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Government Certified VoIP


About Walter Reed
The Walter Reed Health Care System provides comprehensive health care for more than 150,000 soldiers, other service members, family members and retirees in the National Capital Area. The System’s 6,000 staff are stretched across 10 major treatment facilities in three states — Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, as well as Washington, D.C. It holds status as a worldwide referral center for patients with the most complex and challenging illnesses, and is the Army’s leading center of clinical research and innovation. Walter Reed Army Medical Center is one of the systems’ facilities, located in Washington D.C. Certainly, it is expected that a top-notch medical facility would also have the latest in telephony technology.

The Objective
When Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) decided to move to a Gigabit Ethernet backbone, and to adopt a single network IT system, it was also decided the incorporating Voice over IP was also the way to go. The decision to convert to VoIP, as opposed to some of the other solutions available, can certainly be attributed to cost savings — both in initial investment as well as minimizing long distance spending in the long run.

But there were other factors as well, which included the ease of mobility with a VoIP (define - news -alerts) system. In a facility as geographically dispersed as WRAMC, it is a frequent necessity to move staff from one location to another, which means also having to move communications equipment. With a VoIP system, staff can, literally, pick up their phones, move them to a new location, and plug them into the network. Of course, as Arthur Doutt, Project Manager for Network Support Service for Walter Reed Army Medical Center, noted, that level of simplicity can lead to moves being made without the knowledge of the network administrators — but that dilemma is certainly better than the alternative, that moving locations is a difficult and time consuming process.

The VoIP Solution
So, between cost savings, a single network, and the ease of use factor, the decision to move to VoIP was reached. Then the question became which provider to choose, and that was narrowed to three options, of which Sphere Communica-tions was the ultimate selection.

The facility chose Sphere’s PBX because of its interoperability open system — other option WRAMC explored were proprietary systems that would have required additional expenditures, like running Power over Ethernet to the desktops, which the facility did not have at the time. Running a Foundry Gig-E backbone, Walter Reed needed a vendor that could guarantee voice quality over a third-party network, which is precisely what led to the decision to purchase Sphericall. Indeed, Sphere prides itself on its open approach to interconnecting with devices from various vendors.

Said Todd Landry, Senior Vice President at Sphere: “We have taken the approach consistently that these systems should be open, and that different components should interwork with one another to allow businesses and enterprises to make choices that are right for their businesses.”

The cost of the Sphere PBX was also lower than other competitors’. What’s more, according to Doutt, the service Walter Reed received from Sphere during the process was second to none. Sphere brought Walter Reed’s personnel to Chicago for an initial demo, did a small-scale installation locally once they became one of the finalists, and also offered features, like video to the desktop, that other vendors were not offering at the time. What’s more, Sphere was committed to the federal government space.

“One of the other things that was key to them was the ability to assemble ad hoc conference calls,” noted Landry. “One of the ways they are able to do that via a set of conferencing bridges that become available right on the screen of your PC. You can assemble conferences very quickly — you can have people call in, you can drag and drop, you can text them and have them join, you can have private or public bridges.”

The Sphere Implementation
What Sphere provides for Walter Reed is a software platform. Sphericall provides the PBX functionality, the ability to switch media streams in the core network, as well as the feature set to the Polycom IP endpoints. (Polycom is one of about 30 endpoints, according to Landry, that Sphee has certified for interconnection with Sphericall.) Sphere also has installed a range of media gateways, conferencing bridges, and an interface to the PSTN — all of which runs on top of Walter Reed’s choice of IP network’s, the Foundry product, in this case.

The implementation began in 2002 as a proof of concept, with about 50 phones. It then was expanded to 160 phones, and then to 300 users by the beginning of 2004. Those 300 users were spread through three buildings on the campus and were planned for a one-year test period. This was not only to identify and resolve any network issues, but also to get the network administrators and engineers a chance to know the system before it became and enterprise solution. After a year had passed, the implementation was stretched to about 1,000 phones in six buildings.

At that point, the program ran into a roadblock — a “cease and desist order,” as Doutt called it. The reason: a requirement that any IP PBX system deployed in any DoD environment that has a level of Command and Control must meet certain standards set by the Joint Interoperability Test Command (JITC). So, until Sphere received its PBX1 certification, no further deployment would be possible.

Sphere received its PBX1 certification — which covers such things as interoperability, information assurance, reliability of the system, security, resiliency to attacks on the system, and more — earlier this year, and is currently one of two vendors to have achieved that status. In that regard, Walter Reed’s decision to user Sphere is already paying off.

The End Result
The Medical Center is rather pleased with the initial implementation of Sphere’s IP PBX in conjunction with the Polycom IP phones, and not only because of the usual benefits of VoIP. Doutt explains that the IP phone network performs one other important task: It acts as a so-called “network sniffer.” While network problems are never welcome, any network issues that arise are noticeable on the phones much sooner than they otherwise might be, which allows for quicker resolution.

The difficulty with the new phones, says Doutt, is that people are used to doing business one way the ISDN handsets, where they simply pick up a phone, push some numbers, and the call is completed. With the VoIP, there is a tremendous amount of additional that, for some people, is too much functionality. “When we started,” he explained, “we had a couple of trouble tickets per month, where people had simply hit the DND button and not realized it — the phone would not ring and they did not realize that it was just a matter of pushing a button. It’s little things that you learn as you’re implementing VoIP.”

But maybe the most important thing, according to Doutt, is that when seeting up a VoIP network, you have to be sure to stress to your engineers that any change they make to the network needs to involve the VoIP team. They must work in unison. The VoIP team should have complete knowledge of everything from a patch to a filter to a specific application that runs to a desktop, just so they can test it in the test lab to can see if there are any problems or complications with VoIP QoS.

In terms of the interaction with Sphere, Doutt says, “Sphere has bent over backwards for Walter Reed and we’re very appreciative of that.” He explains that, while there are still some tweaks to be made to the system, Sphere is dedicated to improving the overall system performance. Sphere regularly provides code updates, to ensure the system is performing at optimal efficiency. “One of the things that makes Sphere so successful in the federal government space is their dedication to the customer,” added Doutt.

Next Phase
Now that Sphere has received its PBX1 certification, WRAMC can attempt to move ahead with further implementation of the VoIP system. What a larger deployment will entail is, as of yet, undetermined, but there are several options under consideration.

What Doutt sees as the best solution is to ultimately move over all lines except the Emergency Room and fixed clinical lines that are associated with systems that require 24-hour uptime. For all the benefits of VoIP, it has its pitfalls, he explains. Specifically, it requires power, so you run a certain risk in case of a power outage — even a UPS will not allow for unlimited talk time.

But in areas where it is implemented, Doutt sees it a tremendous advantage. For instance, he envisions is being implemented as part of the patient services in the hospital. With the new system, which has been developed but not approved, a patient will be able to dial the Nutrition Care Center by the push of a single button, and the nurse on the other end will be able to see nutrition information (such as allergies, diet restrictions, most recent meal time, etc.) on the monitor, along with menu choices available for that patient. So it will simplify things on both ends (currently, the same process is length, much more complicated, involves several people, and is generally done via paper and pencil).

So, Doutt agrees that the VoIP system is perfect for most areas of the facility, which is why he advocates expanding the system to all those areas gradually. According to Sphere’s Todd Landry, the system is scalable to about 30,000 ports. In addition, regardless of how the facility chooses to expand, “the architecture of the system deployment is such that they will be able to add new phones and/or move phones from one facility to another without having to worry about hardware issues — they’ll be able to scale with what they have,” Landry says. IT

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