He Who Hesitates Fears Cost
Benefits abound, drawbacks are fading and, in the long run, VoIP is cost-effective. So why the trepidation?
- By Paul Korzeniowski
VOICE OVER IP (VoIP) has been infiltrating campus networks, but more like stray weeds in an unattended garden than like a well-planned crop. Trouble is, in most instances, moving directly from a PBX or Centrex service to VoIP represents a shift too costly and dramatic for many academic institutions to undertake. Instead, schools have been deploying a few VoIP connections here and there, and gradually growing those numbers. While many organizations now have at least some VoIP phones in place, most are still in the process of making the transition from traditional to IP-based phone services.
VoIP: Why--or Why Not?
Academic institutions are interested in VoIP for a number of reasons: First, the technology is simpler to deploy and manage than traditional phone services. Schools can consolidate their voice and data networking chores by running both on a converged network and managing them with single set of tools. Plus, VoIP enables organizations to deploy modern applications such as unified communications (UC) and video phone calls. Consequently, a wide range of products is available from suppliers such as Avaya, Alcatel, 3Com, Cisco, Nortel, Mitel, and Siemens. In addition, open source VoIP solutions recently have become more common (see "Open Source Meets VoIP").
Yet, while VoIP is enticing, it also presents institutions with many challenges. First up is the broad reach of voice systems, which is all-encompassing. On campuses spanning hundreds of acres and supporting thousands, tens of thousands, and even hundreds of thousands of students, faculty, and staff, deployment of VoIP often requires large, complicated infrastructure upgrades. Consequently, prices for these systems start in the six-figure range and can quickly shoot past the $1 million mark-- and keep going. As a result, academic institutions have been moving to VoIP at an incremental pace rather than as a more dramatic "overnight" rollout. Still, the potential benefits of moving to VoIP have sparked real interest.
"Isn't everyone thinking about deploying VoIP?" asks Jennifer Van Horn, manager of network distribution telecommunications infrastructure at Indiana University. But it's evident that for tech administrators, there has been a disconnect between thinking about it and actually deploying it, because the decision impacts literally all employees, faculty, and students. And while in the scheme of things internet access has become a recent must-have, being able to pick up a phone and reach a cohort has been an expected service for decades--and there is a hesitancy to mess with that expectation. But "decades" also refers to how long it's been since many universities installed their current voice systems…
Open Source Meets VOIP
A SMALL BUT GROWING number of vendors are now trying to apply open source concepts to voice over IP (VoIP) switches. While schools are tinkering with these systems, few are deploying them yet because of scalability and reliability concerns. But here's more information:
- Voice system software has never been easy to design. Since its inception, vendors have relied on a hodgepodge of proprietary interfaces in order to add value and differentiate their wares. And because voice and data applications are born of what some might call antithetical foundations, the chasm between their applications has been difficult to bridge. This is one reason why these proprietary VoIP products typically have been expensive.
- Today, open source solutions try to lower costs by changing underlying software development dynamics. Source code is made available to the public for alteration and improvement. Suppliers typically focus on items such as support, installation services, or delivery of applications on top of the open source software, and in some cases, now run multibillion dollar operations doing so (e.g., Red Hat). In return for the users' input, the software is made available for free.
- There are now a handful of open source solutions, including Asterisk, OpenPBX, OpenSBC, and SipX, all making inroads into the VoIP marketplace. The products have been adopted mainly for small deployments but are becoming more common.
- One open source platform that has garnered the lion's share of attention is Asterisk, in existence since its parent company, Digium, developed the code in 1999. The software runs on a PC and functions either as a VoIP switch or a gateway between older voice systems and newer IP solutions. A number of applications, including voicemail, conferencing, and call distribution, run on top of it.
- Digium claims that there were more than 1.5 million downloads of its software in 2008--a number that underscores the growing interest open source VoIP solutions have been receiving. In addition, 3Com has been reselling the system.
- While the open source movement has been gaining momentum, it has come with a downside or two. Indiana University tinkered with Asterisk when it was examining a new VoIP system in 2005. At that time, "We did not think that the system had the features or the scalability that we required," reports Jennifer Van Horn, manager of network distribution telecommunications infrastructure at the university.
- Today, open source communities are aware of such limitations and are working to make these systems more functional. As these options mature and more of them become available, schools may look to them to support their voice services.
"In academia, we tend to rely on voice systems longer than commercial companies do," says Anthony Mordosky, CIO at Rowan University (NJ). "We expect to have 12- to 15-year paybacks, as opposed to the seven to nine years seen in commercial companies," he adds. Rowan, with about 10,000 students across three campuses (and approximately 1,400 faculty and staff members), has been running its Siemens PBX since the early 1990s. In 2004, maintaining the system was becoming difficult because the vendor was having trouble finding replacement parts, such as 1990s-style hard disk drives.
Making the Move
Yet, while limitations of aging voice systems are easy to discern, how to move them to VoIP is not as clear. Moving to VoIP represents a paradigm shift, one that often requires rewiring much of the campus network. First, universities need to deploy either wired or wireless connections to all users' desktops. Then they have to purchase VoIP switches to carry that traffic over their IP networks, and VoIP servers to support applications such as unified communications. In addition, they have to swap out their current phones for VoIP handsets, with prices starting at a few hundred dollars per unit and, in some cases, shooting past the $500 mark. In most cases, such deployments cost at least $1 million, and on large, multisite campuses they can reach $10 million or more.
Rather than make such massive investments, most academic institutions are deploying VoIP in a piecemeal fashion, a process Rowan launched in 2004. Like many academic institutions, the university has a lean staff and did not have the manpower even to conduct a thorough evaluation of all of its possible VoIP options. The truth of the matter is that after Cisco reps dropped off a complimentary CallManager system, the Rowan tech folks tested it. And when it worked, the institution decided to use it in a new townhouse building going up to house the school's growing number of residential students. That installation represented a $125,000 investment for about 400 VoIP phones.
Central College (IA), with about 1,450 students and 100 faculty members, tells a similar tale. The college had been monitoring VoIP developments since the turn of the millennium, but didn't have an event that would push it in that direction until the end of a sevenyear contract for its Mitel PBX. "As we were nearing the end of the contract, we found our yearly maintenance would double if we kept the system," notes Lee Vande Voort, the school's CIO.
Rather than cough up such a large increase, the college examined its options. The most appealing was migrating from its Mitel PBX to the same vendor's VoIP switch. In this case, the implementation could be spread out over a few years and the college could use both traditional and VoIP phones on its network. (Technologists realized that if another vendor was called in, the school's equipment would not be able to support both the Mitel PBX and that vendor's VoIP switch.) Fortunately, the Mitel contract expiration coincided with a $6 million upgrade to a residence hall in the summer of 2008, so the cost of the new voice equipment was bundled into that upgrade. By moving from traditional handsets to VoIP, the college was able to cut in half the number of phones needed in the building.
WITH BRYANT UNIVERSITY'S UC system, a call will ring various devices and track down a user who may be working with instant messaging, e-mail, or a voice connection.
As academic institutions move to VoIP, they realize a number of benefits--and lower cost is an alluring one. An IP approach enables academic institutions to consolidate autonomous voice and data networks. Rather than paying to operate two separate networks, they are able to deploy one set of wired or wireless connections, so users can run their voice and data communications over the same network. IP telephony also offers a good alternative to carrier-based phone services such as Centrex, which often come with high tariffs and expensive maintenance costs. Bryant University (RI), which has 3,600 students, a 300-person staff, and 180 faculty members, deployed a Cisco VoIP switch in 2004. "We wanted to reduce our telecommunications costs and so replaced a Centrex service with VoIP in our residence halls," explains Art Gloster, VP of information services at Bryant. VoIP switches are often less expensive than traditional voice systems. Typically, new IP voice solutions have a sleeker design and therefore lower price tags than PBXs.
And the newer systems also are simpler to use and maintain. "On campuses, people are constantly moving and changing extensions," notes Rowan's Mordosky. Traditionally, academic institutions have hired network administrators to make voice system moves, adds, and changes pretty much fulltime. With a PBX, these individuals generally work with cumbersome user interfaces when updating configuration data, and in other instances have to move wires from one spot in a switch to another, in order to facilitate a change. Sometimes, PBX alterations are so complicated they can only be completed by vendors' field service teams. With a Centrex service, for instance, the process of making changes could drag on for days, weeks, or even months.
But VoIP switches automate the change process. Technicians typically work with web browsers; changes are made via simple point-and-click browser entries and there is usually little manual intervention. In some cases, the change process is completely automated: Users are able to walk into a room, plug a phone into a jack, download their configuration information, and then be ready to go.
To date, however, most of the convergence benefits have been seen mainly in the IT department, where maintenance chores have been reduced. Yet, gradually, the integration of voice and data has begun to impact end users. According to Edwin Craft, telecommunications director at Western Kentucky University, which has been using Avaya IP PBX and phones to support 6,500 users, "The key benefits from VoIP come not so much from running voice over IP, but through having the ability to connect intelligent end devices to various applications and databases."
Enabling Unified Communications
The convergence described above supports capabilities such as unified communications, the ability to integrate voice and data features. This integration enables new functions such as graphical corporate directories and the consolidation of different communications modalities--voicemail and e-mail, for instance. Clearly, interest in such features is on the rise; market research firm Dell'Oro Group found that worldwide unified communications revenue surpassed the $3 billion mark during the third quarter of 2008.
It's not surprising, then, that numerous academic institutions are starting to realize the benefits of unified communications. Indiana University, with about 35,000 students on campuses in Bloomington and Indianapolis, began dabbling with VoIP products from Cisco, Digium, and Nortel in 2005. In July 2006, Nortel and Microsoft announced a joint agreement wherein the two giants would work together to develop UC products. "We have Nortel PBXs and rely heavily on Microsoft software, so it made sense for us to try to take advantage of their collaboration," says Indiana U's Van Horn.
In the fall of 2007, the university deployed a pilot application for about 50 IT professionals. Connecting the university's Nortel PBX to Microsoft's Office Communications Server 2007 provided these users with a single user interface to telephony, conferencing, presence, and instant messaging functions from their PCs. They could use that feature to perform remote call control on any desk phone. The pilot was so successful that the university expanded its implementation to 2,200 users. Today, the modern voice switches are able to support new converged services such as "Find Me, Follow Me" (Find Me forwards calls in sequence or simultaneously to a list of numbers; Follow Me forwards calls to numbers based on a predetermined schedule).
Bryant University, for one, has embarked on an ambitious technology program, expanding wireless connections across campus and outfitting students and faculty with laptops. Many users now rely on dual-mode phones, so they can freely roam from a Wi-Fi to a cellular call. As a result, the users have different communications channels for e-mail, voicemail, and for listening to messages on their computers or phones. A real challenge has been to ensure that an important call reaches the recipient via the appropriate channel. With Find Me, Follow Me, a call will ring various devices and track down a user who may be working with instant messaging, e-mail, or a voice connection. "Our new software lowers the likelihood of telephone or e-mail tag," Gloster maintains.
Emergency notification is another UC feature luring many academic institutions to VoIP. Central College has one system in place, augmented via its VoIP phones which have a feature enabling the college to "blast" a notification even if an individual does not have his or her phone turned on. "In an emergency situation, you want to make sure that everyone is notified," stresses Central's Vande Voort.
Nearing the end of a seven-year contract for its Mitel PBX, Central College (IA) administrators realized that migrating from that PBX to the same vendor's VoIP switch would save them from a 200 percent cost increase for maintenance of the current system. When the Mitel contract expired, the new equipment was bundled into a residence hall upgrade.
The unification of voice and data functions also enables academic institutions to establish broader student/faculty collaborations. Bryant relies on unified communications to improve interactions between MBA students and faculty members. In addition, Bryant students in health-related majors share information with local hospital professionals.
VoIP Hurdles and Options
All academic institutions would like to put such features in place, but many have not. In addition to cost, there are other hurdles that higher ed institutions have to overcome for successful VoIP deployments. First, institutions require a highperformance, highly reliable network infrastructure for VoIP. "Initially, we held back from moving to VoIP because we were not sure that our network would be able to support it," explains Western Kentucky's Craft.
And call quality can be an issue. While voice networks are built with the end goal of being 100 percent reliable, data networks are not as robust. Consequently, call quality has been a concern ever since VoIP systems were introduced, and the reason for that lies in IP network design: In traditional voice networks, each connection is given a dedicated line, so there are no interruptions once a conversation starts. In IP networks, information moves from place to place, based on which links are available. A call may have an open link at one moment, but then a large file transfer can usurp much of the available bandwidth.
Latency is a related problem, too. On a traditional voice line, delays seldom occur. But with IP, there may be delay as a connection waits for a free connection to open up. With data applications, the impact of such fluctuations is slight because information is regrouped before it is presented to a user. With voice connections, though, that limitation is more problematic because the interaction is dynamic; part of the transmission may drop, and pieces of a conversation may be lost.
There are a few ways to address this problem: One is to find ways to prioritize voice traffic. Vendors offer different bandwidth prioritization options so that it becomes more likely that voice transmissions have sufficient bandwidth and won't encounter delays that lower call quality. In other cases, the voice traffic can be totally sequestered from other transmissions (such as data transmissions). Another option is that an academic institution may simply buy more bandwidth than it needs, ensuring that there is enough bandwidth so that voice connections are not disturbed. As the market has matured, these options have improved--and so has voice quality.
"I listened to a VoIP conversation several years ago, and there was a lot of interference on the line," recalls Central's Vande Voort. "Now, I don't notice any difference between our traditional and VoIP calls."
In a 2007 pilot program, Indiana University connected the university's Nortel PBX to Microsoft's Office Communications Server 2007, providing 50 IT pros with a single user interface to telephony, conferencing, presence, and IM functions from their PCs. They could use that feature to perform remote call control on any desk phone. The pilot was so successful that the university expanded its implementation to 2,200 users.
In fact, it is that improved call quality that is helping to convince more school officials to deploy VoIP. Infonetics Research expects that in 2009, the number of new VoIP lines purchased (all-told) will, for the first time, overtake those of traditional phone connections. Increasingly, academic organizations are phasing out their PBXs, but years will probably pass before transitions are complete.
"Our plan now is to migrate to a full VoIP network in three years," Rowan's Mordosky discloses. He adds, "My staff laughs whenever I say that, because I told them the same thing three years ago."
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