined

IT MANAGERS sometimes focus too much on infrastructure and too little on the applications they're hoping to deploy. Here's a sampling of unified apps that are gaining traction on college campuses:

  • Telepresence, the next generation of videoconferencing, where high-definition TV and surround sound create the illusion that participants in separate rooms in various locations are together in one virtual room. Starting at about $300,000 per conference room, telepresence initially was too expensive for many colleges. But lower-cost solutions from companies like LifeSize Communications are starting to enter the market.
  • Presence, wherein the network automatically discovers the user's location and routes e-mail, phone calls, and instant messages to the most appropriate device. This is especially valuable for students, professors, and administrators who roam between multiple systems (PCs, laptops, smart phones) and network locations (home, office, classroom).
  • Rich customer relationship management (rich CRM). Colleges increasingly are connecting their VoIP systems to CRM applications. In a typical scenario, the Office of the Registrar can instantly retrieve a student's financial and academic records because the VoIP phone system recognizes the incoming phone number and fetches the appropriate student records from the CRM system.
  • Mobile video applications. As colleges increasingly capture lectures and other types of classroom content on video, they will need robust, reliable broadband connections (both wired and wireless) to push that content out to students' mobile devices.
  • Video surveillance. Closed-circuit TV has given way to pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) cameras that are typically connected to Ethernet or WiFi networks. Plus, power over Ethernet (POE) standards allow video surveillance cameras to be placed in areas that otherwise don't have access to electric lines.

Truth is, most universities are not that far along with unified communications. According to Cagnazzi, "The mindset of academia runs the gamut of sticking with TDM-based PBXs-- sometimes due to political issues-- on the conservative side, to installing call-processing systems that run off open source applications which, clearly, is not advisable."

Instead of taking the open source path (where service and support levels vary from software project to software project), Cagnazzi recommends unified solutions from companies like Cisco Systems. Other unified product suppliers include Adtran, Avaya, IBM, Microsoft, Nortel, and ShoreTel.

Open Alternatives?

As Cagnazzi hints, some universities are testing open source solutions for their unified networks. Admittedly, some open source solutions are "use at your own risk" options that can deliver poor phone and IP service because they lack enterprise support. However, one company, Digium, has successfully pushed its open-source-based UC solutions into the higher ed market.

Digium builds its IP telephony solutions on top of Asterisk, an open source IP PBX. While dozens of companies support and promote Asterisk to varying degrees, Digium is widely considered the poster child for the Asterisk community. "If you're looking for an open source IP PBX, the first provider you'd likely call is Digium," remarks Ed Golod, president of consultancy Revenue Accelerators. True believers include the University of Pennsylvania, which worked closely with Digium to jointly develop a campuswide unified messaging component using Asterisk. The university launched a 750-person Asterisk pilot program in 2005, reports Dikran Kassabian, a senior technology director. Initially, the Asterisk-based system delivered better telecommunications service for the same ongoing costs of the university's traditional system. However, in the long term, the Asterisk-based solution is expected to drive down costs because the university will avoid the need to fix aging in-ground copper connections for its phone systems, Kassabian explains. The ultimate goal is for Asterisk to allow U Penn students to make free phone calls and access university apps directly from their phones.

Unified Players: A Sampler
  • Adtran. This IP telephony specialist targets midsize organizations, and has successfully carved out a niche for itself as a lowercost alternative to Cisco Systems, in some settings.
  • Avaya. Now privately held, Avaya is one of the few big, traditional telecom equipment providers offering hybrid products, and allowing universities to mix and match traditional phone equipment with VoIP solutions.
  • Cisco Systems.With WebEx acquisition and increased focus on software partnerships, aims to ensure converged apps can ride across Cisco-driven VoIP networks.
  • Digium. Pioneering IP PBXs based on Asterisk (an open source telephony platform). Very popular in small businesses and gaining interest from universities that are already familiar with Linux and have open source mindsets.
  • IBM. The Switzerland of the UC market, IBM has relationships with most major industry players, including Cisco and Microsoft.
  • Microsoft. Aggressively promotes Office Communications Server 2007 as the de facto platform for unified communications. Has strong enterprise partnership with Nortel Networks, delivering end-to-end hardware and software solutions in the unified market.
  • Nortel Networks. Close relationship with Microsoft has raised Nortel's visibility in the unified communications market. Plus, Nortel's heritage in traditional telecom has given the company a natural entry into some universities.
  • ShoreTel. Focuses mostly on small businesses, but has successfully targeted some smaller departments within major universities, colleges, and community colleges.

Software Considerations

In addition to putting the proper network infrastructure in place, universities may also need to adjust their existing applications or deploy new apps that can ride across unified networks. At Hofstra, for instance, the university hopes to "create a 'physical free' environment wherein users have full access to all forms of messaging in all locations, from a single device in real time," notes Juckiewicz. With that goal in mind, the university migrated to a hosted Microsoft Exchange environment for faculty, staff, and administrative messaging, and Google Apps for student messaging and collaboration. "The Exchange environment will provide the software platform necessary to enable the UC features we desire," says Juckiewicz. "We also are actively migrating the campus to an Active Directory environment, to ensure the reliability and security of our network. As all of these components unfold, we will have constructed an infrastructure to fully exploit the features of unified communications."

Driving Revenue-- and Campus Safety

While unified networks can save money through lower phone bills and reduced administration costs, the networks also can unlock new revenue opportunities while potentially improving campus safety. BlueWater's Cagnazzi notes that some universities are evaluating online advertising opportunities to help offset lost revenue from in-dorm phone services. "The hottest thing now seems to be advertising and interfacing with outside services like the local pizza place. This creates a revenue model for the schools which can supplant the lost revenue due to the prevalence of student cell phones versus the use of dorm phones."

At Hofstra, administrators also are looking at global positioning system solutions to enhance student safety. Using a unified network and students' own mobile devices, "Students would be able to notify Public Safety of their whereabouts and be tracked for safe arrival to locations on campus," says Juckiewicz. "We are striving to provide a ubiquitous wireless network as well as reliable access to cellular carriers, to create the kind of mobility necessary for anywhere, anytime communications."

Ultimately, Hofstra's network also will strive to support a broad range of devices, rather than university-mandated appliances. "We don't feel we can impose a single device on all campus users," Juckiewicz observes. "We continuously press the carriers to conform to some form of standard across devices, particularly in light of the urgency associated with emergency messaging on campuses today."

Clearly though, success won't arrive overnight. The path to UC requires careful planning, proper infrastructure, and clear business goals that can take several months to develop.

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University of New Mexico Pilots Unified Communications System

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