Jan 29 2010

Close the Loop

Agencies see promise of management efficiencies and cost savings through unified communications — and often use Voice over IP as their UC stepping stone.
Photo: Joshua Roberts
“To have your voicemail and e-mail all in one place — your inbox — saves time,” says Education’s Lisa Mendis.

Lisa Mendis has two offices.

One is at the Education Department’s headquarters in Washington. The other, where she gets most of her work done, is virtual. If she’s not meeting with her IT staff in a conference room, she’s rushing from one education building to another in the District of Columbia, meeting with users, managers and other technical staff members to discuss service level agreements and other IT issues.

Because of Voice over IP and unified messaging, Mendis, Education’s director of IT services, can use her smartphone to access e-mail and her office phone’s voicemail while she’s on the go. Her office voicemails are available as .wav files in her e-mail inbox, so she no longer frets about missing important calls while she’s out of the office.

“I don’t even know my voicemail password anymore because I just listen to my voicemail from my computer or BlackBerry,” she says. “It’s convenient.”

The Education Department is the latest among a growing number of agencies to take advantage of VoIP and unified communications, which ties together voice, video and data traffic on one network. Routing outside phone calls through the network makes them internal, and so not subject to long-distance charges.

High-end video-conferencing equipment lets employees in different offices hold meetings, which cuts down on travel costs and helps agencies reduce carbon emissions. And unified communications tools can empower employees to communicate and collaborate in new ways, increasing productivity.

With some VoIP installations, the entire staff can access an employee directory, check their colleagues’ online presence, and communicate through instant messages, audio calls and video conferences ­— all through a single interface. They can also hold web conferences, during which they can collaborate on whiteboards and share documents.

“Unified communications reins in the complexity of all the different communication methods and simplifies the user experience,” says Info-Tech Research Group senior analyst Jayanth Angl.

The migration to the new technology is complex, however, and often requires a network upgrade to ensure there’s plenty of bandwidth and good quality of service. Agencies have taken different implementation approaches depending on their needs and budget.

Education, for example, first implemented video conferencing several years ago. But in 2008, with the PBXes in its 30 offices starting to age, the department began migrating to VoIP. The Peace Corps is ramping up gradually to contain costs while expanding services. And the Farm Credit Administration jumped into UC first and is now looking at VoIP.

Here’s a look at each effort and the reasoning and benefits for each approach.

Education Department

Education pursued its year-long VoIP implementation project in phases and outsourced the work to a third-party service provider.

In fact, the VoIP installation is part of a larger outsourcing deal in which the service provider assumed management of many of the department’s IT functions, including its entire telecommunications infrastructure, data center operations and desktop support.

Agencies Make the Move to UC

Where are federal agencies with UC adoption?

Deployment stage 6%
Assessment stage 40%

Implementation stage 24%

Planning stage 30%

Which UC features are being deployed by federal agencies?

Audio conferencing 51%

Video conferencing 39%

Instant messaging 31%

Web conferencing 31%

IP telephony 21%

SOURCE: CDW’s 2009 unified communications tracking poll

The first phase of the VoIP project was upgrading the department’s wide area and local area networks. The serv­ice provider implemented Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) on the Wide Area Network (WAN) with quality of service in place to prioritize voice traffic, Mendis says. To ensure redundancy for the WAN, two separate carriers provide services to each building.

At each site, the service provider installed new routers and switches to ensure that the infrastructure could handle the department’s bandwidth needs and to lay groundwork for future IPv6 requirements.

The service provider installed Cisco Unified Communications Manager (formerly Cisco CallManager), which is an IP telephony call-processing system, and equipped each user with a Cisco Unified 7960G IP phone. The Education Department went from one office to another to upgrade the network and implement VoIP.

“We didn’t purchase the capital equipment ourselves, so the upfront investment is minimized,” says Mendis, who along with other managers in the CIO’s office oversees the service provider and its employees.

Unified messaging is the most popular feature among users, she says. The visually impaired and other employees with disabilities can access their e-mail over their phone and have their e-mails read to them.

“Users love the unified messaging,” she says. “To have your voicemail and e-mail all in one place — your inbox — saves time.”

The VoIP project was completed last November. Over time, Mendis expects the department to save money through reduced long-distance charges, as well as reduced maintenance costs from the consolidation of voice and data onto a single network.

As for other unified communications tools, the department is taking advantage of IP television, which lets employees view live speeches on their PCs, such as those by President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan on educational issues, she says.

Peace Corps

The Peace Corps is investing in new technology to bolster communication and collaboration between headquarters and its 100 offices in 76 countries — and today it saves $250,000 a year in long-distance charges because of VoIP, says Domenico Palombo, the agency’s chief of global network operations and telecommunications. “We have to maintain communications with our overseas posts,” he says.

Many host countries have challenges with their communications infrastructures. To combat that, the Peace Corps has invested in WAN optimization technology that speeds the delivery of applications to remote offices. Specifically, the IT department deployed Cisco’s Wide Area Application Services (WAAS) equipment at headquarters, along with a Cisco Integrated Services Router and a Cisco WAAS Network module at each site. (To read about Peace Corps’ planned move to 10 Gigabit Ethernet switches, see Tech Watch.)

The technology, along with virtual private network equipment, allows workers to log in to access centralized applications at headquarters and share files securely. Because the WAN optimization technology reduces the bandwidth for data applications, it has freed up bandwidth for VoIP, Palombo says.

In 2008, the Peace Corps’ IT department implemented a VoIP solution that uses each remote office’s existing PBXes and analog phones, a lower-cost alternative to a full-fledged unified communications system.

To do so, the IT staff installed a VoIP gateway device at headquarters; in each remote office, they installed on each router a Cisco Catalyst FXS Analog Interface Module, which connects the PBXes and analog phones to the IP network. When workers dial out from their remote locations, the calls are sent to headquarters and then routed over the IP network, cutting down on long-distance charges.

VoIP calls work only between offices, so the agency is still assessed a toll when employees make phone calls to people outside the agency. But the $250,000 in long-distance charges from office calls alone makes a difference, Palombo says.

In early 2010, the network operations team plans to do away with the old PBXes and analog phones and begin implementing a full unified communications system with Cisco Unified Communications Manager at headquarters and Cisco Unified Communications Manager Express and Cisco Unified 7945 IP Phones at its remote sites. The cost, about $15,000 for each site, is cheaper than purchasing new PBXes for each office, he says.

Besides new features, such as unified messaging, the upgrade will increase the number of calls each office can handle, allowing more users to take advantage of IP telephony, Palombo says. With the existing system, hardware limitations allow each office to handle only four simultaneous IP phone calls.

“Now Voice over IP will be available on every desk,” he says. “We expect more cost savings, improved collaboration and increased productivity.”

Of organizations that have UC, 76% have deployed audio conferencing and unified messaging, 66% have implemented desktop integration,
60% use instant messaging, 53% support video conferencing and 51% host web conferencing.

SOURCE: Info-Tech Research Group

Farm Credit Administration

While other agencies have deployed VoIP first, the Farm Credit Administration has done it the other way and implemented unified communications and video conferencing first because collaboration tools are critical for the agency.

In 2008, the agency implemented Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 and installed Office Communicator on user computers so employees could share instant messages and hold audio and video conferences.

In the past, traveling employees might check e-mail or voicemail once a day. Now, with Office Communicator and unified messaging, they are better connected, which is crucial for an agency whose mission is to provide credit services supporting agriculture across rural America.

Photo: Gary Landsman
Unified communications “brings everyone closer together and facilitates timely communication,” says the Farm Credit Administration’s Doug Valcour.

“There was a lot of frustration in the past when people were on the road and were hard to get a hold of. This brings everyone closer together and facilitates timely communication,” says CIO Doug Valcour, who has equipped some employees with webcams to expand real-time collaboration.

In mid-2009, the FCA upgraded to enterprise-class video conferencing with high-definition TVs in conference rooms. It previously used an outside video-conferencing service for connectivity. But now the FCA has established its own audio and video conference bridge. The result is higher-quality video and improved reliability, plus employees can initiate video conferences without having to go through a third-party service, Valcour says.

The IT staff is evaluating the cost and benefits of VoIP. In the meantime, the agency is reaping the benefits of unified communications and improved video conferencing.

Today, the chief examiner and his staff hold regular video conferences with employees in the field offices. To reduce travel, the FCA has also begun to hold video conferences with financial institutions that also own video-conferencing equipment.

“It’s important because we can quickly put people face to face, and you get the feeling of them being in the same room,” Valcour says.