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January 2007
Volume 10 / Number 1

President Powers Move to Hosted VoIP

By Erik K. Linask


By Erik LinaskThis past June, the 202-member graduating class of the United States Merchant Marine Academy was treated to a commencement address by President George W. Bush. The visit, which promised to be a spectacle in and of itself, given the security arrangements and press corps that regularly accompany the Commander-in-Chief, was magnified by the fact that this would also mark the inaugural visit to the institution by a sitting president. The visit, however, created an technology dilemma for USMMA, knowing its campus would witness an influx of visitors and media members not normally on site, many of whom (in addition to the White House press corps) would need access to telephony services while on campus. USMMA was told it would need some 150 additional telephones on-site for the two-hour event.


The Dilemma

The problem was that USMMA’s legacy PBX (define - news - alert) system could only handle about 40 concurrent outgoing calls, so the Academy’s IT staff were tasked with finding a solution that could be deployed within given time and cost constraints. Naturally, one option was to increase the PSTN capacity of the existing system, but there were concerns about the system’s reliability and stability under the strain of such a high visibility event. An IP-based telephony system was the alternative.

USMMA had recently invested in a new, high performance fiber network and switching equipment, meaning it already had in place one of the prerequisites for a converged voice and data network. On the other hand, the added infrastructure costs in installing an IP PBX system (call manager, voice mail system, PSTN gateway, etc.) were prohibitive, given that the Academy felt the primary benefit of a converged network would be telephony, and it had been running its analog system at very low costs.

USMMA’s CIO Howard Weiner, however, had previously been part of several on-campus VoIP deployments at other institutions, and understood the three issues that were central to the task at hand: capital investment, staffing and training costs, and added value — more importantly, he understood that all three could be addressed with a hosted VoIP solution, which provided the benefits of VoIP, without the exorbitant capital expenditure. In fact, Weiner believed that, “At the end of the day, hosting any service [on-site] represents an investment for which a verifiable stream of benefits must exist, and I could not see where telephony services to our faculty, staff, and midshipmen would benefit from an [in-house] implementation.”


The Solution

There exists a surfeit of known and established regional and national telephone service providers, but, as Weiner pointed out, “The first names that come to mind in public telephony evoke many descriptions, but good service is seldom at the head of that list.” So USMMA was in the market for a strategic partner, and interviewed a large number of candidates. “As crowded as the telephony market may be, finding a strategic partner who can meet or exceed your service needs is a difficult quest,” explained Weiner. “Only M5 Networks demonstrated a team dedicated to service.”

“USMMA got a letter from the Secret Service outlining requirements for hosting the President, which included 150 phones available for the press corps in the vicinity of the press tent,” said M5 president and CEO Dan Hoffman. “They called us an asked if we have the capacity to deploy 150 phones for basically two hours.”

M5 assessed the project, went through some testing, and decided it would undertake the task (the project was made significantly easier given the campuswide network and fiber links already in place). Hoffman explained that, though M5 had little lead time — about five weeks from the agreement to the commencement — and there were many hoops to jump through given the nature of the deployment, but he was confident. “That’s what hosted providers are all about and what we can do very quickly and efficiently. One of the biggest powers of hosted VoIP is its flexibility.”



M5 Networks handled the bulk of the preparation, with hardly an on-site presence, as it was able to link directly to the fiber lines into the Academy from its data center in New York. Other than the placement of a router to provision a dedicated circuit connecting the Academy LAN to M5’s network, the only other on-site activity was the delivery of 155 VoIP telephones, which USMMA purchased from Cisco in anticipation of its own future roll-out.

Despite the apparent ease of deployment, M5 felt this was one of its trickiest scenarios, knowing that all 150 phones would be in use concurrently the moment the president finished speaking. To ensure no problems, capacity management was crucial to ensure the trunks were available for the surge, and, of course, configuration, testing, and security measures all had to be coordinated with campus staff, security, Secret Service, the Academy’s IT department, and the fiber provider.

There was one slight hiccup in the process, and it came at a time where it could not have been anticipated. On the day before the ceremony, USMMA was asked to relocate the VoIP (define - news - alert) phones — apparently the White House press corps had opted to travel with their own satellite uplink solution, which had not been communicated in advance. The phones were moved to a new location in a matter of less than four hours, most of which was dedicated to packing and unpacking the endpoints.

“It was a great real-world study of what you can do with a hosted IP solution,” noted Hoffman. “Can you imagine having to do that with a traditional PBX?”


The Aftermath

Partnering with M5 for the President’s address offered USMMA an opportunity to evaluate the company’s performance and service, and, based on that service and the system as a whole, the Academy now views the roll-out as a two-phase process. “The second phase has just started,” explained Weiner. “In this phase, we will roll-out VoIP access across the campus, one department at a time.”

“M5 delivered its service on-time, Weiner continued. “Telephony at graduation was not a problem, and on a day when anything can go wrong in front of the whole world, USMMA produced an outstanding graduation ceremony — with more than a little help from our new strategic partner, M5.”

The experience of the graduation deployment confirmed what Weiner had felt from the start, that hosted VoIP is a flexible, high quality, high performance solution that allows deployment and redeploy telephones as needs evolve. In fact, the Academy awarded M5 Networks the contract for permanent on-campus VoIP deployment.



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