Dec 31 2009

One Network for All

Agencies are overcoming the challenges of merging voice, video and data—and they're doing it through IP telephony.

Photography by Forrest MacCormack
A year after Education first installed IP phones, a survey revealed that many people weren't taking full advantage of the VoIP features because they didn't know how to use them or didn't know they existed, the department's Peter J. Tseronis says.

For years, agencies have been bringing technology functions in-house. Seeking benefits of cost, control and security, they have taken on data processing, help-desk services, network management and disaster recovery. But this war of independence has always hit up against one seemingly implacable enemy: telephony. Wherever agencies decided to draw the battle line, it ended before the telephone jack. Telephone service was always handled by outside providers.

Until now. Referred to by many names — IP telephony, Voice over IP or VoIP — Internet Protocol-based networks let agencies send voice transmissions over the Internet just as they now send text, application data, e-mail, faxes, graphics and video. But you don't just move off carrier-based communications to fully owned IP telephony lightly. It takes careful planning, testing and a phased implementation.

Last spring, the Defense Information Systems Agency awarded a $20 million contract to Nortel Networks of Brampton, Ontario, for upgraded IP-based voice switches, the first step in DISA's plan to move to IP telephony. But the DISA upgrade was three years in planning, says Bob Dunn, executive vice president at Nortel PEC Solutions, a Fairfax, Va., subsidiary of Nortel Networks that handles federal projects.

"There are a host of extremely critical things to consider. You need faster processors, enhanced security and improved uptime, among many other things," he says.

A look at how two agencies, Education and the Navy, are making the move to IP telephony details two distinct approaches — a complete shift to IP telephony and a move to a hybrid system — and the factors that must be taken into consideration.

Education Dives In

Education, which has 2,600 VoIP phones from Cisco Systems of San Jose, Calif., installed at more than five locations and at its disaster recovery center, has one of the most advanced IP telephony projects in the government.

Peter J. Tseronis, director of converged communications and networking at the Education Department, says that most of the challenges have not been related to technology but rather to garnering internal support from executives, technology teams and end users. "You have to consider all your customers and how to configure the system to support them and sell the system to them," he says.

No project should start without solid executive backing. And the road to executives' hearts — especially in today's budget-crunching environment — is through the business case, which stresses return on investment (ROI). Tseronis says that with IP telephony, ROI is a relatively straightforward calculation: a matter of determining the cost of paying a service provider versus the cost of upgrading and managing the network internally.

But Tseronis warns against seeking short-term ROI. The early years will spike costs because of equipment purchases and initial training and testing needs. He has been using ROI modeling software to project costs out to five years, a period he considers reasonable when proposing a VoIP project. The results show that if Education completely deploys IP telephony at its Washington headquarters, it will enjoy a five-year savings of $4.15 million. In the Atlanta office, Education projects a five-year savings of $1.58 million.

Another aspect of Tseronis' business case — one that he doesn't try to quantify — takes user efficiency into account. People will be more productive when they can receive their voice mail via their telephone or from their PCs and forward voice mail the same way they forward e-mail. And because phone service doesn't depend on a physical location, support personnel don't have to become involved with moves and changes. And users traveling to satellite offices can plug in their phones anywhere on the network and immediately have all their telephony resources.

Although garnering executive support gets a project rolling, the project team also courts internal IT staff and users. Tseronis says involving an agency's IT team in project design and implementation gives them a stake in the project's success. And there should be a mechanism for regular and seamless communications among vendors, contractors and internal technology team members, he says.

On a basic level, an agency can assume end users will accept the system since they can opt to use the IP phones in much the same way as traditional phones, but then most of the advantages of convergence are lost. A year after the first phones were installed at Education, Tseronis conducted a survey and was shocked to find many people weren't taking full advantage of the features because they didn't know how to use them or, worse, didn't even know they existed.

Tseronis acknowledges that there will always be people who are reluctant to embrace new technologies, but he hopes to diminish their numbers through continually marketing the system in-house at informal and formal training programs. For example, Education issues fliers about its VoIP system's features, holds regular training classes and offers brown-bag lunchtime discussions.

While new features and cost savings are great selling points, ultimately IP telephony service needs to replicate the reliability users have come to expect from their existing land-line service.

"When people pick up their phone, they expect a dial tone — every time. If they don't get it, everything stops and the agency is in serious trouble," Tseronis says. So an essential aspect of Education's project was to build in redundancy and virtually instant failover in case one site's network goes down. He says phone service can be re-routed from a failed center to another one within seconds.

Navy Has It Both Ways

Although Education's plans call for moving wholesale to VoIP, agencies can take a more incremental approach.

Using a single converged network for voice, video, Internet and application data may help organizations make good use of unused capacity. Nowhere is this capability more important than at the Navy. Bearing in mind financial realties, the service's officials decided to begin with a relatively inexpensive hybrid system.

Photography by Robert Burroughs
"When we're underutilizing the phone, the bandwidth can be used for video, data, e-mail or fax transmission, and vice versa," the Navy's Rob Wolborsky says.

Ships in the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command rely on limited satellite communications for networking. Each ship dedicates some bandwidth to voice communications over multiplexed circuits. That allocation must accommodate communications during peak periods, but most of the time the bandwidth is wasted. The Navy's networking team in San Diego conducted a survey a few years ago that found only 10 percent to 20 percent of available bandwidth being used at any given time.

Rob Wolborsky, program manager for the Navy's Networks, Information Assurance and Enterprise Services Program Office, says that by moving voice to an IP format, the Navy will be in a better position to manage bandwidth. "When we're underutilizing the phone, the bandwidth can be used for video, data, e-mail or fax transmission, and vice versa," he says.

In the project's first phase, which will affect 28 of the largest surface ships, the Navy's Program Executive Office for Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence will transmit voice communications through a hybrid IP and non-IP network. Users will have the serial voice transmission at their desks, but those transmissions will be translated into IP before they move across the network.

This process will provide the benefits of recapturing the bandwidth. But it will not offer the end-user features of total IP telephony — nor will it provide the long-term, life cycle cost advantage of eliminating the traditional serial circuit hardware.

But in the short run, the approach will let the Navy keep most of its legacy voice communications infrastructure while it recaptures the unused bandwidth. "We can move to a form of IP telephony without bankrupting our war-fighting capabilities," Wolborsky says.

The cost for each ship is a relatively modest $40,000. The Navy has not yet determined the cost of converting to a complete IP telephony system and so far does not have a target date for such a move. "At this point, complete IP telephony is more an ideal for us than a definite plan," Wolborsky says.

But whether a full-blown rollout or a more modest hybrid, both Tseronis and Wolborsky agree that their IP telephony projects are preparing their organizations for the future. "IP telephony will save us money, provide us with more features and more control of features and security," Tseronis says. "This is an essential part of our strategy going forward."