VoIP installations can be vexing

User resistance and vendor equipment upgrades can make VoIP roll-outs demanding, say those who have tried it

As vice president of voice product development at investment bank Merrill Lynch, Todd Goodyear has weathered six years of converging voice and data communications on an IP network.

At the VoN (Voice on the Net) conference last month, Goodyear says he and other network managers at Merrill Lynch are working on a seven-year plan that is designed to set a strategic direction for the convergence effort. But he says that the plan has had to be adjusted to accommodate new technologies, unexpected problems and changing demands from end-users and business managers.

“It’s been a tough process,” he says, adding that the standing joke among members of his staff is that they have been housed on the first floor of an office building so they won’t fall too far if they jump.

Merrill Lynch has made some well-publicised changes in its technology plans as part of the project. In 2003, for example, the company chose a hybrid IP and circuit-switched system from Avaya to replace a Cisco VoIP system at some of its operations in New York and New Jersey.

Then last year the firm once again turned to Cisco, opting to use the vendor’s VoIP technology to support 14,000 financial advisers at 600 branch offices. The end result is a mix of pure VoIP and hybrid technologies, Goodyear said during his presentation at the conference. He noted that Merrill Lynch is dealing with three primary vendors: Avaya, Cisco and Nortel.

In addition, the vendors have been updating their software and hardware more often than expected — about two releases a year instead of one every 18 months. That means the team working on the project has had to react to changes faster than anticipated, he says.

Bruce Sennecke, a procurement specialist for voice and data technology at Allstate Insurance, said at the conference that he has experienced some of the same problems while helping set up VoIP systems for the insurer over the past two years.

The biggest problem has been getting an accurate inventory of how much equipment is needed across such a large organisation, he said, noting that a majority of Allstate’s 60,000 workers now have access to VoIP services.

Both Sennecke and Goodyear also cautioned that IT staff need to be prepared for end-users who want to keep their old phone sets. “User resistance [can be] unbelievable,” says Sennecke.

David Steen, chief executive of Teleplus Consulting, says that despite the high level of interest in VoIP projects, IT managers need to carefully monitor costs and potential paybacks when starting a project.

“Sometimes the economics on VoIP don’t work,” Steen says.

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