Dec 09 2009

VoIP Heals Ailing Network

Rollout centralizes management at Langley Air Force Base Hospital

In some ways, the old hospital at Langley Air Force Base has been the network holdout on the Virginia campus. While all around it, base organizations rely on Voice over Internet Protocol, the hospital continues to run POTS — plain old telephone service.

But when the Langley 1st Fighter Wing Hospital opens the doors on a new 145,000-square-foot addition next year, it will also bring up a VoIP network that the hospital IT team has been working on with the Air Force 1st Communications Squadron, says Darren Spencer, the hospital’s deputy CIO.

“Everything fell in line,” says Spencer. “We wanted to start the newly refurbished hospital with VoIP.”

Converting the old phone system and data network would have been pricey and tough to manage while maintaining services to users in a 24x7 environment, he says. But given the hospital construction plans, the IT team and 1st Comm set a network overhaul strategy that aligned with the building project.

The Langley hospital effort is not all that unusual, says Phil Hochmuth, a Yankee Group senior analyst. “Many government agencies delayed the switch from digital private branch exchanges to IP PBXes because the phone systems they had were working, and there was no budget for implementing IP telephony. These organizations have begun catching up in the last few years” with other verticals in terms of VoIP adoption.

A chief driver has been the desire for the benefits that expanding VoIP and moving to a unified communications platform can provide, he says. “UC involves a more any-to-any type of network architecture,” Hochmuth points out. “IP phones and softphones, instant messaging, telepresence and video clients need to interface not just with signaling servers and gateways, but also line-of-business applications and other servers and applications that live on network segments or in zones from which VoIP traffic had been cornered off or shielded in the past.”

That is certainly at play in the Langley hospital project. Saving money was a key factor when moving the hospital onto the base’s backbone, Spencer says. “But, of course, we also wanted new technology — the ability to use VoIP as the foundation for bringing in other new technologies,” he says.

A backbone Cisco Systems VoIP infrastructure, which 1st Comm manages for the entire base, has been in place for several years at Langley in Hampton, Va. What that meant for the hospital project was that new switches would be needed to give the hospital access to the base backbone.

“When you build a new hospital, the needed switches are part of the overall construction budget,” Spencer notes.

Just Down the Road

Another military medical operation, only a few miles south of Langley, has taken a similar approach. The Naval Medical Center Portsmouth has deployed a UC infrastructure to support about 9,000 users at 12 locations along the Virginia coast in and around Portsmouth and Norfolk.

It has completely cut over to an end-to-end Avaya platform built around a pair of redundant S8700 servers and 12 G650 Media Gateways, with Avaya digital phones for all users and Intuity voice messaging.

The system allows for centralized management by a small call center. Agents are dispersed over the 12 locations and support their own clinics, with overflow going to the main site.

New Day Dawning

For Langley, centralized management will also be a boon, says Spencer. He points to number portability and potentially the use of softphone functionality for mobile users as other benefits that the hospital expects to gain.

What’s more, the hospital intends to include state-of-the-art medical imagery systems in its operating theaters and care stations, including video feeds to large-screen monitors. Video to the desktop, for both care and administrative uses, is a key tool that the hospital IT team also intends to provide in the future, along with better call conferencing capabilities. VoIP will make these plans feasible and affordable, Spencer says.

“Once we implement the video piece, this will be a major upgrade,” he says. “The users will have tools they didn’t have before.”

Although the 1st Fighter Wing addition is not yet open, the new Power over Ethernet switch infrastructure has been installed in the hospital. Instead of having to plug the phones in at the desktops, the Cisco Catalyst PoE switches themselves will power the phones. That should bring down the electricity costs, which are always a major expense for a hospital.

Still to be installed at the hospital are new Cisco VoIP phones, a few hundred in all. But Spencer expects that work and the final cutover before opening will go as smoothly as the rest of the project. He gives a lot of the credit to 1st Comm and the Air Force officer team that helped with the infrastructure installation so far: “They did a superb job working with our CIO Office team.”

Because of the long-standing VoIP infrastructure on the base, there’s little concern about uptime issues either, Spencer says. Even so, the hospital will maintain a small POTS installation for emergency backup.

Although 1st Comm will maintain the new VoIP network, “we will gauge performance,” Spencer says. “We don’t just throw it off to them. The hospital IT staff is still the first line for network services, and we will work hand in hand with the comm squadron, which will do all the magic behind the scenes.”

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