University vindicates VOIP decision

When Brandeis University opted for a campuswide VOIP deployment nearly three years ago, it didn't fool around.

University administration and IT executives decided to forgo a pilot network, which is an almost routine way for enterprises to get their feet wet with VOIP. Instead, after nearly 18 months of plans, preparation and testing, the IT group launched an intense, high-pressure, three-month deployment during the summer of 2003.

"We were told 'You'll be the laughingstock of the [education] community if you go with VOIP,'" says John Turner, director of networks and systems for Library and Technology Services at the Waltham, Mass., school. "We're the ones laughing now."

Turner described the VOIP project at Network World's IT Roadmap: Boston event this week.

There wasn't much laughter during the rollout. A small network staff, working closely with Cisco consultants, ripped out the aging Nortel Option 81C voice-switch infrastructure, and installed Cisco's CallManager IP PBX, upgraded the network throughout the 100-building campus, and prepared to activate what would eventually total 5,000, primarily wired, Cisco IP phones.

Also part of the deployment were the equipment, software and procedures to support round-the-clock operations, as well as tech support for the 2,700 students that call the dormitories home during the school year.

Three years ago, university IT staff knew the end was nigh for the aging voice network. "The existing Nortel voice switch was two years past its expected service life, the copper [cable] plant was five to 30 years old and failing at an increasing rate," Turner says.

VOIP was beginning to emerge as an enterprise voice option in the industry, and university officials took a hard look at it. They concluded that VOIP -- and the move to converged voice-data-video, IP-based networks -- was a trend that Brandeis needed to ride. Just months after issuing the request for proposals to vendors in summer 2002, the university issued a revised RFP incorporating VOIP. Only two vendors bid on the project, Avaya with a first-generation VOIP product line, and Cisco.

For a battery of reasons, Brandeis finally chose Cisco, its incumbent infrastructure vendor -- but only after hammering on the CallManager IP PBX in grueling tests. "We did everything we could to make the system fail," Turner says. "And it did fail. But in the end we knew exactly what it could do. At the end of that [evaluation period], we knew VOIP was going to work for us."

Those tests, and the certainty about VOIP's bright future, convinced Brandeis' IT leadership that a pilot test was a waste of time. Turner uses the work "sinkhole" to describe his view of pilots. The way to approach VOIP was to commit fully to deploying it and to making it work. The university administration and board agreed.

User and vendor found themselves in agreement on treating voice as just another application on the data network, a perspective that Turner urges his colleagues to adopt.

At 6 p.m, on Aug. 11, 2003, 10,000 directory numbers were cut over successfully. There was dial tone. At the time, it was Cisco's biggest VOIP deployment, according to Turner.

Brandeis also deployed Cisco Emergency Responder (CER), which builds on the emergency 911 features of CallManager. CER makes it possible for the appropriate Public Safety Answering Point to pinpoint the caller's location and return a call to the phone if necessary. Together, there is full support for 911 on campus, Turner says.

Brandeis sees VOIP as part of an evolving strategy for integrated communications. During the system's first year of operation, the university began the first phase of deploying XML-based VOIP applications, including a student-developed program for registering and activating wake-up calls. In the second year, the system was integrated with the university's Oracle/PeopleSoft ERP suite to centralize and automate student phone provisioning. PeopleSoft takes student data and builds a new phone entry in CallManager.

In the future, the university will look at technologies and products to make the network aware of users' presence online, as well as their location, and leverage that information in a battery of communications and collaboration applications.

Surprisingly, there is little campus demand currently for mobile VOIP -- handheld VOIP phones that use a wireless LAN connection. The vast majority of users, both students and faculty, simply don't want to be burdened with yet another mobile device, Turner says. That might change abruptly when it becomes possible for mobile phones to shift seamlessly between WLANs and cellular networks, Turner says.

Turner attributes the success of VOIP at Brandeis less to the technology and products per se, than to a set of organizational attributes: high-level executive backing, a clear vision of the goals and importance of the project, a dedicated staff fully committed to making the deployment successful, and seeing VOIP as just another form of data application.

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